By Sandra Salibian
with contributions from Miles Socha
 on December 14, 2020
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MILAN — Name “Fiorucci” and a gasp followed by a smile will melt even the stoniest faces.

It’s proof that the love spell Elio Fiorucci cast back in the Sixties hasn’t expired but keeps triggering memories that, when it comes to his persona and work, are always vivid and in Technicolor.

His primary magic traces back to 1967, when the Italian designer launched his legendary emporium in Milan’s central San Babila, disrupting not only the fashion industry but revolutionizing the world of retail overall.

In a time when brick-and-mortar stores are trying to reinvent themselves and find the key to attract consumers back and win their loyalty, the innovations Fiorucci introduced still resonate loudly. Over the Seventies and Eighties, the volcanic creativity of the designer planted the seeds for concepts that became essential for any business even in 2020: experience, cross-pollination, inclusivity, positivity, community building and entertainment all sprouted under the neon Fiorucci banners.

Largely anticipating the modern definition of a concept store with his San Babila flagship, Fiorucci dismantled the established ideas and structure of a fashion retailer to fill it with design, art, music, books, kinky merchandise and even food. Moreover, he did this in a flashy, colorful and fun way that clashed with the context of the Seventies, when terrorism and political tensions loomed over Italy.

“We tend to look at things with today’s eyes but we have to think about what stores looked like back then. Many shops were still the classic, old-school boutiques where you entered, there was a counter with a sales assistant standing behind it to show you the goods,” said critic and curator Maria Luisa Frisa. She highlighted that Fiorucci shook up things by removing these elements, enabling the young staff to move around and customers to touch and interact with products directly.

A playground for experimentation, the store was a chaotic yet mesmerizing bazaar of objects, references and iconography. Relentlessly curious, Fiorucci traveled the world, absorbing inputs each country had to offer and bringing back souvenirs to share the discoveries he had made with his customers.

In particular, the San Babila emporium was the result of a journey to London, where Fiorucci was awed by the energy surrounding Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba store in Kensington and wanted to import to Italy the same spirit of freedom.

So he tapped artist Amalia Del Ponte to design a store that could evoke the unconventional style of Swinging London but in Milan, where he sold designs from the likes of Biba, Mary Quant and Ossie Clark as well as the records of The Beatles. Every trip to other countries that followed added to the offer, which came to encompass everything from ethnic clothes to hair products, disco wear to kitchen kettles.

Elio Fiorucci at his store in Milan's San Babila.

Elio Fiorucci at his store in Milan’s San Babila.  "Caro Elio" by Rizzoli/Courtesy Photo

When in 1970 Fiorucci launched his namesake ready-to-wear line, he introduced two innovations: Fashion denim and logos.

If Quant emancipated women with mini-skirts, Fiorucci did it by putting stretch into denim and cutting it in flattering shapes for a woman’s figure. Hand-painted finishing and vintage details enriched the offer, which came with affordable prices and sexy ad campaigns photographed by Oliviero Toscani that created a stir at the time.

Designs, accessories and gadgets in the store also featured the brand’s signature angels logo, a status symbol to proudly show off to telegraph a consumer’s membership in the Fiorucci club.

“I am the generation of Fiorucci. I have the T-shirt with angels that I bought my kids when they were born,” said Maria Grazia Chiuri, who nodded to the pop aesthetics of Fiorucci in the pre-fall 2021 collection she designed for Dior.

Describing the store like a playground, where “you found plastic shoes but also a transparent trench coat,” Chiuri also said Fiorucci invented fashion in Italy.

“The logo, the manifesto, the campaigns — all completely different. If you think that in Italy all people used to go to the seamstress before him… Then Fiorucci arrived and it was a revolution. The first the denim pants, American jackets, also all the ethnic things, because he used to go around the world. All these things that we never saw… It’s very difficult to explain it to the new generations, as now there is the Internet and you can travel. I went from Rome to Milan to see this store, it was another dimension,” said Chiuri.

The "Angioletti" poster, realized in 1973 by Sauro Mainardi upon an idea of Italo Lupi.

