The spirit of Moschino

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 November, 1995, 12:00am

IN THE lobby of the Milan headquarters of the fashion house which Franco Moschino created in 1983, there is an odd photograph of the man himself. Back in the 1980s, Moschino used to put in vivid, wacky appearances in his advertising campaigns, cavorting good-humouredly across glossy magazines dressed as Marilyn, the clown prince of fashion.

The image which covers one wall of the reception, however, is altogether more sober. It shows an unsmiling Moschino with a strange, attenuated shadow standing behind him. In the dim corner it is like a metaphor for death, which snuffed out his distinctive visual spark in September last year.

What happens when a business is based on an individual's genius and that individual has gone forever? If you are the people at Moschino, you follow his spirit along the peculiar track laid down by the designer for over a decade. You try to keep the joke - and the craftsmanship - alive. And although the Moschino offices, on this grey, foggy morning, appear shrouded in mourning, the gloom is actually because a troupe of Milan's finest engineers are working on the electricity cables in the street outside.

With Moschino, of course, nothing is ever quite what it seems ? The name of the new Moschino spring/summer collection is Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). That's part of the joke, in the same way that the T-shirts in the men's fall collection after his death had asked 'And now?' Then (and now) the person who constantly has to answer that difficult question is Rossella Jardini, the head of the design team, who started working with Moschino in 1984 and who knew him for at least 10 years before that. The option of leaving the company last year did not occur to her. 'I don't think we can do anything else except Moschino,' she remarks. 'It's not a question of imitation, it's a matter of what's in our tissue, in the blood.' Everyone who met Moschino seems to have liked him. Jardini, who still becomes genuinely emotional when she talks about him, and who is wearing a jacket patterned with pages from his sketchbook, describes him as charismatic, smart and capricious. He once signed a public letter about the environment ('I declare that it will be our priority to ensure that honest ecological products will become the only materials used in our creative processes in the near future') with a trio of titles: the Revolutionary, the Prankster, the Provocateur.

That final flourish carried a certain swagger which he liked to bring to his designs. It also conveyed the idiosyncratic nature of his commitment. For Moschino had a terrible dilemma; he needed to create, yet he loathed the fickle, kissy-kissy world of fashion. So he sent it up and in doing so he was, ironically, embraced by it. 'I know I don't fit and the only reason I'm rich and famous is because the fashion system wanted me to be odd,' he once said. 'They wanted me to fit without fitting.' They also wanted him to make exceptionally tailored clothes. His sartorial jokes - skirts made from men's ties, jackets trimmed with cutlery or teddy bears - were never the sort that fall apart after one outing; they were beautifully made and expensive and the people who bought them were themselves a form of fashion label. They had names like Madonna and Sting and Yoko Ono. Perhaps that sort of success with the glitterati did not make him entirely happy. 'I love my work sometimes but I'm not sure that people understand it,' he said towards the end of his life. 'But for me, it is only a game ?' So now the game continues. But who knows the rules? 'Franco didn't leave specific directions about style,' admits Jardini. 'The concepts of freedom and self-expression are so strong in themselves, and within them there is a wide range of possibilities. We were afraid that there would have been difficulties with the public but sales are up, which leads us to believe people know that behind Franco there was a team of people working with him.' The 1996 spring/summer collection will be the toughest test of Jardini's ability to keep customers happy by juggling what is new with what is recognisably Moschino. She looks, it has to be said, exhausted by the effort: 'Every six months there is more and more pressure, the exams are never finished.' Does she sleep? 'No, not very much.' She was already effectively in charge when Moschino was ill during most of 1994 and describes the collection earlier this year as 'a homage, almost a retrospective'. The latest collection is, she believes, simpler, a progression from the darkness ? And at the very instant she says these words, the lights come on.

Jardini laughs for the first time. You can see her fondly thinking, That prankster. The pair used to argue a good deal about design and she misses the squabbles. 'After his death, I understood a lot about his way of thinking, things he had done that I hadn't agreed with before. When I had to substitute for him, I understood more than I did.' Now that the racks of clothes hugging the walls of the room are illuminated, it's possible to inspect the Jardini influence on the Moschino label. Tucked away behind a desk, constantly smoking, she had seemed saddened by all this talk of her lamented, dead friend. But once she is diverted into professional action, she moves briskly around the rails, plucking garments and comments out of the air.

