Antonio Lopez, fashion’s foremost illustrator, burned bright—and then faded away. Fortunately, says Karin Nelson, a new book and exhibition are reigniting his flame.
Like most people who crossed paths with Antonio Lopez, the late, great Bronx-raised artist who electrified the fashion world in the seventies and eighties with his erotically charged illustrations, Paloma Picasso can recall a thrilling evening or two with him in Paris. Pablo’s daughter was a budding jewelry designer when she was introduced to Lopez by Andy Warhol. “It was the early seventies, and he had a great look—he really dressed up at the time, and so did I. He was doing some drawings— a lingerie story for British Vogue—and wanted someone like me with a real body to pose for it,” Picasso says. They worked out of Lopez’s apartment on Boulevard St.-Germain, a large white modern space loaned to him by his friend Karl Lagerfeld where people were always coming and going and a mix of Curtis Mayfield and T-Rex played from a tape deck. “I always thought it was amazing he could work in the middle of all that, but he liked it. It made it more exciting,” Picasso says. “He’d start drawing at the end of the afternoon, and we’d go until four or five in the morning. I had never posed like that before—not even for my parents!”
Such was Lopez’s world: an exhilarating and irreverent orb of gossip, gorgeous people, designer clothes, groovy tunes, art, kitsch, and street culture that, with the help of Juan Ramos, his behind-the-scenes art director, Lopez channeled into illustrations. This notion of “sampling”—incorporating into his drawings, say, the lines of Fernand Léger, the logo of a Coca-Cola bottle, or a hairdo he’d seen at a nightclub—not only revived the dormant art of fashion illustration but also inspired and soon defined the style of the times. “He was coming from New York so full of ideas,” recalls the Italian stylist Anna Piaggi, who enlisted the artist to illustrate the covers and stories for her short-lived, though now highly collectible, magazine Vanity. “He had all the culture, the girls, the ghetto blasters. Working with him was fantastic, like going into another world.”
“He was the zeitgeist,” says Roger Padilha, an editor, along with his brother Mauricio, of the new book Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco (Rizzoli). “At his peak, he was as famous as Marc Jacobs is now. He was the biggest person in the fashion industry.”
His drawings, which regularly appeared in The New York Times, Elle, and French and Italian Vogues, were so innovative that they forced the designers whose clothes he was drawing to actually think differently about them; many, in fact, ended up using elements of Lopez’s drawings in their collections the following season. “He transformed the clothing,” says Missoni cofounder Rosita Missoni, who commissioned him in the early eighties to draw her label’s ad campaigns, most of which now hang in her grandchildren’s apartment in Milan. “One season there’d be roses; the next it was all about hunting. My favorite was the summer 1985 collection, for which he turned the models into Olympic athletes. It was always so surprising, his creativity.” His effect on Karl Lagerfeld, who at the time designed for Chloé, is alluded to in the book The Beautiful Fall. In it, Corey Tippin, a former model, makeup artist, and member of Lopez’s inner circle, recalls that “Antonio went far beyond reality in his drawing, and it seemed to give Karl a path; it led Karl to the next design.” In 1971, Yves Saint Laurent presented a couture collection of chiffon dresses, fur chubbies, and chunky heels directly influenced by the kind of chintzy Americana that Lopez had brought to the Paris fashion scene.
A Pygmalion figure, Lopez brilliantly transformed the women in his world, both on paper and in person. Under his tutelage, his onetime fiancée Jerry Hall, a hillbilly Texan he met at Paris’s Club Sept, evolved into a golden goddess; a gawky and gap-toothed Donna Jordan morphed into a bleached-blonde and browless Marilyn (a look referenced by Madonna in her “Deeper and Deeper” video—and by W, in a September 2010 fashion story starring Lara Stone). He put Jessica Lange in gold lamé evening dresses after discovering her in Paris studying mime; gave aspiring model Tina Lutz her start (and an introduction to future husband Michael Chow); and, by spotlighting Pat Cleveland, a mixed-race model with a theatrical streak, he helped break down the color barrier in high fashion. “He was the Gauguin of our time,” says Cleveland. “An artist who painted with many colors.” As Paul Caranicas, who was Juan Ramos’s longtime lover and now oversees the Lopez estate, notes, “It was kind of groundbreaking.”
And yet, despite his fame and influence, Lopez, who died from AIDS in 1987 at 44, has faded from the public consciousness. Fashion’s fickle behavior is partially to blame, but more so the stigma associated with AIDS at the time of his death. “So many people who died pre-Internet, and especially those who died in the early days of AIDS, have really been thrust under the carpet,” says Roger Padilha. The aim of his book, he adds, is to introduce Lopez to a new generation. To that end, the Padilhas have invited the New York gallerist Suzanne Geiss to mount a companion show, opening September 7 at her SoHo space (see “Upstairs, Downstairs,”). The exhibition, which spans three decades, includes Lopez’s nightclub illustrations, a wall of his Instamatic photographs, unfinished sketches, personal drawings, and several of his candid 8-millimeter films, one of which stars a young and goofy Bill Cunningham, the New York Times style photographer. Most of the cache has never been seen before; all of it looks just as cool and commanding as it did in its day. “Antonio was so in touch with beauty that people keep coming back to him,” Caranicas says. “They keep coming back to the source.”