Antonio Lopez is best know for his vibrantly animated fashion illustrations, but he did so much more than just draw leggy models in pretty dresses. As New York’s El Museo del Barrio's new exhibit Future Funk Fashion demonstrates, Lopez's work reflected his diverse range of influences, from high art to street style, and he sketched his subjects with an empathy not often shown to models of color. In his illustrations, fashion is rescued from its worst tendencies— elitism, cultural scavenging— and revels in its best—innovation, collaboration, and an exploration of identity.
Born in 1943 on a Puerto Rican horse farm, Lopez moved with his family to East Harlem in 1950. He met his life-long creative partner, Juan Ramos, as a student at FIT. They shared a a similar aesthetic vision and a similar biography— like Lopez, Ramos was born in Puerto Rico and emigrated to New York as a child. Ramos would serve as creative director of Antonio’s work for decades.
Lopez created illustrations for publications like Vogue, The New York Times, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar. Fashion illustration was was already yielding to photography by the 60s, but Lopez and Ramos injected life into a fading form. “When I came into fashion illustration, it was a dead art,” Lopez would later say. “Real boring, catalog-y, very WASPy. I gave it a transfusion."
Lopez and Ramos’s collaborations with designers, models, artists, and street culture pioneers led to illustrations that leap off the page. To create the exhibit, El Museo curator Rocio Aranda Alvarado teamed up with Chicana/o scholar Amelia Malagamba-Ansótegui to pour through the archives of Lopez and Ramos’s work. “Amelia spent a lot of time reading [Lopez’s] diaries, says Rocio. “We mined through photographs and all kinds of ephemeral materials."
The resulting exhibit features many pieces that were never previously published or publicly shown, creating a fully-realized account of Lopez’s artistic vision. El Museo’s exhibit forefronts Lopez’s perspective as a gay Latino, and many of the works speak to his appreciation of the male form, a figure usually sidelined in the world of fashion illustration. Impossibly chiseled Tom of Finland-esque musclemen round out the world of female beauties that occupy his traditional fashion illustrations.
The exhibit also highlights the importance of models of color to the duo's work. Rocio says that Lopez “saw beauty in the black body before other publications were interested in it.” Working with models like Grace Jones and Tina Chow, Lopez forced diversity into otherwise lily-white fashion magazines. A favorite technique of his was submitting his work at the last possible minute, leaving no time for censorship or editing because the publication had to go to print.
And Lopez didn’t just admire brown bodies—he drew great inspiration from the works of fellow artists and innovators of color. Breakdancers were particularly influential. Lopez befriended the legendary b-boys of the Bronx’s Rock Steady Crew, even inviting them to be part of his lectures at FIT. Their dance moves and fashions were woven into Lopez’s illustrations, says Rocio. While the models may be wearing high-fashion ensembles, “details reveal the influence of breaking culture and street style,” whether through hand gestures that imitate the popping moves of break dance, or studded leather trousers that recall the breaker’s style.
Lopez tragically died from AIDS-related complications in 1987, as Ramos would seven years later. But during their far too brief careers, their expansive vision of beauty and style helped move fashion towards more diversity and away from its sometimes vulture-like relationship with street culture.
The only surprise is that it took this long for El Museo to create an exhibit of their work—Lopez is a hometown hero, and grew up in the same East Harlem neighborhood in which the museum is located. “The stars were aligned this year," says Rocio, "And it seemed like a perfect opportunity to do something that we've been thinking about for a long time."
Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion will be exhibited at El Museo del Barrio until November 26th. For more information, click here.