One afternoon in the Autumn of 1979 a 17-year old Canadian science student stepped into the Fiorucci store on New York’s east 59th Street during a brief vacation. The experience encouraged Douglas Coupland to ditch physics and embrace art on his return to Montreal. Decades later - now an author and an artist - he reflected on that first time at Fiorucci: ‘(It) was like one beautiful little crystallization of everything you wanted adulthood to be. It was sexy, it was pop, it was fast, it was kind of electric’. The artifact that had such an impact was the one thing he could afford: a postcard image of Twiggy with kohl eyes, pigtails, dressed in the leopard print once synonymous with Elsa Schiaparelli that Fiorucci made its own.
The following year there was an earthquake in Italy. Not on the scale of the Messina Strait tragedy, but arumble south of Naples that registered 6.89 on the richter scale. For those shallow enough to notice - me for one - there was something distinct about the aftermath of this latest catastrophe: survivors wore Fiorucci. Garments had been dispatched by the company to clothe the victims, and there they were among the ruins and the rubble in dayglo parachute jump suits, five-pocket jeansand neon parkas. The birth of the brand itself had brought a tremor to Milan with its launch in 1967. The aftershocks felt for decades afterwards. That’s to say - Fiorucci had impact. That first shop on Galleria Passerella was opened by Italy’s response to Elvis, who arrived by pink cadillac. It’s fins akin to those on Fiorucci shades in the 1970s, when the company became the first fashion brand to produce its own sunglasses. The car and the star were relics from a bygone age in a decade where a counter culture bubbled to the surface. The Rolling Stones were in town making their Italian television debut. While the country’s home grown underground collective of free-loving anarchists, Mondo Beat, were making headlines following their attacks on the papacy. The Milan store was London in full swing. It’s owner, Elio Fiorucci - previously employed at the family shoe shop - stocked it with items from flea markets on Carnaby Street and King’s Road boutiques. The clothes rails crammed with the designs of Ozzie Clarke and Zandra Rhodes. The idea for the shop had come to him during a trip to England two years earlier.
Fiorucci commissioned the sculptor Amalia Del Ponte to design the store, just as Ettore Sottsass -founder of the Milan-based Memphis group of architects and designers - was later enlisted for the hi-tech outlet next to Bloomingdale's on 59th Street. It’s an approach now taken for granted by high-end designers expanding their retail empires - back then it was a novel move. Marc Jacobs a former Saturday boy at the 59th St store has said: ‘Whatever we did, Fiorucci did it first’. ‘Dolce & Gabanna is Fiorucci’, according to the Italian designers, who reprised Fiorucci t-shirts from the 1970s for their 2010 collection. Vivienne Westwood credits him with being ‘the father of us all’. Artists and architects are now part of the fixtures and fittings in concept stores, long after Elio Fiorucci sold the name of his company and those original shops closed. A move that brings a Warhol maxim on the future to mind: ‘All museums will become big stores and all big stores will become museums'.
The second Fiorucci store opened in the same city, on Via Torino in 1974. At the launch, customers were passed plates of Richard-Ginori porcelain. Historic Italianite designs from a Florentine aristocrat two centuries before. On the top of each plate something more associated with a red-wigged clown in a banana-yellow jumpsuit - a hamburger. The original Fiorucci shop had successfully sold London and the mini-skirt to the city. Its founder sold the counter-culture to those that had created it. He made fashionable insurrection into a commercial enterprize. He hit the hippy trail, selling cheap Indian t-shirts and rice sacks madeover as bags. Perfect for that final leap towards the Seventies when The Beatles were in their Maharashi phase, and debutantes were dabbling in some nostalgie de la boie. By 1974, with the opening of the new store Afghan coats were making way for glass beads from New Mexico, and platform wedge sandals with plastic fruit attached. The Brazilian thong and monokini were on their way. Not only did Fiorucci sell fashion in an alternate way to major retail businesses, it sold it in a different way to major fashion houses by encouraging a variety of styles. ‘The age of imposed fashion is over’, Elio Fiorucci informed Amica magazine. ‘Why does someone have to wear beige.... Let everyone dress as they want. That’s why you will never find one single trend in an Fiorucci store - you find hundreds’. But he wasn’t simply selling clothes, he was selling a new kind of concept. The store sold books, furniture, music. There was a gallery, a restaurant, a peforming space. There were three water fountains, and the spicy scent of perfume permeated every floor of the store. The inspiration had again came from London. The seven-storey Biba shop housed in the old Derry & Toms building on Kensington High Street. By 1974, it had tapped into the vogue for vintage clothes, with the gold and black deco-style Biba logo on everything from bags and badges to tins of baked beans. By 1974, Fiorucci was selling America to the Italians. Jeans and t-shirts, thrift shop clothing. Hamburgers on Richard Ginori plates. Some years later Warhol would say: ‘The most glamorous places in Italy are McDonalds and Fiorucci’.
