Moschino: Fun is the Message
“Fashion should be fun, and it should send a message. I like to use clothes as billboards.”
- Franco Moschino
An irreverent wit and a love for the surreal were the foundation of Franco Moschino’s oeuvre and proved to be his route to fashion fame. Twenty-four years after his death (from complications due to AIDS) his eponymous house continues, revitalized and strengthened in recent years under the creative directorship of Jeremy Scott. Hired in 2013, his new Moschino combines reworkings of Franco’s signature tropes with fresh, commercial ideas. Bringing a very corn-fed, mass-market American tinge to the ultra-Italian aesthetic of Moschino (he is from Kansas, after all), Scott has cleverly found novel ways to introduce the label to contemporary youth while still honoring his predecessor’s legacy.
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Born in post-war northern Italy to a family that owned an iron foundry, Franco Moschino fled his lineage to study fine art in Milan. In order to pay for his studies Franco took on freelance fashion illustration work, which led to a job illustrating and textile designing for Gianni Versace when he graduated in 1971. The hands-on contact and close analysis of garments necessary for fashion illustration happened to be a vital training ground for fashion design itself—by 1977 he had started his own freelance design company. In the following years Moschino designed the ready-to-wear collection of the Parisian company Dejac, the Hamilton line for Nordic Furs, the Davidoff shirt line for Ascam and Lory of Florence, the Albinea line, and later the Piano line for Max Mara, the Matti fur line, Blumarine knitwear and Armonia swimwear. From 1978 to 1982 he was also head designer for the Italian label Cadette. By 1983 Franco was established and respected within the Italian fashion industry, a well-situated position from which to launch his own fashion line, Moschino Couture.
Almost immediately Moschino found acclaim for his tongue-in-cheek (or shall we say, “tongue-in-chic”?) designs that often skewered the very same fashion crowd he showed to. For him nothing was worse than a fashion victim, who lived and shopped by the decrees of remote fashion designers and editors: “Some people don’t have enough money to buy Armani. So they try in their own little way to imitate that look—with fake or copied Armani. I hate that kind of fashion. Why do it? Clothes are just fabric and buttons—you’re not buying dreams or happiness. Don’t be desperate about it,” He told WWD in 1985. He sought to educate the fashion press, buyers and clients about the world outside fashion, those people who just threw together outfits without a thought, by showing each look in his A/W 1985 collection on two models—one dressed as if by a serious pret-a-porter designer and the other as if she were a girl on the street. In 1994 a shirt printed with “For fashion victims only” was paraded down the catwalk with the arms tied—Moschino’s commentary on fashion as a straightjacket. Captivated by his irony and wit, fashionistas clambered to buy his most outlandish outfits—including the famed “dinner jacket” embellished with actual pieces of cutlery (1989) and a tight black dress trimmed with teddy bears (1988).
Moschino often found his personal views at odds with his chosen industry. In 1989 he told an interviewer at New York Magazine, “Fashion is absolutely tacky. Being fashionable is not positive at all. Fashion is over. Let’s talk about something worthwhile. Fashion kills people. It is Fascism. As a designer, I have to convince you to change—to cut your hair, to change the frames of your glasses. You’re a creature of the fashion system, a Muppet, not yourself.” Moschino felt that everything in fashion had already been done, that something completely new was impossible—as he told WWD in 1985, “New colors don’t exist, and the good cuts have already been invented.” Where some designers would view this as a depressing sentence, Franco instead saw it as an opportunity–instead of worrying about innovation he could focus on beautifully made, flattering clothes that broadcast a message or brought joy. Peace signs and smiley faces (printed, appliqued, on buttons or as cutouts) spoke Franco’s message across all languages, as did his charming use of comic strips and cartoons, chains, cow prints (and cows), question marks, and trompe-l'œil. Italian themes reappeared often—il Tricolore, a traditional Italian milk container as a bag, pizza prints.
