Renata Molho Remembers When Italy Was Fashionable
Photo by Scott Shuman
In 1979, Milan’s fashion week overtook Paris, in terms of both pure profit and volume of business. It was the dawn of a golden age for the northern Italian city. Soon after, it would all blow up in an orgy of parties, runways, sex, magazines, photographers, supermodels, and repulsive Roman decadence. Then, a decade later, it would all be over.
We recently talked about Milan’s 80s heyday over high tea with Renata Molho, who spent the better part of that decade as a stylist for everyone who was anyone, and the 90s as one of the best fashion journalists in Italy. Today, Renata is the fashion editor of the Sole 24 Ore (the Italian Financial Times), and she writes for Vogue Italia and other magazines in the Condé Nast group. She is also the author of the only biography ever published on the unrivaled king of that golden age, Giorgio Armani. Not only is Renata, expectedly, one of the most sophisticated and elegant people we’ve ever met, somewhat unexpectedly, she’s also incredibly direct and straightforward.
Vice: So the golden age of Italian fashion was between the early 80s and the early 90s, when Milan was kind of the center of that world. Where were you in that period?
Renata Molho: I started working in fashion in 1982. At the beginning I was pretty much a slave. The first big boom had occurred a few years before, and already there was less demand for manpower. I worked for a fashion agency called Verve, the only agency in the early 80s that covered the entire spectrum, working for communication, advertisements, and catalogs and for editorials or shoots in magazines. The agency was made up of many people, like me, who would coordinate everything from castings to production to styling. At the time I used to work a lot for a magazine called Donna, which was even more important and respectable than Vogue Italia back then. The editors were Flavio Lucchini, who came from Condé Nast, and Gisella Borioli. I would do everything. One week I’d do the huge central shoot for Donna with the latest Ferré dress and the best photographer, the best model, and the best makeup artist, and the week after I’d do a spread for a minor catalogue for housewives. I instantly learned that the difficult parts of this job are the small ones. When you have the amazing dress and the famous photographer, you don’t really have to do any work. It taught me a lot.
What was the climate like in those years?
It was insane. Everybody was enthusiastic, creative, and up for anything. You felt as if you were at the start of something. Everybody wanted to invent new things. And in terms of satisfaction and joy, it was completely different. In traditional, institutional media, all that enthusiasm is gone. When I started, you could still actually create something. There was much less pressure from advertising. Now they just send you two tops and a dress and it’s done. Back then, we’d all stay in the office until three in the morning. I mean all of us, from the assistants to the photographer to the stylists—and we’d all have a smile on our face. Everything was new. Giorgio Armani, and the last of the slaves, like myself, would all stay up the whole night excited to be working.
That must have something to do with all the money that was going around.
It was ridiculous. You know how much money I made in 1983? One and a half million lira a day. Adapted to today’s money, that’s like a thousand euros. A day. You’d call Verve, and Renata Molho would cost you a grand a day. And I was a nobody. Imagine what the others made.
But you’re also saying it was more of a group effort. Were there less egos involved?
In a certain sense. Of course, we still had hierarchies, and I couldn’t speak informally to everyone, but there was a certain egalitarianism. For example, in the via Tortona area, which has now become Milan’s fashion hub with 300 bars and restaurants and showrooms and studios, there was only one bar. It was called Telex. We all used to go there, every last one of us. It was just a normal Italian bar, but the owners would prepare mountains of fresh oysters and liters of campari and you’d sit in this small bar with Richard Avedon or Oliviero Toscani or David Bailey.
It sounds great. What happened?
We lost all sense of measure. Look, when I started, I moved behind the scenes. I hadn’t met the big shots yet. I started working with all the big names a while later. But even from the sidelines I could tell that it was all much more human. Some people thought of themselves as “stars,” but it hadn’t been blown out of all proportion yet.
But then it did. The stereotypical 80s excess.
And then the media—both fashion media and general media—started to throw too much wood on the fire, and the cults of personality began. It was a landslide of egos that piled one on top of the other until we got to the era of top models. It became extreme with Linda and Cindy and those girls. And Gianni Versace started to think of himself as “Versace” and Giorgio Armani became “Armani.” It got out of hand. Editors became stars, PR people and stylists thought they were Madonna. It was a self-perpetuated collective folly. Sooner or later this insanity was going to have an effect on the quality of the work, and it did. Now everything is much more sterile and superficial. The most replaceable assistants feel hysterically indispensable and the person who should be keeping them in line is completely insane.
