To highlight Franco Moschino’s biting sense of humor would be redundant — enough has been said of his love of gimmicks and the wit that helped him create a unique fashion company. Sure, his friends and business partners, the models he worked with and the designers who knew him remember the laughter they shared with Moschino, but behind the jester was a sensitive poet, painter and photographer.

"Franco was very versatile and curious and loved to mix different styles — not only on the runway," said Juan Salvadò, a designer and one of Moschino’s closest friends. "He could space from Renaissance to Surrealism, and sketch a portrait in two seconds, always knowing exactly what he wanted."

Moschino was a learned painter, having studied art at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Milan, where he moved at the age of 18 from his hometown of Abbiategrasso, in northern Italy. In the Seventies, Moschino started doing fashion drawings for magazines and then moved on to consult with such designers such Gianni Versace and Anna Molinari and the fashion houses Max Mara and Aspesi. Around 1972 he started working at Cadette, and in 1978 became its head designer.

He founded his own label in 1983, showing his first collection in the fall for spring 1984, and quickly met with success. Within three years, sales had ballooned to about $50 million.

Moschino was born on Feb. 27, 1950. He was never interested in the iron foundry business he inherited from his father, who died when the designer was only four.

"Moschino saw himself as a creative, conceptual artist rather than a fashion designer," said Massimo Ferretti, owner of Aeffe, the former Moschino licensee and current majority owner of the brand, which today generates annual sales of about $285 million. However irreverent Moschino was about the fashion establishment, Ferretti said the designer was extremely attentive to the construction and cut of the clothes. "He was uncompromising on the quality," said Ferretti.

Gianfranco Ferré believes that Moschino’s "desecration of fashion was actually full of precise and knowledgeable references, from Chanel to Magritte. [He was ] observant and reflective."

Marco Gobbetti, chief executive of Moschino since 1993, said the designer had "an incredible ability to synthesize and analyze all that was around him: with one word, he centered the target. He looked ahead of his times."Gobbetti said this was even more surprising since Moschino did not watch television or read the news. "He loved hanging out with young people and traveled a lot, speaking many different languages."

The designer himself once said he liked "reality as it is, but displaced." Moschino considered himself a communicator and once told WWD that "fashion should be fun and it should send a message. I like to use clothes as billboards." With his sharp wit, he spiked clothes and accessories with graphics — happy faces, peace signs, hearts — and messages such as "Stop The Corrida System," or "Money doesn’t make the world go around." Moschino knew no limits, letting his imagination run wild — there were no rules in his book.

"He turned reality upside down and inside out," said Pat Cleveland, one of Moschino’s favorite models. "It was like looking at the world from a swing, he would explore how to take a cuff or a collar and put it elsewhere in an abstract and unexpected way."

Salvadò said that Moschino’s fashion simply stemmed from a different way of observing the world.

"Pat Cleveland on the runway carrying a shopping bag was a projection of a night out with a girlfriend of ours, when, all decked out, we went straight to the supermarket in the morning," said Salvadò.

Moschino often said he had not invented anything new with his fashion. "I am like a restaurant [that] tries to prepare good classic dishes created by who knows which cook!" wrote Moschino in his "X Anni di Kaos," a book that marked the company’s 10-year anniversary.

"Franco’s models on the runway looked like they were dressed in a haphazard manner, stripes clashed with checks, sneakers were worn with skirts at a time when shows were much more formal, with models wearing the same color palettes and taking a bow in evening clothes," said Rossella Jardini, creative director at Moschino and one of the designer’s best friends. Jardini is largely responsible for continuing to grow the company after the death of the designer in 1994 from a heart attack, after suffering from an abdominal tumor and AIDS.Giuseppe Modenese, honorary chairman of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, said that the first Moschino shows in the early Eighties were "disconcerting." Modenese recalls that the industry was "suspicious" of the designer, but that "Franco did not care, he was very self-assured."

