MILAN — He may have a charming British accent, but his deep brown eyes definitely reveal his Italian roots.
Antonio Berardi was born and raised in the U.K. by Sicilian parents, who managed to guarantee a better life for themselves and their children far from their native island. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Berardi cut his teeth in London during that city’s energetic fashion moment in the Nineties, when he started showing his collections and was part of the “Cool Britannia” wave that saw the likes of Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan shine. In 1999, he moved his runway show to Milan and 10 years later went back to London on the occasion of the British Fashion Council’s 25th anniversary. Now the designer is returning to Milan, the city where — almost two decades ago — he chose to work and live with his life and business partner Alfredo Girombelli and their bull terrier, Bruno.
Here, Berardi discusses his decision to come back to Milan, his new show format at 1:15 p.m., his being a man designing for women and the new need for more intimacy as an antidote to the craziness of contemporary fashion.
WWD: Why did you decide to come back to Milan Fashion Week?
Antonio Berardi: We decided to return to Milan simply because I’ve lived here for 14 years, but I think nobody, not a lot of people, really know it because people still think I’m living in England and I don’t know why ‘cause I never said I was living in England. Also, in London I used to show at 9 o’clock in the morning, which is just not right for me, it’s not right for what I wanted to do. The other thing is that everything moves so quickly that even the idea of doing a show wasn’t exciting anymore, it was more of something you have to do. You know, when it becomes less of a pleasure and more of a commitment…
WWD: What has changed your perspective?
A.B.: I wanted to readdress [my fashion] because what we do sometimes it’s incredibly baroque because I’m Sicilian, so I am baroque, and it’s incredibly elaborate and sometimes it’s incredibly minimal, but the cutting and the technique are incredibly elaborate. And so just to see things moving very quickly, you miss the work that goes into it. I need people to almost feel it, smell it, be as close as possible to it to understand that I don’t only work on a jacket or a skirt. It’s always the way they move, what happens on the back, what happens inside. Everything is in 3-D. When people come and sit at a show, they sometimes have one vision of something through a telephone…it’s a false reality, it’s very distracting. So this way it was more of having almost like a personal dialogue because there is no dialogue anymore. I’ve noticed that designers have mood boards now backstage, which I find horrifying. The idea that because people don’t have time “those are the images, take what you want from me” and everyone has the same message and that’s not what it should be about, every garment we do there’s a reason for it to exist, there is a dialogue behind everything. So I want that much more hands-on approach and, strangely enough, it feels right now, it actually feels more modern.
WWD: What is going to actually happen on Saturday?
A.B.: Almost like a little salon show, very, very small, just for a few people. It’s going to be kind of a couture show, but in a way where I want people to connect with the collection. It’s like inviting someone not to a restaurant, but inviting them for dinner at home. It’s literally like you personally being invited for dinner at home and I’m the cook.
WWD: In January, in an interview with WWD, you mentioned that you are planning to host different salon shows in different cities. Why?
A.B.: Our idea is to be there and have that time to literally work on everything, to touch everything. It’s becoming a kind of different world, but it’s a world that I love much more than ready-to-wear, that’s just become “it’s over in two minutes and it’s four collections a year and then capsule collections and it goes on and on and on.” So at the end of the day probably 80 percent of it is just discarded, whereas this way to do smaller things and doing things at different times in different cities, it means that whatever the full process for the next few months is, people can actually see the whole process.
I’ve never worked to the idea that I show a collection and that’s it. I have unresolved things that we didn’t explore, that could be explored in a kind of different way, so I’ve always worked in that way, much more like if you were a chef or if you worked in a pharmacy and you were working on something you don’t suddenly just think, “OK, I’m not doing that now, I’ll start something else.” You refine things, you think “how, with the same ingredients, the same fabrics, can you make something tasting different?” It’s the same for everybody, it’s the same for a recording artist, an actor….It’s always about refining what you do and adding a new string to your voice. For example, I love the tailoring jacket. Some people think I just do dresses, which are kind of not the things that I enjoy doing. So this way I can show what I really do enjoy doing and I suppose in a way where you are close enough to realize that there’s work into it. This collection is final, but instead of doing massive collections it’s nice to do drops and show just what you want to show. I’m showing emotions.
