Fashion: The empire strikes back

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The Independent Culture
Its creator (above) died in 1994; for many, it is inextricably associated with the worst of 1980s excess. Yet Franco Moschino's fashion house goes from strength to strength. Tamsin Blanchard reports

WHEN IS a fashion label not a fashion label? When it's Moschino. Since the Italian house was launched in 1983 by the late Franco Moschino, it has consistently sent up the fashion world, parodying the people who wear fashion, the people who buy it and the people who promote it. Yet the Moschino label - whether on a bottle of perfume, some glitzy sunglasses, a belt, the pocket of a pair or jeans or inside a sequinned tracksuit - has become one of the most famous fashion status symbols around. And this despite the fact it demands that its (usually wealthy) wearers make themselves look at least a little foolish.

Most of us, after all, would balk at buying a skirt printed with the words "waist of money" around the top. Likewise, it would take a bold woman to wear a ballgown made of dustbin bags that bear the message "fashion is trash". Your average Moschino (pronounced Mos-kee-no) fan, however, is undeterred. She doesn't flinch at the thought of dressing in a shirt that proclaims her a "fashion victim", or a smoking jacket that states "no smoking" on the back. Strange though it may seem, she will pay for the privilege. She is not a fashion anarchist, just someone with a sense of humour as healthy as her bank balance.

For a house that has built its fame and fortune on an attitude largely at odds with consumerism and the power of advertising, Moschino has done surprisingly well. Despite Franco Moschino's death from Aids-related illness in 1994, at the age of 44, his company has gone from strength to strength, opening new shops in Rodeo Drive, Madison Avenue, two in Rome, and others in Osaka and Kobe. In March, a new flagship store opened in London's Conduit Street, cannily situated within sashaying distance of Vivienne Westwood - a designer with whom Moschino shared a strong streak of disrespect for the fashion establishment. And in the last four years alone, the label's business has grown by over one third.

Much of this has to be a testament to the company's devoted team of designers, who are dedicated to spreading the Moschino message like fashion evangelists. One such is Rossella Jardini, the founder's right-hand woman, who has taken the main responsibility for keeping Franco's spirit alive throughout the company. I met Signora Jardini backstage at Moschino's Milan catwalk show for their autumn/winter '98 collection, when she talked me through the new collection. "It's about positive ideas. We want to make women feel and look good," she explained. It's certainly empowering, in a rather self-referential kind of way: the sleeve of a suit jacket bears a label reading "Create your own destiny" (as opposed to the more usual "100 per cent wool" or "made in Italy"); other messages in the collection include simple one-worders: "dream", "desire", "wishes".

Another backstage evangelist is Bill Shapiro, who has been with the company's design team for six years. "They are these big arms that hug you in," he says. "We're all very close; we go on vacations together." Ethnically, the team sounds like the cast of an ad campaign for that other Italian courter-of-fashion-controversy, Benetton: one designer from Malaysia, two from England, others from Italy, Japan, Germany and Switzerland, all working together as one big happy family. And, as with most families, once in, you never quite leave the fold. Russell Bennett, another British- born designer, worked with Moschino for six years before launching his own label in New York, but still consults on collections. "If you fit in, you almost stay forever," he says.

Bennett's first job was as Franco's design assistant. "It was really a meeting of minds," he beams. "We totally adored each other." This was in1983, when Moschino had just launched his company, after designing for the Italian label Cadette and working as an illustrator for Gianni Versace. It was a time when the fashion industry was about to go into overdrive - and Moschino's response to the over-indulgence and status- grabbing of the Eighties was to take the symbols that made the decade and subvert them. He and his team (then a mere four-strong) bandied slogans and ideas around the studio, and some stuck - such as "fashion is full of chic".

Most of the slogans were in English and many were quite cutting. "Franco was like his clothes - his sense of humour was very keen and dry. And he had a love-hate relationship with the mythical 'client'," says Bennett. "He did precisely what he felt, with the attitude of 'who's gonna get it will get it, and who isn't won't'." In other words, if you wore the slogans and weren't in on the joke, it was the fashion equivalent of walking around with a sticker on your back saying "kick me".

Obviously Moschino's jokes had a double irony, in that they attacked the very people who helped make the business what it is today. He was not altogether comfortable with that, but there was no turning back: he was on to a winner, whether he laughed with his clients or at them. And the critical acclaim followed. The fashion press was almost too scared to say anything bad about the collections in case people thought they hadn't got the joke. And with his surreal take on dressing, Moschino continued the great tradition of crossing the boundaries between fashion and art. For him, the concept was as important as the product, and his great inspirations were the early-20th century Fururists, such as Fornasetti, Duchamp, and Dada.

Moschino's philosophies did not sit easily with those of the Italian fashion industry. In the beginning, like most other Italians, the designer used leather and fur without a second thought. But as time went by, he thought more about what he was doing - and he not only stopped using fur, he stopped using leather too (anything you see in a Moschino collection that looks like animal hide, isn't). Franco Moschino's last collection took his right-on ideas to their ultimate conclusion. Ecouture! was entirely made up from eco-friendly fabrics, natural dyes and green cotton. It was an ambitious project that perhaps worked better as a concept than a collection, but was proof that this designer was prepared to put his money where his mouth was. Likewise, he was always a keen charity worker, using his position and the messages he so effectively communicated via clothes to raise money for HIV-positive children. His Smile! campaign was launched in 1993, while the Franco Moschino Foundation, set up the year after his death, continues to raise money for charity.

In many ways, Moschino's outlook on life and fashion was very British. He would certainly have approved of the first London shop (see opposite page) and would have had a fine old time at the much-hyped party held to mark its opening. The British art direction/ design/production company New RenaisCance were called upon to add the Moschino twist to proceedings - which they did by conjuring up "a right royal garden party" in the shop, complete with a look-alike HM Queen in attendance, and champagne poured from teapots into best-china cups. Knowing, ironic, but above all fun, it was a very Moschino event. "The whole essence of the label is about finding the joy in fashion," says Harvey Bertram Brown, one half of the New RenaisCance design team. "The idea is to laugh with everybody - sure fashion is a bit ridiculous, but it's enjoyable too."

But the last laugh is undoubtedly Franco's. For the subversive label he created is now used and abused in turn by market traders, who sell rip-off versions that would probably have both amused and bemused him. The parody has come full circle, but it is still Moschino that reaps the benefits. Now, that would have given Franco something to smile about. !

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DONNA TROPE

STYLING BY SOPHIA NEOPHITOU

HAIR: JOHNNY DRILL AT BLUNT / MAKE-UP: SHARON DOWSETT

MODEL: NICKY MANWOOD AT STORM

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