"No, Franco definitely didn’t care how people reacted," quipped Jardini, a warm, soft-spoken woman who appears as a contrast to the flamboyant and outrageous designer. "He had a very big ego and his satisfaction lay in being recognized."

Jardini still laughs about the designer’s multifaceted personality. "Franco was brilliant and a genius, but at the same time, he was also spoiled and took himself very seriously. He had a biting sense of humor and we had the best laughs, but he could also be harsh in his criticism of me, although we never, ever quarreled."

Moschino and Jardini, whom he called "pezzi piccoli," which means "small pieces," for her habit of cutting up food, balanced each other: "Franco had these wonderful ideas, but got bored easily. He didn’t care about fabrics and supplies, for example, so I would make sure his ideas would be turned into reality," she said.

Jardini worked as an assistant at Cadette in the Seventies and left that company to join her friend in 1984, a year after Moschino founded his own firm.

Although Moschino poked fun at fashion, he respected and loved the designers he worked with.

"Franco really cheered me on and believed in me, he was modest and humble," said Anna Molinari, who recalls long days of work peppered with laughter, evenings out dining on prosciutto and drinking Lambrusco, a fizzy Italian red wine.

In the Eighties, the two designers exchanged trade secrets about ready-to-wear and knitwear production for a couple of seasons. Molinari said Moschino was the one who named her the "queen of roses," inspired by her passion for those flowers.

In an early take on what were to later become his runways, Moschino advised Molinari to create a huge light mohair sweater as a backdrop for one of her runway shows, with an embroidered neck made to look like a rose bouquet. Molinari also remembers Moschino as a remarkable problem-solver."One season, we decided to have an ice-skating theme, with models wearing skates. When the boxes with the props were missing the morning of the show, I was crying and crying, but Franco, without losing control, quickly whipped up moon-boots and angora socks that the models wore on the runway — and they looked great," said Molinari, whom Moschino nicknamed dubbed "Molinarina."

"Nothing phased him, no matter how chaotic things got, he never lost his sense of humor," echoes Donatella Versace, who met Moschino at Complice, when her brother Gianni was designing for that company and Moschino was an illustrator there. Versace remembers their first trip together in 1977, when Gianni Versace was doing a show at Saks Fifth Avenue and Diana Vreeland showed up backstage. "Of course, at that moment, everything that could go wrong was going wrong. But Franco, as usual, managed to turn the whole scene into a giant sitcom," remembered Versace. "He was a truly special person, and an amazing talent. His sense of humor was brilliant and wicked, and his passion enormous. It was hard not to instantly fall in love with him. No matter what we were doing, or where we were, we always seemed to do more laughing than anything else."

Moschino also developed enduring friendships with the models he worked with. "Franco treated us as people and was interested in us, looking for a personality, a woman, not a body with the right measurements," said Violeta Sanchez, another of the designer’s favorite models, who still remembers the 100 roses Moschino sent to congratulate her on the birth of her child.

"Franco liked strong eyes and red lips, but he completely respected our personality, if a girl had curly hair he wouldn’t straighten it unless she wanted it that way," said Sanchez, who recalls how the designer liked the models to experiment, improvise and be creative on the runway.

"Franco would look for something odd, the imperfect beauty, someone too skinny or too tall," said Pat Cleveland.

She also believes that the way models dressed inspired Moschino.

"Off the runway, he was inspired by our mixing the separate items that are usually given to us by the various designers we work with," said Cleveland, who remembers Moschino as "flamboyant and fun-loving, but never loud and always extremely respectful. He would greet us with a gentlemanly hello and always give us personalized gifts the day of his show, such as a gold charm or a belt with our names engraved on it.""Franco was extremely generous, but not ostentatious himself," said Salvadò. "He lived in a small apartment, owned very few clothes and traveled in an old Fiorino [a small utility car from Fiat]."

However fun-loving and low-key Moschino was, his friends believe he wouldn’t be surprised by the ongoing success of the company he founded. "He was not naïve," said Sanchez, "and he knew he was creating a product and a look that would last."

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