THE ADJECTIVE 'witty', so promiscuously applied to contemporary fashion, can cut two ways. Designers can use it to laugh at or with their clients. Karl Lagerfeld belongs to the former school and Franco Moschino, mercifully, to the latter.
When one thinks of Moschino's clothes, one thinks of words - puns and rubrics. A jacket with 'Waist of Money' printed along the waistband. 'A shirt for fashion victims only' embroidered across a garment with 10ft sleeves; 'I'm full of shirt' on another. A camel- hair coat, with a camel and the words 'hair coat' stitched on its back. A little black dress printed with a goose and captioned 'I Love Fashion'. Moschino was a spin doctor and stylist rather than a designer. He experimented with the messages and symbols applied to a fairly classic array of garments rather than inventing new shapes or fabrics in the way that, for example, Issey Miyake does.
Moschino belonged to that long line of stylists who use fashion as protest. But rather than protesting against the Vietnam war (Yves Saint Laurent), the Establishment (Vivienne Westwood), environmental abuse (Katherine Hamnett) or even that vainglorious act of gesture politics the Gulf war (Valentino), he protested against the fashion system and its manic consumerism. His styles were the clothing industry's equivalent of viral streptococcus, the body devouring itself.
Brought up in Italy, as a boy Moschino loved to go into his father's iron foundry late at night and draw crazy images in the deposits of dust that clung to the walls. His father hoped that he would join the family business but Franco insisted on studying fine art instead. He ran away to Milan and enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti where he studied from 1968 to 1971, supplementing his student budget with design and illustration commissions for fashion houses and magazines.
On graduating, he worked as a sketcher for Versace from 1971 to 1977 and as a designer for Cadette until 1982. In 1983 he established his own label. On a technical level, he was an excellent cutter and the silhouettes he created were flattering. Moschino's reference library, according to his assistant and friend Lida Castelli, was the street rather than books, films and art galleries. 'He kept his eyes open and was very sensitive, watching all the time,' she recalls.
The Eighties were the dizzy heyday of high fashion's diffusion. In a two-way frenzy fashion sped up from the street and down from the large clothing empires. It was disseminated overnight from the fashion capitals down the ranks and across the globe. Marshall McLuhan's global village was epitomised by fashion's long, long reach. Stretching from the Third World, where it was manufactured and plagiarised, to every provincial town in the West, where it was voraciously consumed, fashion became the popular culture. With Warholian opportunism it was marketed with the evangelising credo: 'If I've got the jacket I too can live the lifestyle.'
A reaction was inevitable and Moschino voiced that dissent. Not only did his clothes question what became known as the fashion system - the ludicrous cost, ubiquitous 'styling', and 15-minute relevance - but his very advertising underscored his anarchic scepticism. Flicking through glossy magazines your eye would suddenly be arrested by Moschino's black humour. A full-page advertisement depicted a vampire admonishing you, 'Stop The Fashion System]'
The irony of this protest was that it too became fashion: gobbled up by that giant that sees, takes, makes fleetingly fashionable, devours and throws away. By the time the Princess of Wales, that inveterate fashion shopper, had donned a Moschino, one wondered whether the whole thing had backfired. Did it make sense to question a money-making consumerism by selling fashion to the very victims that you claimed to be weaning off the fashion drug?
His supporters, mainly those in and on the fringes of the style world, pop stars, actors and the visually literate service industry, supposed that by donning Moschino they 'got the joke'; that they had somehow side-stepped the system. They had still had to pay for the joke, and an expensive one at that. And does a mass-
manufactured joke, repeated many thousands of times across the world, make the wearer seem such a witty anarchist?
It was clever, it was heartfelt, it hit a contemporary nerve which made it eminently fashionable and perhaps, in some small way, it fuelled the questioning which, along with recession, consumer overload and the environmental problems, led to the sobriety of the Nineties.
This season every Moschino garment is sold with a letter from him. It is a manifesto and reads: 'all human, racial, religious, and last but not least, environmental values have been destroyed'. He goes on to announce that environmental concern is 'the only true and honest Fashion Trend' and cites ways in which his production processes have taken this into
One hopes that such conscience- prickers have a lasting effect, beyond their own, and in Moschino's case short, lifespan.