MILAN — Iconic fashion journalist Anna Piaggi died here Tuesday, aged 81. Her eccentric style was unmissable — an inspired mash up of countries and centuries that combined furs, kimonos, vintage opera costumes from La Scala and huge accessories, always worn with blue hair, boldly colorful makeup and hats. It made her a muse to many, including Karl Lagerfeld in the Seventies and Eighties. Although she was small, curvy and soft-spoken, her look was larger than life. She might wear decades-old Worth, Callot Soeurs or Fortuny dresses or new Missoni T-shirts, paper skirts and Lagerfeld’s designs for Chloé. She collected all sorts of objects — curtains, pieces of fabric and sofa covers — throughout her life and travels, and was never afraid to wear them.
“The world of fashion has lost one of its most original and subtly critical figures,” said Giorgio Armani. “Anna Piaggi knew how to take a very Italian way of living and thinking fashion and make it international, turning it into the highest expression of art and culture. I will miss her unmistakable presence, free of all conventions, in the front row, and her way of seeing things, which was always passionate and able to catch the spirit of the times.”
This story first appeared in the August 8, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I am truly saddened by the passing of Anna Piaggi,” said Donatella Versace. “She was a visionary with a heart of gold. The world is a little less colorful without her.”
“To me, fashion is a trance,” Piaggi told WWD in 1978. “It is a moment, an expression. My philosophy of fashion is humor, jokes and games. And I make my own rules. I never pick up something and just throw it on my back like that. There’s a little bit of study, and it’s always better if I think about what I’m going to wear the night before the next day. And what is to be avoided at all costs is the twinset look, the total look.”
Vintage pieces always played an important role. “I must say it is more economical to dress from the antique auction houses than Paris couturiers,” she noted. “I have dresses that should be in museums that only cost me $50.”
Her fascination with style began early. “My nature has always been to be superficial,” she recalled. “I never think too much or make statements. I just stay on the edge of things. I have always made decisions by instinct and for the feeling, not by analyzed thought. My favorite thing as a young girl was to read Photoplay and Movieland. It was not for the actors. It was to digest all the details.
“If I could be something else, I would like to be a new type of queen. It’s the theory of queenship that I dream of. I love the atmosphere, the clothes.…I never think of money, just style and power.”
Piaggi began her career as a translator at the Mondadori publishing house, before becoming fashion director of the Italian magazine Arianna in the Sixties. In 1962, she married photographer Alfa Castaldi, already an established figure in Milan, and the two remained together until his death in 1995. It was during her tenure at Arianna that Piaggi noticed the then-fledgling brand Missoni and featured it on a 1967 cover of the magazine.
“I am more than pained,” said Rosita Missoni of Piaggi’s death. “She came and discovered us when we were working for La Rinascente, and we became good friends, lifelong friends, [spending] more than 50 years together, often traveling and vacationing together.”
The designer recalled how, even during their holidays in Dalmatia, “when a swimsuit and a pareo would be more than enough, she would create these looks, and my kids would play along, make light for her in the pitch dark, so that she could parade her outfits.…She always needed her stage.”
Missoni said Piaggi had always been very eccentric. “Anna told me that, even when she was five or six, dressing up was part of her games, she really enjoyed that and she always very rigorous about it, thinking of thousands of details. She was the queen of accessories.” Piaggi was “very ironic, she made fun of herself — but did not allow others to make fun of her. She was a unique journalist; people recognized her, and she was always surrounded by photographers. She was very intelligent, a perfectionist and had a deep knowledge of fashion.”
In the Seventies, Piaggi moved on to Vogue, where she worked with photographers such as Chris von Wangenheim and Gian Paolo Barbieri. In 1988, she began writing her cult Vogue column “D.P. Doppie Pagine di Anna Piaggi,” which took its name from the double-page layout of fashion spreads and eventually led to a book, “Anna Piaggi’s Fashion Algebra.”
Her sense of humor, unapologetic quirkiness and modern views paved the way for many journalists to come. But years after computers became the norm, Piaggi continued to write on a red Olivetti Valentine manual typewriter, a design by Ettore Sottsass, which became a style icon in itself.
“I seem to have caused several controversies,” she told WWD in 1978. “I once did an editorial with Valentino couture with guns that had antique mother-of-pearl inlay handles. His collection looked very Mata Hari to me.” Then there was the shoot in a Catholic church with a model in a rented nun’s coif and habit. “People inside the church were very disturbed. The moment we began to take the pictures, a terrible storm roared over the church. Rain came crashing through a hole in the roof. The photographer was almost shocked to death by his wires, which were hit by lightning.”
A prolific, enthusiastic contributor to publications such as Vanity, Panorama and L’Espresso, Piaggi attracted the admiration of Lagerfeld, who said of her in 1978, “It is not so much the details in her clothes that inspire me directly. It is the exquisite blend of sophistication with this healthy peasant mind.” That year, Giancarlo Giammetti also said, “Anna Piaggi is the most influential person in Italian fashion.” In 1986, Lagerfeld dedicated a book to her, “Anna Chronique,” which features his sketches of Piaggi’s imaginary adventures, with commentary by the fashion muse herself.
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum celebrated her in 2006 with the “Anna Piaggi Fashion-ology” exhibit, which displayed thousands of her gowns and shoes alongside drawings, photographs and storyboards that brought to life her collaborations and friendships with figures such as fashion historian Vern Lambert, Lagerfeld, illustrator Antonio Lopez and photographer Bill Cunningham.
When told of Piaggi’s death, other figures in fashion were quick to offer their condolences.
Recalling his first meeting with Piaggi in the Eighties in Split, Croatia, Camera della Moda president Mario Boselli said Piaggi was a true original, whose “extremely unusual outfits were like works of art.
“I knew her well and greatly appreciated her,” Boselli added. “She was unique, offered something rare and we will miss her dearly.”
“One of the reasons for me being where I am today was Signora Piaggi,” said Manolo Blahnik. “She was a guiding light in my life, and a great friend. She redefined clothes as an art form on herself. I am devastated that she is no longer with us and she will be forever missed.”
“From the very beginning of my career when we met on a shoot of Manolo’s shoes and my hats for her magazine ‘Vanity,’ she has been a guiding light and an inspiration,” said milliner Stephen Jones. “Her effervescence and inventiveness was unequaled in everything she did — writing, styling and, of course, how she looked. So often she would call me and say, ‘Ah — Stephen, I am doing a wonderful thing, and I need a new hat.’ I visited her apartment just two weeks ago when we were making plans for her visiting the men’s shows in London in January. She was not only my muse, but a talisman for all those around the world who believe that fashion is a way of life, and that freedom of expression should manifest itself in what we wear.”