Anna Dello Russo: 'I've finally been invited to the ball'

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How the fashion editor became as big a story as the catwalks she covers

Anna Dello Russo is not just any fashion editor. You can tell that as soon as she walks into a room, looking like a living, breathing editorial page from Vogue Japan, her Condé Nast powerhouse. Today, she is wearing a leopard-print Lanvin dress, Bulgari jewels and Manolo Blahnik shoes. A fairly standard fashion editor wardrobe, you might think. Except Dello Russo has affixed a pair of bowling ball-sized fibreglass cherries to her head – she also sported a gold version at the autumn/winter 2011 New York shows, with a rodeo-fringed leather coat to match. Dello Russo's train of thought is simple: "It's my first job to make myself up. I style myself like I style a model. You should put your passion on yourself before translating to other people."

Dello Russo's idiosyncrasies don't stop at clothing. How many fashion editors do you know with their own eponymous fragrance – released by last year in a bejewelled shoe that was inspired by a Christmas-tree bauble? Actually, how many do you know with their own self-managed blog, or a retinue of staff whose email signature reads "Anna Dello Russo Factory"? It's easy to imagine Anna as a fictional character marching her Manolos through Funny Face or even Prêt-à-Porter, but this is what being a 21st-century fashion editor is all about – part celebrity, part caricature; definitely larger than life.

We've seen hints before in the deification of US Vogue's Anna Wintour and the former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, whose names have become known to people who never read the fashion pages, via prime-time documentaries and fictional characterisations galore. But Dello Russo is another entity entirely – creative director and fashion consultant Ronnie Cooke Newhouse described her as an "insider fashion reality star", and she's in touch with her audience 24/7. She blogs on and tweets during the shows, broadcasting her image over the internet and even across competitors' magazines (she was the lead editorial and cover-girl of last autumn's 10 magazine). The final leap, never before made by any member of the fashion press, was on to the catwalk last year, modelling for the Lanvin/H&M fashion show in New York, and for Giles Deacon's first presentation for the Parisian house of Emanuel Ungaro – a neat inversion of the set that looks and the set that is looked at in the world of fashion. Online, plugged in and turned on, she explodes the idea of the fashion editor being at least once removed from the general public. Anna Dello Russo is always ready for her close-up.

The question remains: from whence did she spring, fully formed, to thrash the fashion world into a collective frenzy with a length of gold lamé? Dello Russo has actually been working in fashion for more than 20 years, 18 of those at Condé Nast Italia alongside Franca Sozzani, the all-powerful editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue. However, it was only with the advent of the internet and fashion-savvy street-style bloggers such as Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and Jak & Jil's Tommy Ton that Dello Russo's hardcore love of fashion reached a global audience. As her extreme catwalk looks popped up all over the internet, the general public collectively gasped: "Who is this woman? And why is she wearing a slice of watermelon on her head?"

Today, street-style bloggers have multiplied, but they all seem to remain enamoured by Dello Russo – her stride slows to a crawl as hundreds cluster to pap-snap her outfits between car and show as she does the rounds of the international capitals during fashion weeks. "They made me. They made a new career," Dello Russo states, matter-of-fact. Her upfront nature is one of her most endearing qualities – and incredibly rare in fashion. Maybe it's because, by her own admission, her English is "no so good": her accent is as thick as carbonara sauce, punctuated with much extravagant gesturing and clanking of various items of jewellery.

Those photographers, however, only gave visibility to something already brewing. Dello Russo has been collecting clothing for 20 years, keeping her ever-expanding wardrobe in a climate-controlled second apartment next door to her home in Milan. This she sees not as an extravagance, but as an investment, both financially and culturally. "All my money, all my passion goes into the best, the key pieces of fashion. The pieces people want to see in the future," she says. Generally, that means catwalk-hot, high-octane fashion – Dello Russo has a penchant for the glitzy, ritzy dresses created by Peter Dundas for Emilio Pucci and Christophe Decarnin at Balmain, short and encrusted with embroidery and glitter. They're not generally considered "daywear", but Dello Russo doesn't really do day. "I don't have this routine life. I don't go into the office; I'm travelling around the world. I'm lucky. But I never liked easy clothes in my life. My mother said, 'You want a pair of jeans?' and I said, 'No, mother, I want a couture dress!'"

