Università IUAV di Venezia

...Maria Luisa Frisa, Director of Fashion Design: 'no more useless fashion shows'

by Mariel Reed
Maria Luisa Frisa is integral to the development of Italian fashion. From consulting for Giorgio Armani to curating fashion exhibitions, the powerful director of the fashion design course at IUAV in Venice has seen Italian fashion at its best and at its worst. Frisa is an art historian, art critic and fashion curator as well as author of many books and magazines. She revolutionised fashion in the Eighties and has continued to dominate the fast-paced industry by providing valuable insight and forcing those around her to work harder, think deeper and test the limits of design. She joins us in conversation about fashion and how we can change it, one simple step at a time.

During your studies, you took an exam in semiotics, which has a huge presence in fashion. When researching your book “Excess—Fashion and the underground in the 80’s”, what were the strongest symbols you found? Which symbols did you find were translatable to today’s fashion world and which were only relevant in the moment?
I studied art history and I’m a contemporary art historian and critic, not a semiotician. This is my education, and this is the world I come from. During the Eighties, the decade I rebuilt and retold in “Excess” together with Stefano Tonchi, I was a militant art critic. That’s also the reason why I am a fashion curator now: I transferred my attitude to the fashion system because I really believe it is the place that best represents contemporary visuality (to quote Richard Martin).

Symbols can be translated, and I firmly believe that is also what a curator does, identifying and using fragments of the past and present to tell stories about possible future landscapes with a critical gaze. To produce an innovative vision, the curator acts on settled elements that belong to the past, that have been temporarily forgotten, put aside, but are waiting to be reactivated.

I’m sure that among the elements that we have translated from the Eighties, there’s the idea of the distinctive uniform for the mass, the uniform that Armani invented, that perfectly built and cut suit, which then defined our sexual and working identities, and that has now become a basic form of dressing.

Fashion is extremely important in narrating social/political/economic events. Do you think fashion should own up to this and create a working relationship with symbolism, or do you think the symbolism will remain unnoticed by consumers?
I believe that fashion is a storytelling device in the widest sense possible. It contributes to all our cultural discourses, and it has a clear 'working relationship' with symbolism, not only in the sense that fashion uses symbols, but also in the sense that fashion contributes to the process of building and settling symbols, and making them shift. Fashion moulds and modulates our visual and conceptual language, and consumers (who must not be confused with fashion victims) are well aware of its symbols, and of how to use and mix them.

When you created the magazine Westuff with Stefano Tonchi, you introduced your audience to a world of unknown, new content. Was this audience prepared? Was there a strong desire for this new ‘stuff’?
Westuff was a concept magazine in its own way. It was a place where we started talking about lifestyles, not just dresses or accessories, but architecture, contemporary art and the underground scene, which in Florence was a big thing in those days. We started to focus on the idea of “total living”, which later became the subject of one of our visual books. The desire for new 'stuff' was our desire. When an editor creates his own magazine, it’s inevitably a reflection of his world, of his desires, of the things he likes and the things he doesn’t like. It’s a manifesto. Westuff was our manifesto.

How did the mainstream audience react to you causing a stir in the fashion system?
It was not for the mainstream, but it became a 'cult' magazine anyway. The fashion mainstream – in Italy in particular – still remembers Westuff, and the new Italian independent magazine scene, (“Pizza”, “unFLOP”, “Hunter”, “Kaleidoscope”) led by a young generation of editors/curators, considers Westuff as sort of a beginning, a starting point, its ancestor. Maybe, as Daniel Birnbaum said on curating, it’s a question of “archaeology of the things to come”.

When teaching, what is one piece of advice you give students that is invaluable?
Make mistakes. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Universities and schools are the places where you can experiment. Errors and incompleteness are mandatory aspects of the learning process.

What is one thing you think all students should know before graduating?
They should use the university as a place where they can learn the discipline of working hard, going beyond the abused stereotype of fashion as a place of wonder. They should understand that the learning process is an ongoing one: it never stops, and you must keep that attitude with you.

The fashion industry is feeling stagnant at the moment. There is not enough support for those in need. How would you suggest we shift the power in the industry to ensure that real talent gets the attention and sales it deserves?
Fashion industries, producers and companies should decide it’s the right time – now more than ever – to take risks, try to imagine new ways and paths that don’t exist yet. That’s my suggestion.

Since you started your work in fashion, how have opportunities for young designers changed?
In Italy, new opportunity is represented by the free territory of university, where young designers and newcomers have the freedom and the chance to experiment and to put themselves to the test.

You curated an exhibit dedicated to Diana Vreeland. What is your relationship with Ms. Vreeland? In what ways did she leave her mark on the way you view fashion?
Vreeland was a fashion curator, she invented contemporary fashion exhibitions during her period at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1972-1989). She came from the fashion magazine world. The parallel between a magazine or book editor and an exhibition curator lies on a wide interpretation of the term ‘curating’ as a discipline that has a lot to do with giving shape to visions. It’s what I try to point out in my essay in the catalogue of the exhibition, when I talk about both the curator and the critic as storytellers.

The curator follows his vision and has the capability to give shape to this vision by working with a team of many people with different capabilities, just like a creative director. In this sense, as you see, it’s not about what you curate, it’s more about the attitude of curating: you can work in 2D (a magazine) or 3D (an exhibition). That’s the reason why I decided to build a sequence of images in the catalogue that I used as a source of inspiration for my work on Vreeland. That’s the way I recollect ideas, that’s what I use to find suggestions for an exhibition, as well as for a book. It has a lot to do with concept design. It has a lot to do with a way of working, which Vreeland clearly had in mind (I’m thinking of her book Allure, 1980).

What are three qualities you see in students and young designers that are common to those who quickly reach success?
Attitude for research, curiosity, determination.

What would you like to see change in the fashion industry in Italy? Internationally?
No more useless or boring fashion shows and catwalks; no more trends or trend-watching and forecasting, which basically produce similar collections; new young designers with their own name on their brand, no more working for “old-fashioned” brands that seem to live in the past.

How has the importance of Artisanship in fashion changed, in your eyes?
It has become a part of the creative process. Our students at IUAV University of Venice must learn to think and reflect on fashion through what they do every day. Workshops and ateliers are places where the doing/making/designing process is closely connected to the thinking process. As Richard Sennett argues, the craftsman’s realm is far broader than skilled manual labour.

NJAL has close to 9,000 designers registered on the site however, only 3% come from Italy--a major fashion hub. Do you think this is because of a lack of entrepreneurial spirit? Could a boost of enthusiasm be the solution to the crisis in Italy?
Italian designers (but not only them) should forget their glorious past, the Eighties, and they should work on building a new story.