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The Fashion Issue 2009

The Curious Case Of Grandpa Button

For all I know, “fashion” means trying to sort out a decent look out of two H&M rags and a couple of things I stole from my mom.

by Serena Pezzato, Tommaso Fiscaletti
Mar 2 2009, 12:00am
Interview By Serena Pezzato
Photos By Tommaso Fiscaletti

Franco Jacassi surrounded by ten million buttons. This is what he had to say about his leather jacket: “I love this jacket. It's a riff on the traditional smoking jacket. Once I sold it to a boy who wore it perfectly. The next day he returned it, saying his girlfriend didn't like it. I suggested he dump her.”

For all I know, “fashion” means trying to sort out a decent look out of two H&M rags and a couple of things I stole from my mom, which is perhaps part of the reason why I got the willies as soon as I did some preliminary research on Franco Jacassi. Having assumed that Signor Jacassi, aka Mister Button, aka the man with the largest private collection of buttons in the world, was going to be a dusty historian with maybe a dash of the quirky collector, I was somewhat taken aback when I found out that he is very much the fashion cognoscenti. One of the most important collectors of vintage―not just buttons―in the entire planet, Jacassi is something of an unsung legend in the world of Milanese fashion. Here was a man who, in his life, had lent a hand to the likes Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, Donna Karan and Karl Lagerfeld, simply by allowing them to nitpick through his mountains of drawers, to scour his veritable cornucopia of fashion oddities and memorabilia, in search of a flash of inspiration, or just something to rip off.

Fortunately, my performance anxiety was put to rest once I met the Jacassi family. When I first stepped through the doors of Vintage Delirium, his shop, I was greeted by Franco's son, a huge kid who looked like Fat Joe, and by his girlfriend, Monica, a very normal down-to-earth girl. Turns out they are nice, pleasant, unintimating people, who simply carry a fashion encyclopaedia in their mindgrapes and work surrounded by floor-to-ceiling archives filled with ten million different types of buttons and countless other brooches, laces, buckles, handbags, and belts, all sorted in a somewhat esoteric fashion, like a library of cuteness, or a Borgesian haberdasher. Mr. Jacassi soon walked in, one thing lead to the next, and bam― there we were, just two regular people talking about buttons and the history of buttons, amidst a gimongous collection of buttons.

Vice: How did you first get into vintage clothing?

Franco Jacassi:
It's a long story, a 30-year-old story. In 1971 I opened a modern art gallery in Vercelli, a town between Milan and Turin. I didn't deal in fashion at the time. It all began when some of my clients who were players in fashion, like Sergio Loro Piana and Gimmo Etro, asked me to do some historical resaerch for them. I started travelling the world to document different textile traditions, and I started rummaging through old fashion magazines. As I travelled, I would often bump into small haberdasheries that sold buttons and laces and tailors that stocked wonderful cloths, and that's how I started buying up everything I could find, even entire stocks. At this point, my clients didn't even need the stuff. I just did it for my own obscure pleasure.

So fashion wasn't your first love.

No, I studied sociology― a subject that, after all, often analyzes the relationship between societal structures and clothing. I never cared to be a designer or anything of the like. The shop I opened here in Milan in 1986 is an atelier that specializes in research, where people in the fashion industry come to find inspiration, stimuli, or to do historical documentation for their lines. It's not very different from a library. But it's filled with clothes. And buckles, belts, handbags, buttons...

Talking about that, how did your particular passion for buttons develop?

Actually, my love for buttons is older than my interest in fabrics or garments. I think it began with the fact that my stepmom was a seamstress, and as a child I spent a lot of time with her, playing with whatever I could put my hands on. Like buttons. I liked red buttons. I don't know why, but I imagined them as Napoleon's soldiers. I used to play button war, with different colors playing the role of different armies. I liked their colors, I liked how they reflected light, I liked the snapping sound they made against wood surfaces...

