To mark the death of one of Italy’s most influential designers – and owner of the 70s fashion scene’s go-to hangout spot – Brooke McCord retells the story of Elio Fiorucci, and how he made style lovers the world over that little bit more hardcore.
Taken from the 10th Birthday Issue of Wonderland.
“Fiorucci is the name of a man, the name of a look, the name of a business. A phenomenon. Walking into a Fiorucci store is an event. Milan. New York. London. Boston. Beverly Hills. Tokyo. Rio. Zurich. Hong Kong. Sydney. Fiorucci is Fashion. Fiorucci is flash. Fiorucci stores are the best free show in town. The music pulses; the espresso is free; the neon glows. Even the salespeople are one step beyond – they often wear fiery red crew cuts. But it is, after all is said and done, a store – a store designed to sell clothes. But the difference is all that sex and irony.Anyone who knows anything can see that finally the entire operation is motivated by the very same energy that lights the fire under rock ‘n’ roll.” – Eve Babitz, 1980.
Elio Fiorucci inspired a generation. 35 years on since Babitz wrote Fiorucci, The Book and just three months since his passing, the man’s legacy lives strong. So much more than just a clothing brand, a trend, or even a subculture, Fiorucci was, and still is, a way of life. There’s not one culturally-conscious person who hasn’t somehow let Fiorucci’s kitsch, pop-y graphics, sexed-up design and irreverent attitude into their psyche. Think fluffy handcuffs, breast-skimming namesake tees, primary-hued robots and juicy cherries designed by Franco Marabelli. For Americans it was foreign, mysterious, Italian; for Europeans it was the epitome of club-culture cool; for the rest of the world it was the future, it was aspirational, it was the teen dream, powered by Fiorucci.
It’s crazy to think Fiorucci built his empire with no design training. Born in Milan in 1935, Fiorucci’s father Vincenzo Fiorucci owned a shoe shop where Fiorucci Jr started working aged 17. Approaching a Milanese style title at the age of 27 – three pairs of plastic shoes in hand – Fiorucci bargained with the editor for magazine columns, and as a result the brand with a strict no- advertisement policy went viral overnight. Of course, to advertise would undermine the power of Fiorucci. In 1967 in Italy, there were no radio stations. If you wanted to hear rock n’ roll, you went to the Fiorucci store. Fiorucci was all about firsts (gold lamé, fishnet tights and those see-through plastic jeans). Having visited the Biba store on Carnaby Street, London, at the dawn of the 70s, and familiarised himself with Mary Quant’s mini-skirt, Fiorucci returned to Italy with a mission: to free women’s knees. The thigh-skimming skirts that Fiorucci’s team designed were all the rage, sales were booming. By the time 1974 came rolling in, Italy’s largest multinational corporation Montedison caught wind of Fiorucci’s work and bought a 50 percent stake in the business. Fiorucci himself started sending scouts worldwide to report back on global trends (who can be thanked for thong bikinis and Afghan coats), and the family store in Milan paved the way for stores and franchises worldwide.As Babitz puts it: “The Fiorucci people are information junkies. They gather information the way squirrels gather nuts. Everything – the clothes, the graphics, the store fixtures – is all derivative.”
Picture downtown New York in 1976. Fiorucci opened a store on East 59th street, just down the block from Ford Modelling Agency and Paul Rudolph’s house. His world was complete.With resident DJs spinning tracks daily, drag-artist Joey Arias flirting with a clientele that included Cher, Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor, free espresso in Fiorucci-branded cups on tap and Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine office up top, the store became a hang-out for the infamous Studio 54 crowd during daylight (AKA non- clubbing) hours. “I ended up working [at Fiorucci] by chance when I was about 16,” explains Jim Waldrod, Fiorucci’s downtown shop-boy-cum-art-director.“I was going for a job as a stock-boy in Bloomingdales, so I was walking down the street and I ran into Benjamin Liu and Andy Warhol, who were handing out copies of Interview and signing them.They were both sort of goofing around me and asking me what I was doing. I was like, ‘I’ve just been to a job interview over there’. They were like, ‘Go in that [Fiorucci] store opposite and they’ll hire you. We’ll stand up at the window and wave, just tell them we sent you’. So I did and they hired me.” Switching from shop assistant to Assistant Art Director, Waldrod is now a world-renowned design guru. As Waldrod saw it, Fiorucci was out of context for Americans at the time, it was like nothing they’d ever seen before. “It may as well have come from Mars,” laughs Waldrod. “We had no connection to it,Americans are dumb and for that store to have landed there and to become a breeding ground in that way, was really kind of special and amazing. It was a whole lifestyle: the clothing never really sold, we would have ten dollar sales to shift stock, but every single person who worked there found themselves really lucky that they were in the middle of something. It wasn’t lost on anyone, it really wasn’t.”
By this point, Fiorucci’s cherubs were shooting hearts worldwide and emerging designers and artists like Anna Sui, Betsey Johnson, Keith Haring and a teenage Marc Jacobs were all part of the venture, each of their designs stocked in the store. Maripol was on-board as Art Director, Sister Sledge were singing about Fiorruci in “He’s the Greatest Dancer” in 1979 and Madonna was wearing his designs on stage. “His mention was included due to his influence in inspiring our generation with such fabulous high-fashion,” recalls Joni Sledge. “We were the young ‘dance revolutionaries’ and absolutely everything about Elio’s designs fit that category. There was this avant-garde expression of freedom, fun and passion in this work that aligned with the aesthetic of the disco movement perfectly. Wearing Fiorucci made you feel alive.” With Thunderbirds-esque mini skirts and lightning-bolt- lipstick print dresses on offer, it was sure to get you noticed, too. “The sexiest dress I have ever owned and will own came from his store, and his beautiful imagination. It was a sassy-but-classy, black knee-length number,with three-quarter length sleeves and this beautiful deep plunging neckline,”continues Sledge. “It was skin tight and stretched in all directions. I loved it so much that I bought one in white, too.”
It wasn’t just the disco-kids that Fiorucci was dressing. Over in Ibiza, the acid-house movement was kicking off and those discovering ecstasy for the first time were shuffling around Amnesia, to the sound of Paul Oakenfold and Nicky Holloway, wearing nothing but Fiorucci shorts. Thanks to a licensing deal with Wrangler, and the introduction of Lycra in 1982, Fiorucci’s stretch denim was all the rage as long as you were skinny. He once said,“To manufacture only small sizes is doing a favour to humanity. I prevent ugly girls from showing off their bad figures…” The largest size ever known to be stocked in his stores was a size ten. Riding high until the close of his New York flagship in the late 80s, it was in 1989 that Fiorucci went into administration and it wasn’t until 2003 that he resumed business under the Love Therapy moniker.
In 1999, Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey released a short film, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, that documented the various phases of the UK club scene. “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore was a piece of graffiti that I saw in a photograph of Studio 54 in the late 70s,” explains Leckey. “I thought it a beautiful expression of how something other than religion, or even music, could inspire something approaching true faith. And that something being a commercial product, a gaudy brand of jeans and t-shirts.” Leckey’s film was later sampled in Jamie xx’s video for his 2014 hit “All Under One Roof Raving” – the Fiorruci fashions that carried through to the warehouse rave scene of the 80s and 90s are still being referenced today. Fiorucci died July 20 2015, just over a month past his 80th birthday, and if your Instagram feed wasn’t filled with the best of his graphics, stickers and campaigns, you need to reconsider who you follow. Concludes Babitz poignantly: “Fiorucci is the name of a man, the name of a look, the name of a business. A phenomenon.” RIP Fiorucci.
Words: Brooke McCord