WWD: The debut of this new strategy also marks the inauguration of your new studio in Milan. Why did you decide to make this investment?
A.B.: Because I wanted to work in a different way. We haven’t had this place for that long and half of it is still under construction, but I actually want to have tailors that work here. I want to work in that way where I can sit with the tailors and we can do things together. That’s my dream. I just want to have like a little atelier. Not everything will be made here obviously, but I love the idea that everything begins at home. So it’s a new way of working for me as well. In a weird kind of way, the old school method is probably better. This is kind of like coming back to my roots. The nice thing is that for lots of people it would be what they know, but for lots of people it would be something completely different, they haven’t noticed for a long time. It’s always been there, but things have their moments, it’s all swings and roundabouts and whatever else, sometimes things come back around. I’m old, but the interesting thing is I’ve been doing this for a long time but then to lots of people they feel like they’ve just discovered this. That’s interesting as well: I like the idea that for lots of people it feels like a new discovery and that’s what it should be.
WWD: Fashion-wise, what is the fall collection going to be about?
A.B.: The collection is as always built on the idea of masculine and feminine. Everything is into cuts, everything has a lot going on, but they’re incredibly monastic. I think it’s kind of like when you see something you would think it’s really clean, but it’s not. It’s kind of like coats have double constructions, some inside and there’s an outside and the outside moves differently to the inside. It’s more that things are made in a way they look as if you are wearing your underwear, too, and everything is built-in to give illusion, to show, to not show, to give a glimpse…things that become incredibly sensual but they’re really not, or they can be reinterpreted. It’s the nothingness. I’m a big Prince fan and it’s 30 years since [Prince’s album] “Sign ‘o the Times” was released. It was kind of like a seminal album for any Prince fan, but I think it’s kind of like groundbreaking in terms of music and it actually came from lots of other albums that he wanted to do, but he never did. “Sign ‘o the Times” contains two or three tracks that were from an album called “Camille” that he had written but it was never released, and he had written it as the feminine part of him and how the feminine part of him would sing and write songs. He was not writing for a woman, but he was writing as a woman for a man and that’s when the falsetto and everything came in. I didn’t know that, but I read this review where the author says that Prince was inspired by this 19th-century hermaphrodite called Herculine Barbin…
It was weird that it came about because, in a strange kind of way, I have that voice that addresses something else, which is totally not me. I do it masculine and sometimes it has that feminine voice to it. But I think that, at the end of the day, it’s kind of like every piece — if you go back to it — it’s much more about the kind of construction that would probably be considered more masculine than feminine, and plus, however feminine the result, it’s made in a certain way that would take it back to men’s wear. It’s really interesting how you’re reading about something which is very now, something that inspired someone 30 years ago and something that happened nearly 200 years ago, everything is a cycle. Things come around and they become interesting but they’ve probably always been there, it’s just that we’ve never realized. And it’s very much like what I do, it’s always been there but it’s just that not everyone’s always realized, hopefully this dialogue. Because for me showing is like a dialogue, it is something that I think people will understand more because they’re experiencing it at home.
WWD: What’s your work method? Do you design on your own or with a team?
A.B.: We work as a team. I don’t like to think that it’s just me. I have my team, they’re all amazing, five plus me. We’re not that many, but I want them to feel like it’s theirs as much as it is mine, they need to feel that they belong. I don’t keep myself with the credit, I’m the one that has to literally rein it in and sometimes I do rein it, but the idea is that everyone is a part of what we do and the nicest thing is that we work together as a team. And so it can be that sometimes we can be looking at sketches and I get rid of mine because I think that what they’re saying is much more valid. I show them what I think, they show me what they think, but it’s kind of like we have a dialogue together and we then create a script.
WWD: Do you have any expectations for the future?