Biba closed its doors in 1975. My one and only trip thereoccurred in the spring of that year. The darkened rooms that made shoplifting a cinch, the bins of clothes, the asthenic male shop assistants on the make-up counters with hula hoop jumpers in humbug colours and a sibilant S on their lips. Biba closed. Fiorucci opened. The decade earlier when King’s Road was in its element, Fiorucci had sold the idea of it to Italy. It now arrived with a brand of its own - on that very same stretch of road. The content tapped into the mood with the vintage and thrift shop theme, alongside the plastic and the neon, the metallic and the phosphorescent. It was a lifestyle store - another first? - for those in the know. It was for those in the margins, on the outside. Those keen to raid the dressing up box. Ultimately, those in the run-down far flung postcodes on the other side of the river and beyond. The landlocked teens - me, again - that looked longingly beyond the new brutalist housing estate at the top of their street, to a bigger London that housed Fiorucci, King’s Road, Biba's Art Deco Rainbow Rooms in darkness and gathering dust. The good life was out there somewhere.
This experience was not unique but something of a rites of passage. The search for an idea of culture, glamour, luxury for those growing up in the small town that Lou Reed once sang about, or born on the wrong side of the tracks. In ‘Seattle 74’, the opening essay in his compact 2014 collection ‘Loitering’, Charles D'Ambrosio captures it perfectly: ‘Anyone born in geographical exile, anyone from the provinces, anyone for whom the movements of culture feel rumoured, anyone like this grows up anxiously aware that all the innovative and vital events in the world happen Back East, like way back, like probably France, but before expatriation can be accomplished in fact it is rehearsed and performed in the head. You make yourself clever and scoffing, ironic, deracinated, cold and quick to despise...'
For those of us so far off the cultural map in the brutalist and brutalised landscape of south east London, anchored closer to the dockside Thames and closer to the Old Kent Road (the cheapest street on the Monopoly board), it wasn’t France or America, but simply over the river and the west end post code of King’s Road in particular that housed those sought after vital events. But equally, months after Fiorucci opened its doors there in 1975 it was Roxy Music at Wembley Empire Pool. Where the audience were a snapshot of what Eve Babtiz alludes to in her bumper 1980 text Fiorucci: The Book : 'What Fiorucci has done is to capture a kind of international idea of teen-age promise and bottle it. Fiorucci’s aim, the illusion it creates, is that all your conventional reservations and stubborn navy blues are nothing more than prissy hangovers from a past life that is no longer useful. We’re going to have to live on what’s left, to recycle the remnants of things past, to survive’. So, yes, an audience stacked with those that shopped at Biba, Swanky Modes, Fiorucci, and raided jumble sales too numerous to mention. Someone dressed as Marilyn. (Cast in my memory as a Warhol Marilyn). That bloke there with the red and black pyjama shirt, Dali moustache and gold cowboy boots (something that Fiorucci would move in on with the opening of the New York store, at$110 a throw). With the encore over and the lights up, it was back to life, back to reality.
So back to those slate grey streets, where summer and every season was one of discontent. Navigating those familiar, weatherbeaten turnings where Turks - tank tops, scuffed platforms and ankle-swinging flares - in the condemned tenements on Munton Road were stealing the bikes of a new generation of kids, painting them up and selling them on (as an older generation had stolen mine). And their mothers still never spoke English. On the walkways and the stairwells of the new estate Irish Catholic boys - bowling shirts and South Sea Bubble jeans, a hangover from an earlier northern soul summer - who thought they were gangsters, and finger fucked girls that had barely reached their teens. The big families scattered around who actually were. The names of those families that were feared, by reputation and rumour, more than anything else: the Pimms, the Marnies, the Moodies, the Brindles. The shopping centre after hours. The subways all hours. How far is Shangri-la from here? Wembley Empire Pool, in khaki army greens and a St Moritz between the lips. Scoffing, ironic, deracinated, cold and quick to despise...