You’re talking about editors?
Editors, publishers, and owners. Just think about the power that press offices have today. They probably dictate 80 percent of what is written. It wasn’t so in the 80s. Fashion magazines were made by individuals with taste, or lack of taste, but they expressed opinions.
|Covers and pages from issues of Vogue Italia and Donna from 1980-1991: the heyday of Milan’s fashion industry. Things have been pretty bleak since then. All images courtesy of Fashion Work Library Club.|
Milan has always been linked to fashion, so I imagine the city must have changed too.
Totally. When fashion exploded, the Milano da bere was born.
We should explain that phrase for the benefit of our non-Italian readers. Milano da bere means “drinking Milano.” It’s a common expression used to describe the excess of the Milanese 80s.
Right. It was the era of Craxi, and the Milan-based Socialist Party ruled the country. Easy money, constant partying, and one out of two people in the street was a foreigner. It was a very superficial atmosphere, but it was vibrant. The fashion money funded the arts. Think about the Fiorucci store that was entirely painted by Keith Haring. There was a sensation that everything was possible.
But it ended quickly.
Yes, it was all very quick. The end of that era was the Mani Pulite scandal of the early 90s, the corruption case that involved 60 percent of the Italian parliament and effectively ended the First Italian Republic. Everybody declared bankruptcy. Suddenly, the faucets ran dry. That explosion of hedonism had started to turn sour, and, above all, everybody had given a lot, in terms of effort and creativity. So as soon as there was less money going around, the entire thing collapsed on itself, people moved or shut themselves up at home, and Milan went back to being a city of closed courtyards. It died, in a way. And it is still dead today.
Are you saying that the bubble burst when the money ran out, or that the money ran out because the bubble had burst?
Both. The two things are too connected. But it is undeniable that money was the fuel of that period. When the money stopped coming in, everything else stopped too.
Including the fashion media.
Yes, I think so. General media, fashion media, and communication. Everything turned into a soulless homage to other things we had seen before. Think about the era of successive revivals that began after the 80s. For example, even today in most runway shows the music is nothing but a mix of 60s, 70s, and 80s music. It’s a big empty hole. Nothing is exciting anymore, and most things are tremendously boring. Often, the best things are written by unknown editors and journalists, while the big names seem to sign things off with their left hand. Haven’t you noticed that nobody expresses an opinion anymore? I left styling in 1991 and started to live off my writing. I must say I’ve been very lucky in this field. I’ve always had the chance to say what I think.
Your publishers fully support you?
Yes. If a client would complain, my bosses always replied: “If this is what Ms. Molho thinks, this is what we think. Thank you and good-bye.” When I first had this freedom I was pretty much a case history. I was the only fashion reporter for the Sole 24 Ore, and, absurdly, my editorial line allowed the paper to cover the entire advertising for its Sunday supplements. There was a time when quality paid off.
OK, so there was an economic collapse in Milan in 1992, but it is also true that the great characters of the past don’t exist anymore. It seems to me like a lot of people in the fashion industry today are quite incompetent. Everybody has a degree from these so-called fashion institutes that I don’t think even existed in the 80s.
These schools today are pretty useless. They are very theoretical. What do you need theory for? Nothing. What you need is experience, to have lived and seen and done other things in life. I taught for a while and I used to tell my students: “Seeing one picture by Chagall is much more important than reading all the issues of Vogue ever published.”
I didn’t go to any fashion school. I used to draw and write of my own accord, and I entered this world in a very casual manner. And yet, the first job I was offered from the agency was a street casting for a campaign by Oliviero Toscani. You know? I just walked in, they handed me a huge Polaroid camera, patted me on the back, and said, “Go.” And I walked around Milan photographing people. They liked it so much that two days later they had me do the styling for a shoot by Avi Meroz, a great photographer who is unfortunately not being talked much about these days. Together with Gastel and Ferri and company, they did all the biggest ad campaigns in the 80s.
Weren’t you scared? I mean, you literally had no experience.
