MILAN — Fear: A concept as ancient as the world that inevitably influences the behavior of humans and animals alike.
Every person’s relationship with the feeling is personal and, given the context these days, increasingly an object for self-exploration and for research into coping mechanisms.
While many are looking for motivational quotes on social media or seek inspiration in the gestures of their favorite athletes, a little encouragement can also come from the words and technicolor world portrayed in “Free Spirit,” a documentary on Elio Fiorucci that will be celebrated with a special screening on Monday, as part of the eighth edition of the Fashion Film Festival Milano event that opens Friday.
“The end of unnecessary fears, [is] the beginning of life,” is one of the mottos the visionary designer, who died in July 2015 at age 80, shares with his signature smile in the one-hour film.
“It’s one of his biggest lessons, for me,” said Andrea Servi who, with Swan Bergman, stood on the other end of the camera, as both acted as authors and directors of this project, which began in 2008. “The way he thought about the future, always with creativity and imagination and not with fear like today. He used to unmask fears, shooed them with his work and colorful world. And you can see it in this documentary,” said Servi, adding that the goal of the film is to pass on to viewers the same energy to act and react fearlessly.
Yet nostalgia could be triggered, too: rather than simply celebrating Fiorucci’s life and career, the film intends to narrate episodes and key decades of change and explosive creativity through the designer’s filter and the memories of his inner circle.
The first part of the documentary features a string of interviews divided by topic and historic period — spanning from the ‘60s to the tail end of the ‘80s — and is supported by archival footage, while in the second part a more intimate portrait of Fiorucci is shown, as he shares thoughts and memories freely.
In addition to the designer, interviewees range from Vivienne Westwood, who shares glimpses of how she first heard of Fiorucci, to collaborators such as photographer Oliviero Toscani; stylist and artist Maripol, who doubled as the art director of Fiorucci’s famous store in New York; designer and scenographer Franco Marabelli, who has been creative director of the brand’s shops; curator Daniela Morera, and former Fiorucci sales assistant Biba Acquati, among others.
These characters populated the vast and eccentric world of the designer, who was the father of pioneering ideas, ranging from the creation of fashion denim and introduction of logos to revolutionary retail concepts.
He was the one who imported Swinging London’s energy and sense of freedom into Italy in the ’60s, when he opened his legendary emporium in Milan’s central San Babila, that anticipated the modern definition of a concept store.
A playground for experimentation, the location was a chaotic yet mesmerizing bazaar of objects of all sorts, references and iconography, presented in a flashy, colorful and fun way that clashed with the context of the ’70s, when terrorism and political tensions loomed over Italy.
Spontaneous, generous and open-minded, Fiorucci also became a patron for young artists, architects, graphic designers and performers, including Keith Haring who took over the store and entirely covered it with his graffiti art in a live event open to the public in 1983.
The documentary also vividly retraces how, following the launch of the New York flagship in 1976, Fiorucci integrated into and fueled the vibrant scene of the city at the time, as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Jean-Michel Basquiat were among the personalities who gravitated to the location, which was commonly described as a “daytime Studio 54” for its lively atmosphere. For example, Warhol chose the store to launch his Interview magazine with an event and signing session while Donna Jordan and Pat Cleveland modeled for a live-action window concept, among others. As for the real Studio 54, Fiorucci threw a bash there to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the brand and invited a young Madonna — at the time a DJ — to spin the records, as he recalls in “Free Spirit.”
The documentary was quietly released in a small way in 2017. The inclusion at the Fashion Film Festival Milano will mark its real launch, as the directors said the film will have a wider rollout beginning in the spring.
The screening will be held digitally on the MyMovies platform, with 500 tickets available for the event. Originally this format was supposed to flank a physical event staged at the Triennale museum in Milan, but this was postponed to Milan Fashion Week next month due to the surge of the Omicron variant in the country.
The choice of location was not accidental, as the film project originated in the white halls of the venue. While visiting an exhibition dedicated to the ‘70s, Servi and Bergman stepped into a pavilion dedicated to Fiorucci that spotlighted his artistic connections and cultural influence.
“We were in awe: we discovered plenty of things about him and thought that many Italians didn’t really know everything he has done and that this would deserve a film. So the very same day we found a contact and called his press office to talk about this idea, and they passed the call to Fiorucci himself right away, which was pretty incredible,” recalled Bergman. “He told us he was extremely honored. I mean, him? Honored by us? We were shocked,” said Servi.
Everything quickly escalated and the production moved smoothly without a plan or schedule. “He was anarchic and we wanted to do something in tune with the spirit of those years and incredibly authentic, so it was very rock ‘n’ roll. We didn’t prepare questions, just went with the flow, and we had so much fun throughout the whole process,” said Bergman, underscoring that the footage mirrored this raw and not glossy style.
“He never arranged appointments because he believed that setting a date creates expectations in terms of performance,” he continued. “Plus, he used to share his agenda with us, all his patrimony of people he knew, without any sort of jealousy,” added Bergman, underscoring how this attitude informed his personal and professional path in the following years. “It was natural for him, and if you think about it, his stores were not for selling products but were meeting points.”
With its unprecedented mix of elements that tickled the audience’s imagination, the San Babila store became the epicenter of a cultural revolution, as it introduced and promoted a language, attitude and lifestyle that younger generations at the time were waiting for. A community of younger consumers congregated around the location because they could recognize themselves in the energetic young staff, choice of music and cosmopolitan feel.
A director of music videos based in Bologna, Bergman used to travel frequently to Milan for work and always stopped by the store for inspiration. “I used to go there to stimulate my lateral thinking in order to create a story starting from an unusual object — and there were plenty there — rather than being academic in creating something from a song’s lyrics. That place pushed you to use the imagination and I believe that many of the videos I created subconsciously derived from the Fiorucci world, way before working on this documentary,” said Bergman.
Asked about the most challenging part in realizing “Free Spirit,” the directors pointed to the death of Fiorucci during the final stages of the production. “In addition to the sorrow for a loss of a friend, there was the big task of creating a common language and meaning out of the footage we had,” said Servi.
While the documentary turned out to be a compendium of firsthand recollections, Servi revealed that the initial project was to realize a miniseries à la Netflix’s Halston. The authors said there’s already a full script that was developed under Fiorucci’s guidance and that was eventually put aside as they preferred to start collecting materials from interviews instead.
“But the story is still there, we have all the ideas, even in terms of casting, we just lack a couple of millions to produce it,” joked Servi, who, on a more serious note, said the project is on the table with a few companies and is being discussed.
In addition to this, the duo is busy on other fronts — including two other docu-films and a movie — as well as searching for another project that would replicate “Free Spirit” and its intersection of themes related to fashion, culture and society.
“But nonconformists are difficult to find these days. There’s no one like Elio now,” concluded Bergman.