Yeah, buttons have an amazing sound!

They do. The thing I prefer is when, at conventions, you're awash in this deafening rustle, the sound of hundreds of people scouring through thousands of boxes filled with buttons. It's priceless.

Tell me a bit about the history of buttons.

It's interesting, in almost every archeological dig they find buttons. In the Mediterranean, ancient peoples, especially the Romans, mostly used fibulae, ancient brooches, because the climate didn't require people to cover themselves up too much. The first buttons arrived here with the Barbarians, the Germanic peoples who lived in the cold and had to find a way to not freeze to death. But perhaps the most interesting thing about buttons is that they have always been more than just a way to unite two strips of cloth. In the 18th century, their function was almost entirely cosmetic: the richest people of the time had a sort of open challenge as to who had the most important, expensive buttons sewed on their cuffs, as if they were medals. They would commission the best artisans and painters to decorate them.

They were an indicator of social status.

Certainly. To the point that there were specific laws that prohibited the commoners from sewing more than 50 silver buttons on their jackets―to prevent them from giving an impression of unmerited aristocracy. The number of buttons worn was a sort of declaration of wealth. They flaunted them. That's why, in Italian, the rooms that hold meetings between powerful people are called “stanze dei bottoni,” or “rooms of the buttons.”

Wow. Were buttons used for other non-functional-to-the-closing-of-your-pants activities?

Absolutely. They were used as currency: when travellers ran out of money, they would detach a button from their jackets and use them to pay for things. Another funny story related to buttons is one about Frederick the Great, who allegedly forced his troops to sew buttons on their sleeves so they wouldn't be able to wipe their noses with them. You also had portait buttons that were painted with the faces of your loved ones, and that soldiers would sew on the inside of their uniforms to keep their lover next to their hearts so that nobody besides themselves could see it.

How romantic. Men used to be much more sentimental.

Well, if you consider all the lace, the leggings, the decorative buttons, and the jewelry, men used to be much more adorned, accesorized, and frou-frou than today. Buttons were a completely male accessory for centuries. Women were much more somber in their garb. In the Middle Ages the female body was something to hide and protect, so much so that women used to sew their clothes shut in the morning and undo the sewing at night. Buttons weren't used on women because they implied easy access to their bodies, an opening. Around the 19th century they began appearing on women's wear, in the form of an endless line of straps and buttons. Quite complicated, but it was at least somewhat of an opening to the body.

So the proliferation of buttons can be seen as a sexual-liberation barometer?

Of course! A sexual liberation that reaches its apogee with the zipper, i.e., the easiest possible way to undress someone. In my entire career as a fashion collector, only once I considered collecting material concerning zippers. But they are so boring! They are all identical. Where's the fun in that?

Plus, zippers are dangerous.

Ah. Yes. I don't use them very much. I wear pants with buttons. I find them more romantic, more solid. And much cuter.

For sure. “Cute as a button” is one of my favorite figures of speech in English.

Well, “button” has a double connotation, both positive and negative, and both stem from the idea of buttons being tiny. You can say something “isn't worth a button,” and at the same time that someone is “as cute as a button.” The concept of the button is very versatile and can be applied to anything. It's what made buttons huge in communication, marketing, and advertising, and also in literature. And again, it's incredible to think all of this comes from a tiny circle of wood, glass, porcelain, or horn.

So what designers were most into playing with buttons?

About buttons Christian Dior used to say, “The detail is as important as the essential. When it is unfortunate, it destroys everything.” Moschino also took the role of the button very seriously, up to the point of creating musical or political buttons with messages like “Save Nature” flashing on them. He was a genius.

Last question: How many buttons do you actually own?

I have around ten million in this atelier, and they are all on sale. My personal collection, which I will never sell, counts around 70,000 choice cuts.

Whoa. Well, thanks for your time, Mister Button.

Mister Button? At this age, to quote my granddaughter, I should better be known as Grandpa Button.

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