What is fashion? According to late Moschino founder and designer Franco Moschino, it’s all about irony and irreverence. Celebrating its 20th anniversary almost 10 years after Franco’s death, the house still provides the fashion world with Italian style served up with a dash of humor.

Moschino started the company in 1983 on the strength of his witty antifashion stance. He started refining his message immediately, during his first ready-to-wear show that fall, when he dressed Pat Cleveland in a beautiful evening gown and accessorized her with sneakers and a shopping bag. "It should be fun and it should send a message," he said. "I like to use clothes as billboards."

Never veering far from that belief, season after season Moschino sent out ironic wonders such as a luxe silk shirt printed with "This shirt costs 1,000,000 lire" or a tailored plaid jacket embroidered with "Expensive jacket" across the back.

When it came to political statements, he often wore his heart on his sleeve — literally. For spring 1987, at the height of the African famine, he sent out a model wearing a T-shirt printed with a large bowl of steaming spaghetti that read "Moschino for Africa." "Not very chic," he said at the time, "but real, with pomodoro e basilico….The most tender thought for an Italian guy to offer Africa is a plate of spaghetti." In October 1993, to celebrate his 10th year in business, he ended his boisterous show with a sobering message against the AIDS epidemic — a parade of children all in white with red AIDS awareness ribbons draped around their necks.

Moschino constantly questioned fashion’s status quo and the notion of what makes clothes "fashionable." "I don’tthink it’s right for a fashion magazine to put ‘Short!’ on the cover. If anything, it should be ‘Short?’ There should always be a question mark because there’s always a choice," he said in April 1989.

Born in February, 1950, Moschino spent his childhood sketching and drawing to escape the middle-class drudgery of his hometown, the industrial Abbiategrasso, just outside Milan. At 18, he moved to Milan to study at the Accademia delle Belle Arte, and soon after, in the early Seventies, his magazine illustrations caught the eye of Gianni Versace, with whom he worked for two years. Moschino then spent 11 years designing for Cadette before starting his own women’s collection in 1983. Within five years, he would successfully launch a men’s line as well as, in 1988, the wildly popular secondary women’s collection Cheap & Chic.At first, the designer’s m.o. was to pick a fashion icon — Coco Chanel, Jackie O, Christian Lacroix — and put his own spin on his or her look. In 1989, he spoofed the concept of Hubert de Givenchy’s Little Black Dress-and-pearls combo, made famous by Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany’s," by sewing pearls into a Peter Pan collar on a sleeveless black sheath. In his collection for spring 1991, he embroidered the waist of red pantsuitwith "This is a Waist of Money." But for all the gags, he never compromised quality, always managing to illustrate hiswicked sense of humor as well as his deft hand at tailoring.

During his career, Moschino became synonymous with runway gimmicks, including accessorizing with giant light bulb hats, fork and knife details or other whimsical touches, such as his famous big “Have a Nice Day” smiley face plastered on the back of a bright yellow leatherjacket for fall 1991.

“I think fashion is something you can laugh about forever. But in the end, it is the most difficult thing to laugh at, because people take it so seriously. That is why I put so much irony in my work. If you have irony in your life then you can joke with life. I want people to have the possibility to laugh at themselves.” And mostimportantly, he wanted his customer, and the fashion follower in general, to think for herself and not be dictated by the whims of designers and editors.

“We’ve never been in agreement with seasonal fashion trends. We don’t believe in long or short or bright or dull or fat or thin or wide,” he told W in 1990. “None ofthese things is Moschino.” He then mused on what was signature Moschino. “Well, the jokes are always there.”

Even after Franco’s death in 1994, from a massive heart attack after suffering from an abdominal tumor and AIDS, the house has remained true to his fun-withfashion mantra. Creative director Rosella Jardini, who joined the company in 1984 and fast became one of Moschino’s closestfriends, has done much to maintain the house’s ideal of tongue-in-cheek humor while keeping the fashion viable. As evidence, the fall 1995 men’s presentation, six months after his passing, featured Tshirts printed with “And now?” — both a valid business question as well as the kindof nonsubtle query Franco might have asked himself. “After Franco died,” Jardini told WWD in 1996, “we had to sendout all the right signals and make people understand that we were still here.”One of the collection’s biggest draws, and perhaps the reason why it has traditionally been a strong performer at retail, is its ‘girls just want to have fun’ mentality with racy clothes definitely not meant for the wallflowerset. In 2000 alone, the Moschino girl stopped first in the Never-never Land of Peter Pan with reworked, party-girl Wendys and then for fall, jetted off to Dorothy’s ownprivate “Wizard of Oz.” But underneath the rampant eye patches, striped stockings and model munchkin fare, there were real saleable clothes — pinafore-type dresses,well-tailored peacoats, slinky evening dresses. And just as the house seemed lost in a fairy tale, out came spring 2001 and its sultry senoritas and fiesty matadors. It’s the keyto Moschino’s success — the unexpected.

Coming full circle, this fall, the house celebrated another irreverent fashion icon, Madonna, who coincidentally, made her big breakthrough the very same year as Franco Moschino. And the long-chained handbagsshaped like the fiercest stilettoes around?Classic Moschino.

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