“Effortlessly Effortless”

This June, Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli opens Vezzoli Primavera-Estate, an exhibition commissioned by Florence's Pitti Immagine fair. Here, Vezzoli speaks with about celebrity, fashion, and the essence of Italian style

Published June 05, 2014
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This June, Pitti Immagine will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Centro di Firenze per la Moda Italiana—i.e., the organizing body of all things fashion in Firenze. In addition to special events hosted by such Florence-rooted brands as Gucci and Ferragamo, the festivities will include Vezzoli Primavera-Estate, a three-museum exhibition by contemporary Italian art's enfant terrible Francesco Vezzoli.

Vezzoli, best known for his irreverent films staring the likes of Sharon Stone, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, and more, will insert his works into Museo Bardini, Museo di Casa Martelli, and the Museo Bellini. These three house-museums, which were owned by mega Florentine collectors during different periods throughout history, are decked with works by such classical masters as Bronzino, Antonio del Pollaiolo, and Lucas Cranach the Elder. And Vezzoli, the cheeky soul that he is, will be showing a selection of his own work (like a self-portrait after Raffaello Sanzio, pictured here; a portrait of a crying Stephanie Seymour as the Madonna; and a marble sculpture of a foot with a cherry red pedicure) alongside the museums' iconic paintings and sculptures. What better way to honor Italian history (fashion and otherwise) and fete the now?

During a recent trip to New York, over cappuccinos at the Mercer Hotel, a charming sweatpants-and-Givenchy-clad Vezzoli spoke with about the exhibition, celebrity, his lifelong obsession with fashion, and why he doesn't believe in the concept of style.

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You've teamed up with Pitti Immagine—a fashion fair—for this upcoming exhibition and you're sitting across from me in a Givenchy T-shirt. Do you feel particularly connected to fashion?

It plays an enormous role in my life because I love fashion. I loved fashion as a kid. I went when I was 18 to see all the fashion shows in Paris. I remember crying at the tattoo show of Jean Paul Gaultier. I remember being there when Robert Altman was filming Prêt-à-Porter and Sophia Loren was in the audience with Marcello Mastroianni, and I think that was the biggest piece of performance art that I've ever seen in my life. Altman filming Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia front-row at Jean Paul Gaultier with Catherine Deneuve on the other side. Wow. I can't top that. I tried, and I didn't.

Do you feel fashion is significant on a broader cultural scale?

Fashion's important because of the political role it plays in my country. Italy is very complicated at the moment, and if there is one thing that is going really well, it's the fashion industry. It's going well financially. It gives lots of work to people. It gives lots of prestige to the nation. Basically 90 percent of the international figures in Italy are in one way or another linked to fashion. And most of the fashion entrepreneurs have risen to success without any collusion with the political power.

I also think fashion—more than cinema, more than art—has developed a speed that feeds the hunger of social media really well. A serious movie director makes a movie every three or four years. A serious artist…until ten years ago, the artist scheme was gallery show, gallery show, solo show when you're 40 or 50, retrospective when you're 70, end. Death. Sleep. How can you be an artist and feed the social media with such a slow pace? Fashion, between Spring/Summer, Resort, Men's, Women's…they've got it covered.

Some might argue that pace isn't sustainable, and that it's even giving designers nervous breakdowns.

That's fine. I'd say, "You want to be a fashion designer? Honey, get ready. You better be up for the challenge." Great fashion entrepreneurs are now just as powerful as great art dealers. They belong to the same group of excellency that makes the creative world run fast and exciting, and they feed the need of social media. But I think fashion more than any other field is feeding the game. So, I take my hat off.

Do you think that fashion is an art form?

Absolutely. Fashion is, not even with a hint of oh-no-yes. Fashion is up there with cinema, with music. Fashion has its critics, fashion has its starts, fashion has its underdog fashion, has its elitists. You could pick a designer, like Riccardo Tisci, and you could have the Riccardo Tisci of art, the Riccardo Tisci of cinema, the Riccardo Tisci of literature, just like you can have the Philip Roth of fashion, etc.

Photos: Courtesy of the Artist

What do you want people to take away from the trio of installations you'll be showing during Pitti?