'Oh, Franco would have loved these,' she says with a smile, stroking a little black dress and another one studded with polka dots. Why? She shrugs. 'They're chic ? And these white dresses. He loved white. He would have loved these silk jackets, and this one.' Is there anything here that Franco would not have loved? Jardini grins and pulls out a 1950s-style, high-waisted evening dress. 'I wasn't sure whether ?' Before she can finish the sentence, the lights go out. (Spooky, but absolutely true.) By this stage, the joker's presence is palpable to the point of being hair-raising and Jardini has cheered up enormously. She shows off a bottle of the new fragrance called, like the second clothing line, Cheap And Chic, which has just been launched in Italy. The red, black and white dispenser is modelled on the cartoon character Olive Oyl who, while not exactly the Pocahontas of her day, was chosen by Moschino because 'she's a little bit silly'. (Moschino himself bore more than a passing resemblance to Olive's boyfriend, Popeye.) Oddly, Jardini believes that the most difficult area she will have to handle is not the design, which was increasingly delegated among a tight group of long-term designers as the label became more successful, but the marketing of Moschino. 'Communications and advertising were Franco's babies. I worry that our new advertising slogans will become copies, imitations. The last one - Moschino Forever - was a memorial. But after that I don't want to use the image of someone so dear to me again.' The advertising budget has been split into three sections to promote Cheap And Chic, Moschino jeans and, most importantly in the late designer's eyes, to disseminate social messages, principally about the environment and AIDS awareness. The latest eye-catching (as always) print campaign features the Italian socialite and AIDS campaigner, Fiore Crespi, in a bodice festooned with condoms and red ribbons, and an exhortation to practise safe sex.

One of Moschino's final instructions to Jardini was that she should try to make the business as profitable as possible in order that some of the company revenue could go towards the causes he believed in. 'In July, we set up the Franco Moschino Foundation to take care of this,' she says. 'Angelo, Franco's brother, is president. The first major project is to build a home for children who are infected with HIV, which will be entirely funded by the foundation. And they've already rebuilt a section in a Bucharest hospital where the children with HIV stay. There are many, many projects which are being considered, and a percentage of the profits will go into these.' It's lucky, therefore, that the profits are on the increase. Marco Gobbetti, Moschino's managing director, says that there's been a 13 per cent growth in 1995 and that America, in particular, is hungry for the Moschino look. The jeans line, especially, appears to be galloping off the rails and into the wardrobes of the fashionable. Gobbetti, of course, is the perfect money man for Moschino in that he claims to have no interest in fashion whatsoever. 'We are not so fanatical here,' he observes. 'All this press and publicity and fame that goes around ? Mr Moschino taught everybody not to get involved with this. I am not, as you say, a fashion victim. I stay well away from the style part.' Does that mean he never goes to the shows? 'No,' Gobbetti smiles. 'Only our own.' And, yes, he was there when the spring/summer Couture! collection was revealed in Milan last month. Moschino often said that he disliked the glitz of huge runway shows; maybe this was why there were no big-name models on view. There were some truly beautiful outfits, however, with unexpected touches of Spain and India, a variety of well-cut jackets, ice-blue ensembles (next year's absolutely fabulous colour, it seemed to be everywhere) and little black dresses. Plus a long 1950s-style evening dress, which Moschino may or may not have liked; the runway, in the shape of a question mark, added a touch of poignancy to that particular puzzle. And of course, no moustached court jester came out to take his bow at the end.

On the first anniversary of Moschino's death, in September, there was a church service for his family and close friends in Abbiategrasso, the small town 32 kilometres outside Milan where he had been born in 1950. Was that day a watershed? Back in the dim office, Jardini wipes her eyes for a moment and speaks in Italian. 'This is a very personal issue for her,' says the interpreter. 'She does not think that any number of years will be sufficient to get over Franco's death. But, yes, for the work, it will be so.'