Thursday, April 06, 2006

Anna Piaggi: An editor with h-attitude

By Suzy Menkes International Herald Tribune
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5, 2006

LONDON It was "hats off!" to Anna Piaggi, as the legendary Italian editor was in conversation with the milliner Stephen Jones at the Victoria and Albert Museum last week. Piaggi, with a tottering tower of a hat standing out from the surreal black-and-white set, changed headgear as she spoke, from shiny metallic top hat to newspaper- print confection, perched above her signature smoke-blue kiss curl and Clara Bow lips."

English hatmakers for me are really the best - and I feel better if I have a good hat on," said Piaggi, whose work is drawing 4,000 visitors a week to the V & A. "Fashion-ology" (until April 23), devoted to the visual image maker and stylist extraordinaire, is curated by Judith Clark, who presented the Piaggi seminar in conjunction with Jones.

"It is all about the hats - but we are very good friends and really trust each other," said Jones, as the conversation was punctuated with slides of the milliner's creations for Piaggi over 25 years."

But her style is all about Anna - not about the hat," he said. Piaggi proved his point by explaining how she had layered a white work shirt, cream knitted cape and zebra-patterned Manolo Blahnik boots.

Piaggi's wardrobe has become a perambulating treasure of fashion history, and even her scarlet Olivetti Valentine typewriter, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1969, has become iconic.

By the time she was snapped by her current photographer, Bardo Fabiani, in a field of yellow sunflowers in a vivid pink vintage Simonetta cloak in 1994, Piaggi had acquired the objects on the list that opens the show. It makes compelling reading: 265 pairs of shoes, 29 fans, 932 hats, 2,865 dresses, 24 aprons, 31 feather boas - and so much more. The list includes "six Christmas cards from Manolo Blahnik," the haute shoemaker who was at the seminar and whom Piaggi also considers a close friend.

Looking at a wall of images of Piaggi and her theatrical get-ups, it is easy to imagine her as some exotic bird perched on the outpost of fashion. In fact, she has been at its epicenter for nearly 50 years, as a Vogue fashion editor; as editor of Vanity, the avant-garde magazine in which she worked with the illustrator Antonio Lopez in the 1980s; and for the last 18 years in her "Doppie Pagine" or double pages, for Italian Vogue. They are a collage of visual and cultural references sweeping around a current trend.

The fascination of Piaggi the personage is captured in Karl Lagerfeld's sketches of the woman who was part of his tight-knit band in Paris throughout the 1970s. Piaggi's roots go further back to her husband of 30 years, the late photographer Alfa Castaldi, and to her friend and soul mate Vern Lambert. The Australian fashion historian first introduced her to London and to the joy of antique clothing. Vintage finds such as the Simonetta cape are on display, as well as Jean Paul Gaultier's black velvet cornet-breasted dress of 1985.

Piaggi's essence is in that well-worn phrase: "It is all in the mix." A black- and-white 3-D tableau by Richard Gray, who also made the seminar's set, creates a "habitat" for animal-print clothes, while outfits Piaggi wears juxtapose a Vivienne Westwood naughty- school-girl blazer from 1985 with Rifat Ozbek lacy bloomers and a corset- shaped hat by Jones. Her writing - even the press sheets she wrote for Prada and Missoni - contain a mélange of "roses, revers, relief, reversible - and other "fashion with an 'r'." In 7,000 editorial pages and with her warmth, wit and deep culture, Piaggi defines fashion with a piquant "p".

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