According to Dello Russo, her childhood contained many gems like this. Born in the Italian provincial town of Bari in 1962, she was a dedicated follower of fashion from her early years. "I was always looking in the bag, look at the jewellery. Mamma would say, 'Please don't do that, it's not polite', but I would say, 'Mamma, I love the bag!'" The breakthrough fashion moment was indicative of Italian fashion in the 1980s. "I said to my father, 'Father, I would like a bag – not just a bag, a set of Fendi bags.' This was 1980s time, so logomania!" Dello Russo's hands spring into action, waving in the air as she spits out "F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F" like a fashion firearm to describe the Fendi initial-spotted zucca weave. You get the feeling she probably still has that Fendi luggage set somewhere, shrouded in acid-free tissue in her hermetically sealed archives.

From there it was an obvious step to Milan and Vogue Italia, during the early-1990s boom time of Italian fashion. "It was an incredible moment. Incredible creativity, a massive fashion moment. Dolce & Gabbana were starting, the golden age of Italian fashion. Versace, Armani, Ferré, Missoni – an amazing 'Made in Italy' moment." Dello Russo worked at Condé Nast Italia for 18 years: 12 with Vogue, then six with the male-focused L'Uomo Vogue. During those years, she never missed a round of the bi-yearly fashion collections. "For me, everything is by consequence. That's why I never want to miss a season – I saw the evolution of fashion."

Passion is a word that leaps to mind when scrambling to describe Dello Russo's approach to fashion. Helmut Newton had another term: "fashion maniac", a badge she wears with pride. Her overwhelming love of the industry stands as anathema to the black-clad fashion world's obsession with cool. Dello Russo has the maxim "I don't want to be cool, I want to be fashion" writ large across her blog, and is rarely clad in black, preferring instead the peacock plumage of sequins, furs, Technicolor satin and gold – preferably all at the same time.

What does she make of the breathtaking attention she has garnered? She loves it. That comes through in the pictures of her – unlike the static, studied poses of other fashion hacks, Dello Russo seems in constant animation, laughing, waving, and generally having a whale of a time in her front-row seat. After all, a woman doesn't take to the Ungaro catwalk clutching a jewelled sheep grudgingly. For her, this is the achievement of a life-long dream. "I used to be like Cinderella, working hard in the kitchen. Now finally I've been invited to the ball."

It's uncertain where the cash comes from to fund her obsession – she is uncharacteristically cagey about consultancy work, although rumours abound as to the collections she has a hand in (here's a hint: look for anything gold). She also asserts that her clothes aren't gifts but are bought retail – a considerable investment given that just one of those racy Balmain frocks she sported during fashion week would set you back 10 grand, never mind the k cost of that additional apartment. Dello Russo's reasoning behind such expenditure? "It's a job, but on me. It's like going to the dentist – if you go to the dentist and the dentist doesn't have beautiful white teeth... then how good is he?"

In a tangential way, her reasoning makes perfect sense. Unlike so many characters in the fashion world, Dello Russo is happy to put her money where her mouth is. Witness her latest editorial for the March issue of Vogue Japan: models giggling in poster paint-bright duchesse satin with tea-sets, lobsters, birds and shoes perched in giant hair-dos (the shoes doubling as a canny bit of product placement – they were Christian Dior). That sounds like just the sort of kooky gear fashion editors love to shovel on to models while dressed in head-to-toe black. Dello Russo, however, sported a variation on her own Christmas card, and in no less than three shoots since. Indeed, you often get the impression that she is practising her styling on herself, or vice versa.

There's no emperor's new clothes to this, though – Dello Russo is perfectly aware of how extreme her look is. "Sometimes I feel ridiculous, but it's in a good way. Like the watermelon [she wore on her head], I love that. It's such an Italian touch of humour."