A.B.: Expectations…if you ask me numbers I don’t know, it’s not my job and I don’t care, I’m happy to do what I do, sometimes you can’t have that. I’m trying my hardest to have what I want. I also think that I don’t really think ever in terms of money, which is wrong. And I love the idea that someone is clever when they buy something because they know they’re going to wear it for more than one season, which is not what any designer would say. But you know, for me longevity is something that I believe in. If someone buys a piece and they love it and they are going to wear it for maybe the next two years and then have it in their wardrobe but they maybe pull it out after four years and think the fifth year, “I’m still wearing it,” then I’ve done a good job. I think that today in fashion we’ve blown everything out of proportion. I remember being at [Central] Saint Martins that every year someone wanted to be the star and so every year you pulled out the stops and I remember that in my years of being there — in my first, second, third, fourth year — everything just got bigger and bigger and bigger where they didn’t even fit on the stage. We’ve reached that kind of point in our industry….It’s time to fit on the stage again.
WWD: What’s your relationship with the digital world?
A.B.: It’s interesting…sometimes I go on the Internet and have a look and we have an account and it’s very small. I don’t really believe in being on it personally, sometimes they put pictures of me on it which makes me angry, but sometimes you can see that people have posted things where I think, “Oh my god, I completely forgot about that.” But there are people somewhere, someone is aware and sometimes just that someone is enough. Just the idea that someone who you’ve never met, that you’ve never interacted with, is having a dialogue about you on the web, I find that really interesting. So I think that the potentials are massive really, not just making it something where a supposed spectacle that people come to. I think sometimes people need the intimacy…Once upon a time it was that intimacy of going to measure, you had to do it physically, it wasn’t over the Internet, someone had to measure you, someone had to take care, you could be there to choose, to feel, to touch, to have those sensations which people don’t have anymore. I’m a bit old school in that and don’t get me wrong, I can be incredibly forward thinking…in other ways, but I like traditions.
WWD: Talking about traditions, you were a pioneer in the use of religious elements in fashion, which is something that became so popular and made the fortune of several brands. How do you feel about that? It’s like you trained various designers. Can you see yourself as a kind of founder of a quite specific fashion movement?
A.B.: I used religious elements because those were the things close to my heart. The things that were part of my every day growing up. As children, we went back to Sicily every summer, and Sunday church services and processions were part of the norm. My grandmother was extremely religious, saying her rosary, as she crocheted and embroidered, and we had to dress up for church. It was a celebration, and I loved the pomp and ceremony that went with it. It was only natural that it should be part of what I did, as it was perhaps the biggest influence. The reverence, the colors, that sense of belonging, and the subtle piety that every Sicilian woman represented. I put religion on a pedestal, along with the women in my life, who were the ones to uphold tradition, to dress accordingly without ever losing sight of their femininity.
I honestly don’t think I had a big say in the introduction of religion in fashion, but as a designer, living in Britain, it was something that I always found was part of my heritage, and that was the fundamental point. What I have always done is to put a part of myself in the clothes, using both my imagination and my craft. It would be nice to think that I founded a specific fashion moment, but I think that many others before me used the idea of religion quite subtly. I was a young gun, playing in a very British field, and so I perhaps used religion in a more forceful way. It was Britain in the Nineties, statements had to be made, and people needed to grasp the idea of who you were, always with a sense of respect. We now live in very different times, where one has to be politically correct, and not necessarily force our views onto anyone, such that the message has to suffer. That is why, things are now much softer, but religion is still a part of what I do, much more modestly, but if you look closely, very much apparent.
WWD: Going back to your intimate show — I think it’s great you are back to Milan since it’s also a transition moment for the various fashion weeks, which seem to be revising their structures.
A.B.: I think, what’s nice as well is that oddly enough lots of people are doing this kind of thing now in New York. But the interesting thing is that Milan needs this kind of thing, it needs to feel special again. I’m not changing the world, it’s just that I want to do what I want to do, but, in a weird kind of way, we need some intimacy again.