The “Angioletti” poster, realized in 1973 by Sauro Mainardi upon an idea of Italo Lupi.  "Caro Elio" by Rizzoli/Courtesy Photo

A pioneer in grasping the importance of customer experience, Fiorucci immersed the product in an environment that could awaken all the senses. He covered the space with bold-colored prints, stickers, posters and flashy lights; he developed unique interior concepts and creative windows; he introduced music in retail, with international tunes booming from speakers; he put scents in the air conditioning system to perfume the environment.

All these elements inevitably tickled the audience’s imagination and soon made the store the epicenter of a cultural revolution. Fiorucci introduced and promoted a language, attitude and lifestyle that younger generations at the time were waiting for, freeing them from bourgeois customs. In addition to products, a community of younger consumers congregated around the Fiorucci world because they could recognize themselves in the energetic young staff, choice of music and cosmopolitan feel.

These factors filled the space with energy and made the flagship a destination where people could meet and hang out with friends for hours, rather than a mere place to shop.

“The key to his success was that his fashion was for everybody, it was born on streets and from Elio’s love for everything new and authentic,” said 10 Corso Como founder Carla Sozzani. “He created a real evolution of freedom, and not only in dressing. I remember purchases of plates and glasses I never saw before and to have spent memorable New Year’s Eve dinners in the restaurant he opened in his other store in Via Torino [in Milan]. You didn’t go to Fiorucci just because of fashion but to live an experience.”

The inclusive approach was a natural extension of the founder’s generosity and open-mindedness, which made him a patron for young artists, architects, graphic designers and performers.

Many of them have recently shared memories, archival reports and unpublished images in a book called “Caro Elio” — or “Dear Elio,” in English. Published by Rizzoli International and to be released in the U.S. in March, the tome was curated by Franco Marabelli, designer and scenographer who has been creative director of Fiorucci stores.

“Everything we did, we didn’t do it for money but because we liked it and people understood and accepted that… There was complete freedom of expression, offices were open spaces and every department — style, graphic, communication — could see what the other was doing. There was a constant exchange of suggestions and that was the immense strength of the company,” said Marabelli.

“Elio had like premonitions, he understood changes way before others and gave inputs. Then each of us received these in different ways and acted freely. There were no rules, no working hours, no formal meetings. It was a once-in-a-lifetime place to work in… but to work with Elio could have been difficult, too, because he changed things all the time,” he said.

Frisa noted that this continuous movement was the reason why Fiorucci’s store kept operating for many years while Biba eventually shut down.

“He was always on the hunt of what was in the air, a sort of seismograph. He had a group dedicated to research, who else had that at the time?” said Frisa.

“He was a visionary, a great creative man that conferred internationality to Italian fashion, creating a laboratory for ideas,” echoed Sozzani. “He invented a way of communicating that didn’t exist, spontaneous, passing down his dream of a world living in harmony… and a vision of a fashion made not only by clothes but ethic values.”

Ideas generated by the team poured out in various, thought-provoking forms, which shook public opinion at first.

The inauguration of the San Babila store represented an unprecedented event, resembling a movie set as Italian singer and actor Adriano Celentano arrived at the location in a pink Cadillac car. For the occasion, architect and designer Clino Castelli developed giveaway gadgets for guests that made a stir in the press: the Pill Plane plastic bracelet that doubled as a calendar reminding women when to take the birth control pill, which had just arrived in Italy at the time and whose promotion was still considered illegal.

Fiorucci's Pill Plane plastic bracelet created by Clino Castelli.

Fiorucci’s Pill Plane plastic bracelet created by Clino Castelli.  "Caro Elio" by Rizzoli/Courtesy Photo

Events, parties and art performances were the bread and butter of the store’s activity. One of the peaks in the retailer’s history was a 1983 happening that collapsed the boundaries between the cultural and commercial worlds. That year, Fiorucci invited Keith Haring to take over the store and entirely cover it with his graffiti art.

“At the time, the store needed to be restyled so we thought to do this experiment before proceeding with the revamp, since we had to empty the location anyway,” recalled Marabelli. Haring radically transformed the store with his live intervention over a two-day event that was accessible to the public.

