Franco Moschino: ‘I’m not a fashion designer’

This “garbage bag” dress wasn’t the only one Moschino created; he tended to return to and rework a handful of themes. The Mint show highlights six.
This “garbage bag” dress wasn’t the only one Moschino created; he tended to return to and rework a handful of themes. The Mint show highlights six.

He ridiculed the very industry that sustained him.

“Irreverent” is probably the word most associated with him, and it’s easy to imagine him doing a cameo in “Zoolander,” Ben Stiller’s send-up of the fashion world.

Italian designer Franco Moschino (muss-KEE-no), who died in 1994, once created a ballgown from garbage bags (it’s in this exhibition!) and used the smiley face as a signature element in his couture designs. But he was more than a rebel. Loyalists say Moschino was less enfant terrible and more a quiet humanitarian who let his clothes do his talking.

To be preoccupied with the wild, often cartoonish (literally: cartoons were a frequent motif) designs is to miss that he was also a master tailor, fans say. His designs were more than fun. They fit. Beautifully.

The Mint Museum Uptown has staged the first American retrospective of the internationally known designer’s work, titled “Viva Moschino!” About 40 iconic ensembles are featured in the exhibition, which opened Oct. 29, led to immediate mentions in Vogue and other national media – and began with a Charlottean who came to dinner.

Setting the table

In 2013, Charlotte’s Deidre Grubb arrived at the opening of the Mint’s “FOOD” exhibition wearing what the museum’s Annie Carlano recalls now as “a surreal dinner jacket.”

Designed by Moschino for his “Show Off” couture collection in fall 1989, the piece – yes, that’s real cutlery down the bodice – makes nearly every contemporary story written about Moschino, as evidence of his unconventional aesthetic.

Carlano, the Mint’s senior curator of craft, design and fashion, was intrigued.

“It sparked a series of conversations,” she says, with longtime Mint benefactor Grubb, “…and visits to see her mom’s and other collections in the Midwest.”

(Even Grubb’s dad, Jim Mills, has Moschino in his closet. “My mother has always dressed my father,” Grubb said.)

While many women wouldn’t be caught dead in their mothers’ clothes – think: “Mom jeans” – Grubb proudly says: “I dress like my mom ... I like watching trends, but I stay true to dressing in what flatters me.” Grubb says her mother was drawn to Moschino’s clothes not so much for their sense of irony or humor but for their “flattering, feminine fit.”

“If Moschino had made boxy or baggy clothes, Mom wouldn’t have worn them,” Grubb says. And she uses a surprising adjective to describe his style: timeless.

Vicki Mills, Grubb’s mother, shares her love of Moschino with friend and fellow Chicago-area resident Lynda Yost, who also happens to be one of the country’s most prolific Moschino collectors. (Most of the exhibition comes from the collections of these two women, with additional pieces from Deidre Grubb and daughter, Rosalie.)

Says Yost: “Vicki and I have been friends since 1984, the year of Moschino’s first collection.”

Yost, raised Amish, went on to become president of three different companies, including Hand Dryer Corp. She believes her “outrageous fashion choices” stem from having to wear her Amish uniform (made from a feed sack!) as a child.

“Moschino tailored his clothes for an Italian figure – petite and curvy. French designers typically design for a woman who’s straight up and down and flat-chested.”

Behind-the-scenes Moschino

Yost says she got to know Moschino, the man, over the course of becoming one of his most avid collectors. She describes him as “religious, quiet, reserved” and a “caring, loving person.”

Calling him “ahead of his time,” she notes he was among the first to use ad campaigns to promote a social agenda. He was an early advocate for “green” fashion production, and in his last collection, introduced a line made with environmentally responsible materials.

Of looks and hemlines, please don’t chatter. It’s other things that really matter.

Franco Moschino, rhyming in 1991

He was also an animal rights activist. He frequently used farm animal motifs in his clothing. Yost, raised on a farm, relates to that. He was known to use religious symbols and imagery in his clothing, and Yost insists he was a devout Catholic who wasn’t using that imagery ironically.

Though he designed clothes perfect for parties, she says he also made apparel appropriate for the board room. One of her favorite business looks of his is a simple, navy blue suit – with smiley-face buttons.

Seeing the clothes she’s worn in a museum is nothing new for her; some of her collection is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example. She’s also begun outfitting some Hollywood A-listers. Stylists know about Yost’s collection and come to her when they need to dress a client for the red carpet; Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and Jada Pinkett Smith have all worn Yost’s “hand-me-downs,” she said.

“I’m almost 70, and I don’t have children,” she says, and wants to ensure her collection, which she considers art, gets placed.

Fashion as art as fashion

Why offer this retrospective now?

Cultural historians and fashion scholars are re-examining the 1980s, says the Mint’s Carlano, and an American – Kansas City-born Jeremy Scott, 40 – became creative director of the Moschino fashion house recently; his first show was last fall.

The brand has also seen a resurgence in recent years, with fans as diverse as Kylie Minogue and Michelle Obama. (She’s worn a surprising amount of Moschino, even given her penchant for flouting the first-ladies-should-wear-American-designers rule so long in effect. She wore it so often early on, in fact, that the Washington Post’s fashion writer wrote a whole column about it, noting she wore Moschino to meet the pope, and that “A coral-colored jacket with a pleated swing back and a matching skirt made an appearance during the ‘You lie!’ address to Congress.”)

High fashion has proven, too, that it can have broad appeal staged in an art museum: The Met’s Alexander McQueen retrospective in 2011 proved to be nearly as popular as its Picasso and Van Gogh retrospectives; a quirky, well-reviewed Azzedine Alaia display in Rome’s Borghese Gallery just ended; and the Mint itself has featured both Halston (in context with Warhol) and an assortment of designers (jewelry, clothing and more in “Body Embellishment”) in 2015 exhibitions.

Moschino once said: “I’m not a fashion designer. I’m a painter, a decorator.”

He mocked people who wore what “fashion” dictated, and often designed pieces to underline that mockery: A man’s white shirt, for example, with cartoonishly long sleeves that wrapped around the body, straitjacket-style, with the words “For Fashion Victims Only” on the back.

It’s a statement reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which was an upside-down urinal. Or Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe with the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” painted beneath. (Translation: “This is not a pipe.”)

Whether you think of Moschino’s designs as outrageous or timeless works of art (or both), they’re undeniably playful.

And if just viewing the collection is fun, imagine what it’s like to wear the clothes. As Grubb said: “I never meet a stranger when I’m in Moschino.”

Ken Downing, fashion director and senior vice president for Neiman Marcus (whose Charlotte store stocks Moschino for men from the mid $100s for tees to $2,000 for outerwear), revered Moschino in an email:

“Franco Moschino (understood) the social influences of his times. Popular culture, models, music, artists, movies and more were fodder for his humor-infused collections.

“No other fashion house brings the tongue-in-cheek chic that Moschino brings to the fashion scene.”

Carlano agrees. Asked what contemporary designers are heirs to Moschino, she declares: “He has none.”

Yost says, in a phrase that might delight Moschino himself, that his designs will never go out of style – “because they were never in style in the first place.”

Want to go?

The first American retrospective of Franco Moschino’s work – “Viva Moschino!” – is at the Mint Museum Uptown through April 3.

Moschino (1950-1994) infused his designs with humor, irony and, at times, rebelliousness. Drawn primarily from two private collections as well as institutional loans and the Mint’s own fashion collection, the exhibition highlights the Italian designer’s heyday between 1983 and 1994, when celebrities loved to be seen wearing his designs. The Mint’s Annie Carlano, senior curator of craft, design and fashion, said the audience for this exhibition is “everyone.”

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