There is certainly a distinct touch of the Italian eccentric in everything she does. That is, of course, a long tradition: the Marchesa Luisa Casati (see box, right), for example, was an Italian aristo who astonished turn-of-the-century Europe by walking around in a leopard-skin top hat with live marmosets scampering about her outfit as a rather unconventional fur tippet. You can't help but feel La Casati would have appreciated Dello Russo's appearance at Paris Vogue's 90th birthday celebrations last October, a masquerade ball where she pitched up in Emilio Pucci and a one-off Gareth Pugh headpiece looking like a cross between Lady Gaga and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Understandably, many also draw comparison with her fellow countrywoman Anna Piaggi: they're both Italian, they're both called Anna, they both plonk oversized fruit on their heads and call it a look. They're also both Condé Nast matriarchs, trained by Vogue Italia – of all the Vogues, the one that best marries creativity with commerce.

That's worth bearing in mind when you look at Anna Dello Russo Inc, the unofficial cottage industry she has spun around her name and image. Her blog is the primary tool in this, engaging her directly with her ever-growing fan-base. "It's a completely different world from magazines," she explains. "It's really democratic. You feel in touch, you feel instantly the feedback."

Magazines, of course, have realised that the internet is the way to go, but still few editors engage with it on Dello Russo's grass-roots level. She tweets from the shows to roughly 40,000 followers, and posts continuously to her site. Rather than the polished world of a, however, it's resolutely low-fi, with a touch of Dello Russo's trademark madcap humour. Witness Anna's head crudely Photoshopped on to her favourite looks from the latest collections, kitsch gilt photograph frames around images, and Dello Russo's distinctly nuanced grasp of the English language reflected in every post. "I want to talk with a massive part of the people," she says. "I prefer to translate in my English because the sense will be the same. I want to give a sense of myself." Despite editors becoming personalities in their own right, that's virtually unheard of in the ivory-tower world of fashion.

It is through the blog that her eponymous perfume came about. "I put on my blog a wish to have a perfume. And then people came to me saying, 'That's incredible, I want it, when did it come out?'" obviously saw mileage in the idea – its first range of Dello Russo-branded products – 10 T-shirts bearing her image sporting a self-selected array of "looks" – sold out within hours.

Next up after the perfume, you would assume Dello Russo would be hankering after creating a clothing line – but that's what everyone would expect, and hence is probably the last thing she'd want to do. Instead, Anna Dello Russo has plans for a record. Fashion-show soundtracks may never be the same again.

Fashion Incarnate: The women who lived the look

Anna Piaggi (1931-present)

The doyenne of Italian fashion, Piaggi has been writing about the business for more than 50 years and owns more than 2,000 dresses. Known best for her inspirational spreads in Vogue Italia, which use montages of images and text, her influences extend to designers from Karl Lagerfeld to the milliner Stephen Jones, both of whom are close friends. She is conspicuous by her headgear, flamboyant, Anglophilic style and her perennially changing hair colour.

Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881–1957)

First and foremost among the fabulous is the Marchesa, an Italian socialite of the early 1900s, who famously kept a pair of leopards as pets (which she walked at dusk around her home town of Venice) and was waited on by naked men adorned with gold leaf. A reference point for many designers, from John Galliano to Mary Katrantzou, Casati's stunningly ornate residence and decadent parties scandalised polite society and attracted the impolite in equal measure.

Isabella Blow (1958–2007)

Blow is best known for her work with the designers Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, to whom she acted as both muse and mentor. The indefatigable fashion editor at Tatler was often to be seen in the office resplendent in full couture looks, and bought McQueen's graduate collection straight off the catwalk, paying the young, gifted and broke designer in instalments of £200. She died in 2007 and was much mourned by the industry to which she had devoted her life.

Diana Vreeland (1903–1989)

Fierce and fearsome, Vreeland was editor-in-chief of US Vogue from 1963 until 1971, and "discovered", among others, Lauren Bacall. She notably worked with the photographer Richard Avedon, and lived in an apartment decorated solely in red. In her "Why don't you" column for Harper's Bazaar, Vreeland suggested dressing a daughter as an infanta for her birthday party and washing children's hair in dead champagne, as per French aristocratic tradition. "She was, and remains, the only genius fashion editor," remarked Avedon on her death.

Harriet Walker

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