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Crazy Like A Fox

It’s been almost a decade since Franco Moschino last called a meeting with his staff, designed the collection that still carries his name or worked out in the basement gym of the company’s headquarters in Milan. Yet the instant the...

It’s been almost a decade since Franco Moschino last called a meeting with his staff, designed the collection that still carries his name or worked out in the basement gym of the company’s headquarters in Milan. Yet the instant the heart-covered glass doors open on Via Ceradini, Moschino’s specter is palpable.

It’s more than just the numerous portraits of Moschino lining corridor walls or the kitschy red velvet decor spiked with his personal paintings and innovative ad campaigns. Moschino’s spirit resonates in every person who works there, from the newest arrival to the most senior staff member, like creative director Rossella Jardini, who started working at the house soon after its first fashion show at the Milan fairgrounds in September 1983.

“I was sitting in the front row at the [debut] show and we were all stunned, but it was in a positive way,” said Jardini, dressed in a pink sweater and pink cotton pants, during an interview at Moschino’s offices in Milan. “For me, at that moment, it confirmed what I always thought about Franco — that he was a certain kind of genius.”

Moschino, who was born and raised in Abbiategrasso, north of Milan, had plenty of time to develop his particular brand of genius — a juxtaposition of humor and fashion — before launching his eponymous collection 20 years ago.

After moving to Milan in the mid-Seventies, Moschino immediately went to work as an illustrator and design consultant for a host of fashion houses, including Versace, Blumarine and Max Mara, before settling into his role as creative director of the couture-like Italian brand Cadette.

During that time, Moschino developed his sense of irony as he sketched an enormous number of designs from his small space — a converted room at the Dianna Majestic Hotel in Milan. Moschino wasn’t the only future fashion heavyweight working out of that hotel, however. Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, had on office on the floor below.

Although Moschino adored his role at Cadette, Jardini, who worked with him there, said he yearned to produce not only a collection that more women could wear, but also something that would shake up the fashion system.

In 1983, he founded Moonshadow SrL with his own money and called his line Moschino Couture. The collection’s name was the first step in expressing his tongue-and-cheek nature. The runway would be next.

On the runway, all the expected formality of conventional fashion shows went out the window, as models in silk gowns and sneakers came out together on an airport runway. Instead of doing the normal pass back down, models walked off into the audience.

It’s hard to imagine the foresight of that moment, vis-à-vis today’s world of high-gloss parties and spectacular runway events. Those who were there say Moschino, with one fell swoop, popped the overly self-conscious bubble of the Milan collections of that era.

“During that time, the main collections like Armani, Versace and Missoni were very straightforward,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. “Moschino had a different point of view and a sense of humor, and customers responded.”

Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive of Bergdorf Goodman, remembered another early off-beat show in which Moschino came out on the runway and just ended it midway through.

“We all thought he was crazy — insane,” Frasch recalled with a chuckle. “Moschino never took fashion too seriously, yet there was always an element of fashion to his collections. [Today] they continue to find a fine balance between whimsy and fashion.”

Moschino might have piqued the interest of the fashion crowd with his nonconformist runway shows, but he ultimately won over consumers with his trendy clothes. Three years after its debut, the collection was pulling in $50 million. This year, it is expected to generate around $250 million.

As with the collections today, those early efforts combined sartorial strength with cheeky intrigue, whether it was his little black jacket with a pair of seductive eyes peering from its back, or his take on Cinderella’s wicked stepsister — a colorful, tiered satin dress cinched with bows.

“It mixes great, classic style with whimsy,” said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communication at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It can be over the top at times but also very conservative, depending on how it’s styled. What’s great is that it allows the customer to really make it her own and wear it in her own way.”

Autonomy, choice and freedom were not only key characteristics to his collections, but also the tenets of Moschino’s business philosophy. It was never really about profit and commercial success, according to Jardini, but rather a way to express himself, his vision — and have some fun while doing it.

Way before Bernard Arnault of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton or Domenico De Sole of Gucci Group sought to reinvent storied brands, Moschino was already reinterpreting labels like Louis Vuitton and Chanel with a self-mocking tone.

For fall 1986, for example, Moschino took some creative license by morphing Louis Vuitton’s famous brown and gold LV logo into Ms. “It really made us laugh,” Jardini said. “But it certainly didn’t make [Vuitton] laugh.”

Louis Vuitton immediately launched a trademark infringement suit, but it never reached trial because Moschino promised none of those items would be produced for wholesaling. The case was dropped, although Moschino’s penchant for pushing the envelope was not.

A similar scene emerged a few seasons later when he spoofed a Chanel jacket and sent out Channel Number 5 T-shirts. Once again, he avoided litigation by assuring Chanel those pieces would not go into production.

Moschino enjoyed testing the temperament of the industry, but it wasn’t just fashion companies he irked. In 1988 he landed some trouble with New York’s Italian-American community over his “In Pizza We Trust” T-shirts.

Protestors offended by the saying met Moschino when he arrived to inaugurate his first U.S. in-store shop at Bloomingdale’s. The small demonstration made the front page of Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

Although some might have viewed the T-shirts as derogatory, Moschino maintained it was just a satirical way of celebrating his heritage and his country.

He often used the colors of the Italian flag in his collections and possessed an immense love for Italian culture.

“I think that if the Italians who don’t agree with me really knew how much I loved Italy, then tomorrow morning they would make me president of Italy and maybe even the pope at the same time,” Moschino once said during an interview.

Italy was often fodder for his collections, but his best expression of reverence and satire came with his exploitation of the fashion world itself.

As a designer, he was obligated to be involved in the industry, yet he maintained a critical view of not only his role, but also of the world in which he worked. Sayings such as “Fashion Is Full of Chic,” and “Stop the Fashion System,” were just some of the ways he maintained a balance.

For all the lightheartedness of his collections and the romp of his runway shows, Moschino was forced to coexist with a solemn reality — his own sickness and mortality.

Although Moschino was sick for several years, his illness wasn’t formally disclosed, although it was a known secret within the Italian fashion industry. Staffers, including Jardini, were almost in a state of denial and had not truly mapped out a plan for a post-Moschino fashion house.

“Following his death, we really worked from emotion,” Jardini said. “I can’t say that we were sitting around a table developing project and strategies…it really was a natural development.”

Jardini quickly shies from taking any credit for the success of the house. For her, Moschino the company was, is and will continue to be about Moschino the man.