Expanding his message from a commentary on the fashion industry, Moschino began to use his designs a method of broadcasting about social issues. Clothing, ad campaigns and runway shows raised awareness of drug abuse, climate change, violence, consumerism, pollution, racism, and the AIDS crisis. In 1992 he launched a line produced using only environmentally friendly materials and dyeing processes, called “Ecouture!” Though he had designed furs in the late 1970s, for his own collection he used solely faux fur. Condoms were inset into plastic dresses and jackets to publicize safe sex, while ad campaigns vocalized his opinions (“No to violence!” and “Don’t touch my plants!” Moschino’s "Smile!" campaign donated proceeds to hospices for children with AIDS. As was to become apparent later, Moschino’s shift in emphasis came in part from his own illness. In 1992, Moschino underwent surgery for an abdominal tumor; two years later, in September 1994, he passed away of cardiac arrest resulting from complications from the abdominal tumor—these complications were afterwards revealed to be due to AIDS. His final years had become a testament to his political and personal beliefs, a rare occurrence in an industry more often concerned with sales and image than integrity.
From Moschino’s death until 2013, his former assistant, Rossella Jardini, was the creative director. Known for consistently repacking Franco’s vision, Jardini’s work did little to captivate the press. Jeremy Scott, on the other hand, immediately set to work remaking the brand for the image-driven, consumer millennials he has spoken to so well with his own house. His first collection for F/W 2014 was described by Vogue as “his mutant hybrid of Ronald McDonald and Coco Chanel, and his Budweiser and Frito-Lay couture” that was “bright, brash, and ingenious.” Variations of the classic Chanel suit (a favorite style of Franco’s to manipulate) was recut in McDonald’s colors, while the McDonald’s “M” was reinterpreted to stand for Moschino. Spongebob Squarepants appeared on sweater dresses and a Hershey’s chocolate wrapper molded into an evening gown. The message was clear—the humor that what was under Franco an often-biting satire was now morphed into a crowd-pleasing, mass culture, rather broad comedy. According to Scott, “McDonald’s is part of our everyday lives. When I design I always pull from things that are significant to me. In my work I search for happiness and then try to convey that joy in the clothes.”A small group of these pieces hit the stores the day after. Instantly connecting with a generation raised on the internet and eager for flashy clothes that translated well on Instagram, this capsule collection sold out immediately—since then a capsule has been released following each show, often playing on an easily recognizable mass-market, low-brow brand (such as Skittles or My Little Pony).
Scott has subtly and consistently mined the Moschino archives, adding reminders of Franco’s favored symbols throughout his collections. Cartoon characters reappear over and over again, as do chains. Questions marks have been interlinked to form a Chanel-like logo. The surrealist trompe l’oeil Franco often used in homage to Elsa Schiaparelli was taken to it’s extreme in Scott’s S/S 2017 collection for Moschino—based on paper dolls, the 2-D renderings of garments were printed on or knitted into simple shapes. Amongst them was Franco’s iconic teddy bear trim dress—the stuffed bears now a two-dimensional print. Even Franco’s interest in social issues has started to infiltrate Scott’s runways: the F/W 2017 collection played on the incredible amount of packaging wasted currently (around 25 million tons of cardboard is discarded every year) with suits and dresses made to look like cardboard boxes complete with shiny tape and fragile labels.
For all his wit and humor, the fashion press at times appears less taken with Scott’s approach than they were with Franco Moschino’s. Though Moschino often directed his satirical digs directly at the fashion industry, there was an intelligence and depth that appealed to fashion insiders even as it challenged them. Scott’s are derided for being too accessible, too commercial—their success seen as a sign of “dumbness being aspirational.” These criticisms and unfavorable reviews have done little to slow the growth of the brand during his tenure. While their mass appeal might lack some of Franco’s barbed wit, they are generally full of bright colors, joyful with a nod to childhood nostalgia. In his own way Jeremy Scott is referencing Franco Moschino’s desire to spread joy and happiness through dress. Backstage at his S/S 2018 show Scott commented on the upbeat nature of his collection in a dark political time: “I have to stay super positive, because I have to give that positivity to people.” Moschino and Scott share a vision of a world of love and laughter, which they both have tried to achieve through a whimsical, playful approach to fashion and life that can be seen as a subversive affront to bureaucratic political systems (and even the fashion system itself).