Of course. I was terrified. They threw me in the deep end. But everybody was way less self-conscious then. I arrived on the set with a huge Samsonite suitcase filled with clothes, without any clue what to do with them. They told me only two things: “First, when you don’t know what to do, have them wear black stockings. Second, use your brain.” I started from there, and thank God, I’m still here.
What was your relationship with all these big-shot photographers? Did they look down on an inexperienced girl?
I remember my first interaction with Avi Meroz. He told me, “Renata, we need a hat. A hat. Do you have a hat?” I had no hat. I panicked. I freaked out, looking for a hat. Then the hair and makeup guy, Antonio, came to the rescue. He knew it was my first big job, so he told me, “Look him straight in the eye and tell him that a hat wouldn’t look good.” And I did that. And Avi believed me. So there was a hierarchy, but there was an egalitarianism, a freshness whereby everybody’s word could be taken. I still think about Antonio and what he said that day. He was a fantastic man and a talented artist. He died of AIDS.
As many others did.
So many. It was a massacre. In hindsight, it was maybe the first big ax that came down on us, annihilating those dreams of omnipotence that fueled our work. It was crazy. Imagine this constant influx of boys who came to Milan from the country, where they lived with their parents in a small house, and a few weeks later they were guests of honor at the Ritz. They couldn’t understand it. It was a whirlwind. There was no information about AIDS and there were no scruples or limits. It was a nonstop party that soon became a bloodbath.
Did many of your friends fall victim to AIDS?
I remember my favorite makeup artist, Giuseppe Ciulla. He was a sweet boy. In a different time he could have come to Milan, become a mechanic, and married a sweet, chubby girl and maybe have had a few issues with his identity—the same ones we all have. But at that time things went differently. He was thrust into this world and he lost his mind. He was such a sweet, bright, enthusiastic, insecure boy. Everybody wanted to tell him to be careful. I saw him change from one week to the next, and it was ghastly. He slowly died over three years. It was so sad.
Something that strikes me about you is your history as a freelancer. Even when you edited Vogue Italia, you only stayed a short while in the office.
I stayed at Vogue for three years. Then I decided to leave and collaborate externally. I have always had a lot of respect for Franca (Sozzani, chief editor of Condé Nast Italy), but, knowing myself, I would have ended up fighting with her constantly. Instead, working from outside, I can have excellent relations with her. Honestly, I am not a desk person, I like having my independence. Obviously, if someone called me and asked me to make my own magazine, with my own team, I would enjoy that. But it has never happened. I have always been asked to direct magazines that are already “done” and, frankly, there doesn’t exist a magazine that I completely identify with.
You wrote the only biography on Armani. How was that?
It was a beautiful experience. Besides the fact that it was Armani, I enjoyed writing a biography. The more you learn about an interesting character, the more you love him or her. That’s why I hope to never have to write a bio of, I don’t know, a Nazi lieutenant.
Did Armani approve the project?
Not to begin with. Everybody who knows his hard, reserved nature asked me if I wasn’t afraid. In my audacity, I was calm. In fact, when he realized that I was going ahead with the project, he opened his archives to me, both the photographic and the written ones. That was wonderful research. In the end, he was full of compliments, and he’s not a man known for giving out kind words.
Yes. And how do you think of him now? He’s always shunned the spotlight.
Studying him and talking to all the people in his life, I think I managed to understand the reasoning behind some of his actions. There’s a telling episode in his life. When his life partner, Sergio Galeotti, died, the only daily that mentioned AIDS was Rome’s Messaggero. Immediately after that, Armani canceled his advertising account with that paper. It became something of a media scandal. Researching him as a person, I see that as an act of love aimed at the preservation of a man’s dignity rather than an act of spite.
One of the best things in the book is how you manage to frame a historical period through one character. You really get that sense of how all things were possible in those years. You read it and realize, “Oh, OK, so this is how Armani became Armani, this is who he was before he became what he is now.”
Yes, I am very satisfied with that part of the book. Think about the episode involving the cover of Time magazine. An American writer discovers Armani’s clothes, decides to fly to Milan to interview him, the editor loves the story, and gives it the cover. Of Time magazine. The Armani myth crossed the ocean.
So if I were to ask you if a new Armani could be born today, what would you say?
My reply would be simple. It won’t happen.
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