Hope sprang internal: Generally, you had to rely on the local. For those in the know the references came from Honey, Over 21 (Ritz and Interview were beyond our grasp), dwarfed by copies of Exchange & Mart and Forum on the shelves of local newsagents. Within these pages the mention of the fashionable stores elsewhere - Sex, Browns, Plaza, Acme Attractions, Fiorucci. Oases on a distant shore. Back, back in those slate grey streets we hunted down anything that showed signs of promise.
By the following year these were apparent at Cactus the men’s hairdressers on Old Kent Road opposite the Thomas A Beckett pub, where the boxers of tomorrow worked out in the gym above, and those from the past spent their weekends propping up the bar below. Painted tombstone grey inside, and if my memory serves me well seats to wait in that were removed from a car. A far cry from the local barber.
‘Why don’t you model?, they asked. ‘Then you don’t have to pay’.
It was the Bowie-orange hair, the natural ginger that swung it. They were there, three of them; one of them was him - the moustachioed, pyjama-clad, cowboy-booted man at the Roxy concert. Then, an asthenic man named Michael with dyed-red carrot top, Thomas Newton’s pallor, a cap-sleeve Fiorucci t-shirt, and the sibilant S last heard on the glossed lips of a Biba counter boy.
‘Great hair, great colour’, he said. ‘You should model for us. We can try things out’, he added, reaching for the ‘Closed’ sign. I felt like Rapunzel. I felt like I was being groomed - but in a good way.
It was probably the first sign ever that I was told I had something - something that was there all along, that had been a curse, that had made me stand out, underlined my difference as a queer - in the wider sense of the word back then - outsider. A fey, skinny hairdresser confirmed what pop and fashion had informed me from the wider world beyond these walls, that sometimes the outside may be an isolated place to stay grounded….. but it can be the perfect runway from which to take flight.
I had a similar epiphany to Douglas Coupland two years later, in the spring of 1977. For me it was Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, placed beside the till at Fiorucci on King’s Road. That same year the grander, iconic stateside store on the upper east side was the venue for the re-launch of the magazine; Warhol shared autograph duties with Truman Capote. The pair of them seated in the shop window in which German countertenor Klaus Nomi would soon establish himself as a living sculpture. It was this store rather than the poor relation in London that wasproof of the line that Eve Babitz felt summed up the Fiorucci experience. It was ‘the whole of the twentieth century in one place’.
Many a reader thought the pop genre portraits on the cover were the work of the master. They weren’t. These are from the hand of another artist, an oil painter and illustrator. He created them at his home and studio, housed in the old ballroom of the Chelsea hotel. Here he had lived since the early 1960s, when it became a hangout for Warhol’s Factory fodder and the setting for the film Chelsea Girls: Richard Bernstein. The photographs, portraits, on its covers were airbrushed, exaggerated, touched up and tweaked with pencils and paints in pastel shades. Reminiscent of movie star cigarette cards prevalent in the post-war years. (Bernstein was commissioned to designposters for Fiorucci in a similar style). Paloma Picasso noted that with the ‘Bernstein look’, things were ‘stronger, faster and further’. Similar could be said of the store in which the magazine was sold, and King’s Road itself that season. There was little else in the shop I could afford. There was nothing officially catering for boys. The Fiorucci collection for men - ‘Classic Nouveau’ - arrived a decade later. By which time the shop, the brand, and the sensibilities it was associated with - Interview, Studio 54 (Fiorucci organised the opening) - were something else, somewhere else……………. to me, at least. But on that unusually bright afternoon in February 1977, a fortnight after my sixteenth birthday, I knew that when I left school at the end of the summer term I was not only steppingout into a world of numerous other postcodes in which I had only thus far dipped my toe, I was shedding the shackles of adolescence, the limitations of local colour, and heading towards tomorrow. I too had seen the future, and, yes, it was sexy, pop, fast and kind of electric.
For Elio Fiorucci (1935 - 2015)