Antonio Lopez and exciting times in fashion (Part 1)

21 Oct

When I was reading the book Antonio Lopez; Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco’,  I immediately knew I wanted to write about Antonio, but where to start? The man wasn’t only a fashion visionary and a brilliant illustrator, he ‘invented’ the new model: not the perfect pretty girl, but the girl with attitude, sex and a portion of craziness, later called  Antonio’s Girls. He changed the garments he drew and by doing so inspired designers for their next collection. He changed fashion illustration and photography by blending the models into the outside world, making them move, having fun and being sexy. Antonio, like Andy Warhol, had his own entourage including models, make-up artists, fashion designers and the rich&famous, who went out on the town (first New York, later Paris) and dictated nightlife.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, Antonio Lopez came to New York when he was seven. His mother was a dressmaker, his father sculpted mannequins. At the High School of Art and Design, he studied illustration. Here he met Juan Ramos, also born in Puerto Rico and immigrated to the States, who studied interior design. They stayed together from that moment on, first as lovers-collaborators,later being best friends-collaborators, Antonio as illustrator and Juan as art-director. Antonio’s genius was recognized early and by the time he was 22, he earned $ 1,000 an illustration( we are talking 1965….) !!!

Maybe Lopez’s edge was honed by his engagement with the world outside fashion. It’s as if his illustrations were equivalent in line of what photographers like Davis Bailey were doing with film. There was energy and movement and feel for the street. Andy Warhol, who’d forged an equally successful but rather more whimsical career in fashion illustration a decade earlier, praised Antonio for his ‘journalist’s eye’.

Even when Lopez referred to Pop Art, or took on the swirling, psychedelic clichés of hippiedom, he did it his own way. “What one recognized in his illustrations, was in the end, more than just a dress”, said photographer Peter Knapp, with whom Antonio worked. It was a state of mind””.

Antonio Lopez was always obsessed with models. ‘Antonio’s girls’ were to Lopez as the Superstars were to Warhol. He remade and remodeled them to fit his particular idea. “He was never interested in the girl next door,” Juan Ramos remembered later. “Healthy wasn’t his thing. He wanted exotic, weird, a little fucked up.”And when Antonio got what he wanted, he made it a little more weird. Like Jane Forth, she was 15 when Antonio and Juan found her in Central Park in the mid-sixties. After her came Pat Cleveland, Donna Jordan, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, Jessica Lang and Tina Chow, each one an archetype. “Antonio was like an employment agency,” said Juan Ramos. “They all had their stories. He loved that. He’d listen to their problems for hours. Most of them ended up living with us”.

At the end of the sixties, Antonio, Juan Ramos and entourage decamped to Paris for seven years. You could say it was all about a shift in the zeitgeist, but that’s a fancy way to gloss the spectacular efficiency with which Antonio and co. turned uptight Paris into the world’s biggest party town. Their all-night amphetamine energy and radical chic sent a shiver down the local scene’s collective spine. Karl Lagerfeld was an early adopter. Antonio illustrated his collections for Chloé. The entourage, fueled by crossovers with Warhol’s crowd, provided Karl Lagerfeld with a gang of his own to counterbalance rival Yves Saint Laurent’s decadent set. The Americans were quite the match of the French in that area. “We hung out 24 hours a day and had nothing to do except be out of our minds and immersed in fashion,” said a surprisingly together Pat Cleveland years later.

In one area at least, Paris was much freer than New York. There was less bias in the French fashion world, so Antonio was able to use models of color (during those days, Yves Saint Laurent presented the first black model on the catwalk). Antonio’s Paris saw the apotheosis of Pat Cleveland, the glory of Grace Jones, and the Josephine Baker-like brio of this girl, Carol LaBrie.

Antonio drew fast, but the speed of life in Paris demanded something faster. In 1973, he first picked up an Instamatic (never a Polaroid: “too complicated,” he said) to make a visual diary of his life, but, typically, it turned into a whole new body of portraiture. Last year’s Twin Palms tome Instamatics did a brilliant job of collecting a lot of previously unseen photos. Here’s Lopez’s favorite subject, Jerry Hall.