“After the event, we put the clothes back in but that was not a fitting environment for selling products because these succumbed under the expressive strength of Haring’s art, they just disappeared,” said Marabelli. Eventually all furniture was dismantled and partly recovered, stored in the company’s archive or auctioned.

The "action painting" event by Keith Haring at Fiorucci's store in San Babila in 1983.

The “action painting” event by Keith Haring at Fiorucci’s store in San Babila in 1983.  "Caro Elio" by Rizzoli/Courtesy Photo

According to Marabelli, the true secret of the San Babila flagship resided in its mobility. “The store was a theater, our stage. Conversely to the rest of retailers, we didn’t have fixed furniture, elements could be moved or opened to quickly adapt to our ever-changing needs,” he said. “Every time it looked different and when we launched other stores, each had a different concept, too. That’s what gave them flavor.”

Dynamism and experimentation peaked at the Fiorucci flagship in New York, which was unveiled in 1976 and sealed the brand’s international success.

After launching a unit in London’s King’s Road, Fiorucci landed at 123 East 59th Street in Manhattan with a concept designed by Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Marabelli that shared the same spirit as the Milanese one.

“It was even more flexible and more suitable to stage performances. We could remove all furniture, host a party at night and then put everything back in place for the following morning,” recalled Marabelli.

A WWD report on the opening of the Fiorucci store in New York, 1976.

A WWD report on the opening of the Fiorucci store in New York, 1976.  WWD

Fiorucci immediately integrated into and fueled the vibrant scene at the time, as Andy Warhol — who introduced Haring to the designer; Truman Capote; Jean-Michel Basquiat; Madonna; Marc Jacobs; Robert Mapplethorpe; Jean-Paul Goude and others gravitated to the location. The designer became close friends with stylist, artist and film producer Maripol, who also doubled as the art director of the location, which was commonly described as “daytime Studio 54.”

“It was one of a kind, there wasn’t anything like that,” said Maripol, underscoring the gap between “little stores in Greenwich Village and designers’ stores in Madison” that targeted an older generation of customers.

“It was like a meeting point because it was central, there was a cappuccino bar, there was everything you needed. And after that I was in charge of concessions bringing in new designers, there was a makeup stand if you wanted to have your makeup done. Or if you wanted to read books and magazines, you could do it. There was always some kind of animation,” explained Maripol.

To wit, Warhol chose the location to launch his Interview magazine with an event and signing session; Donna Jordan and Pat Cleveland modeled for a live-action window concept, while artist Colette opted for sleeping there for seven days as part of a performance initiated after she curated the window installation.

Donna Jordan and Pat Cleveland modeling for a live-action window concept at the Fiorucci store in New York.

Donna Jordan and Pat Cleveland modeling for a live-action window concept at the Fiorucci store in New York.  "Caro Elio" by Rizzoli/Courtesy Photo

“I remember I have the picture of Cleveland and Jordan wearing a skirt that I made, because merchandise arriving from Milan would have taken too long, so we always needed stuff in between to sell in the store,” said Maripol. In addition to clothing, she worked with industrial materials to develop innovative accessories, including rubber bracelets. “When I came to New York [from France] even I could never find anything that I liked, so it was easier for me just to make stuff,” she said.

“I am a merchant, not a man of fashion,” Fiorucci told WWD on the opening of his Manhattan location.

“As Elio used to say, the ‘merchant’ is one of the most interesting jobs in the world,” said Sozzani, who thinks today’s brands should learn from the designer to look for authenticity in the offering, dare to point to a new, personal direction and establish a conversation with customers.

“The real heritage of Elio is his vision, the vision of somebody who senses things in advance. He used to say we both had antennas, meaning that we know what’s going on before it happens,” echoed Maripol.

For Frisa, more than a specific contribution, Fiorucci, who died in July 2015 at age 80, passed down an attitude. “He didn’t design the collections, he put together pieces, he had trend researchers wandering around the world… He was a cool hunter before this bad word started trending; he was a stylist before they even existed. He can’t be compared to anyone else… He was a transgressive but with the joie de vivre.”