In her autobio Tall Tales, Jerry Hall called Lopez “my first boyfriend and the first man I ever lived with.” This was how it happened, under a disco moon in Paris. Hall was 16 at the time, barely off the plane from Texas, with her dollars running low. “I first met him at the Club Sept…I had on this gold satin suit of my mother’s—real tight of course—and this blue feather boa she’d found for me at the Sewing Centre in Mesquite. Then I had gold feathers pasted across my forehead, and my platform shoes. Already I’m five feet ten and a half inches, and with these shoes I was like six-foot-three or something. Plus I’d curled my hair. It was like a mane—all frizzy. And then I had on lots of makeup and glitter as well as the feathers…I guess that’s why Antonio noticed me.” You think? Under Antonio’s obsessive tutelage, Jerry Hall transformed into one of the most successful cover girls of the seventies.

Antonio had a shoe fetish. Figures. The sculpted form of the shoe molding the supple flesh of the foot—almost to the point of discomfort—is a tidy enough analogy for the erotic alchemy he explored with his ‘girls’.  He even did a series of images where gorgeous women transmogrified into dominatrix heels. The atmosphere of perfervid eroticism steadily thickened as Antonio’s career advanced. All appetites were fully indulged and absolutely sated. As far as it being a more ‘innocent’ time, Antonio’s work at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties feels very much of a transgressive muchness with his pals Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. The mood was darkening, the party was almost over.

The recent death of Anna Piaggi cast a spotlight on the magazine she and Antonio created at the beginning of the 1980s, Vanity. In its fiercely idiosyncratic curation of fashion past, present, and future, it was so far ahead of its time that it now exists outside time in a beautiful ephemeral bubble…if you can even find it.

As Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos started to lose close friends to AIDS in the early eighties, a somber, more sculptural tone began to insinuate itself into the work. ‘Antonio Lopez; Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco’  point to other ways in which AIDS made its presence felt in Antonio’s illustrations, but it’s logical enough to assume that the idea of legacy began to loom its head in the light of current events. It became increasingly obvious that Antonio Lopez wanted to be taken seriously as a fine artist, not just with a project like his illustrated edition of Sir Richard F. Burton’s The Thousand and One Nights (rebranded as Antonio’s Tales From the Thousand and One Nights) but also in the increasingly studied nature and growing complexity of his pictures.

Antonio’s campaigns for Missoni endure as one of the great artist/designer collaborations. It was Anna Piaggi who suggested him to her friend Rosita Missoni. Daughter Angela remembers him arriving at the Via Salvini showroom in Milan (it’s now a family apartment), clearing out the space, and staying there for a week, working obsessively on images like this, from a campaign launched at the same time as the 1984 Olympics. But her memories are tinged with sadness because Lopez was already ill by this point. “He was always cold. Juan and he would be building the set and doing a big research on casting, Anna would be styling, Vern Lambert was overseeing the whole thing. Antonio would always sketch in black and white before making the finished picture, like doing a Polaroid. And he always drew big, never small.” The Missoni images are a reminder of how men were as important as women in Antonio’s visual vocabulary. That was a rare thing in the annals of fashion illustration.

So, about that legacy. Two recent major collections name-checked Lopez. For Fall 2012, Kim Jones used some of the more emblematic “Antonio” visual flourishes as detailing on his sophomore menswear collection for Louis Vuitton. And for Spring 2012, Anna Sui set out to evoke the headiness of the Club Sept days, with printed forties-style dresses like the ones Donna Jordan and Jane Forth used to wear when they were out and about in Paris. “It was revolutionary to wear vintage then,” says Anna Sui, especially when one of the designers checking out the antics—and the outfits—of the Lopez-Ramos entourage was Yves Saint Laurent, who channeled his fascination into his forties-influenced collection du Scandale in 1971. And what a scandal it caused. I’m sure if you sift through the past few decades, you’ll find more examples. In  ‘Antonio Lopez; Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco’ it’s written that Norma Kamali, for instance, based her reputation-making sleeping bag coat on shoots where Lopez swathed his models in sleeping bags from Paragon sporting goods, just down the street from his studio in New York. Then there was John Galliano, who, inspired by “Antonio,” went to Central Saint Martins to study fashion illustration, before a visionary tutor steered him toward design. And in the bigger picture, every time a fashion scene starts to swirl, doesn’t it raise the specter of the world that Antonio Lopez and  Juan Ramos made? 

Antonio Lopez died in 1987 at 44 from AIDS and despite his fame and influence, has faded from the public consciousness. Partially to blame is the stigma associated with AIDS at the time of his death.

Watch this video about Antonio and his work

Next week more drawings, pictures, video’s and stories about Antonio Lopez and his entourage

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