Well, first of all I would want them to go and see these spaces that they've never been. Even if the audience hates what I've done—and I'm not saying this to sound like the good guy who's not an egomaniac—I hope they will take the time to enjoy the museums. I want them to indulge in the pleasure of seeing these masterpieces without two hundred people in front of them.

I also hope they take the time to understand that I've been doing these works for the last five or six years—that I've had an ongoing dialogue with the past and that I've slowly given up Hollywood, videos, and divas. I hope they see that my dialogue with history plays a predominant role in my work.

In an interview at the opening of your Cinema Vezzoli show at MOCA, you mentioned that working with celebrities was a "sweet experience," but now you're almost nauseated.

This proves that in the last five years I have cultivated this obsession with history. And I'll keep going in that direction. Working in Hollywood or with celebrities has been fascinating, but [Hollywood] is so much about what's next, even more than in art, even more than in cinema. I once told Jeff Koons, "I want to put in my artworks alive the people that you put in your artworks dead." And I was thinking about his [1988] Michael Jackson [sculpture]. I've really wanted to put the greatest, most visible, most iconic people in my artwork. I feel so lucky to have worked with Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga, Natalie Portman, and Michelle Williams. Each one really embodies a level of excellence and visibility and iconicity. Now Natalie is the face for everything, Dior, and Michelle is the face for Vuitton.

And Cate Blanchett's the face of Armani's fragrance.

Exactly. But when they worked with me, they weren't. I'm so happy about that in a weird, twisted way because I chose them for their talent, and the fact that they are finding a permanent place in iconicity is fantastic. This makes sense if I say it to, because if I said it to Artforum, they wouldn't get it.

How do you convince these celebrities to participate in your work? Do you just call them up and say, "Hey"?

No. I don't have their numbers—I still don't! These people realized that my projects were haute couture, meaning that each piece was really tailored to them. For instance, when I did Democrazy [2007] with Sharon Stone and Bernard-Henri Lévy, that film could have never been with Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, because Tobey's a great actor, but he's not one of those I-want-to-be-president [types]. And Sharon Stone's role could not have been taken by Michelle Williams, who is an extremely private person. The point is, these [actors] said yes to projects that had something to do with their identity. It wasn't just another character. I think that's why they accepted.

You're one of the biggest art stars on the scene. What role do you think the celebrity factor has played in your success?

Honestly, it has played a very good, big role in getting a lot of space in a certain type of medium. On the other hand, [celebrity] has raised a lot of suspicion in the art world. Mind you, when I started, we were not yet in the "Picasso Baby" era. We were in the period where there were no celebrities doing work with artists. I always say I've chosen divas because of what they represent for the audience, not what they represent for me. I'm like a sociologist, you know? But [the celebrities in my work] made some art critics suspicious. And that's OK. I was ready for that, and I've taken the criticism and I enjoyed it.

But you're not the only contemporary artist to embrace celebrity. Do you think someone like Richard Phillips has faced similar suspicions?

No. It's funny, I've been jealous of Richard because he got Lindsay [Lohan] and nobody attacked him for Lindsay. And he got many more YouTube hits than me. But I think his project with Lindsay is a one-off. Or like what Murakami did with Kirsten Dunst. [Those projects] are more like little cherries that [these artists] pick and add on the top of their cakes. In my case, the cake was a nonstop.

What do you think of culture's escalating obsession with celebrity?

I always get asked why I do works on celebrities, and I always have a sharp response. I say, "I don't put celebrities in my work because I am obsessed by celebrities." I've never used my work to become friends with the actresses. I was interested very seriously in the reaction they draw in the audience. They knew I didn't want to invade their private lives. But if in the end, celebrity reality shows have become part of our culture, and if artists want our analysis to be more profound, we need to understand people's need to peep through the hole of other people's lives—has it always existed? Is it a historical necessity?

I'm not interested in the private lives of the actresses I'm working with. I'm sure their lives are just as miserable as everybody else's. So reality shows are the opposite of my work. They have the perversion of exposing how miserable the lives of prominent people are. It's like that column in Us magazine, "Celebrities, They're Just Like Us." Steven Meisel did great stuff for Italian Vogue with that concept. It's a need that people have to feel reassured. It's a little revenge. But it's always been like that. People were always gossiping about how fat the queen had gotten or whatever. So it's probably an inner need of the people to see that the rich and famous have failures and that will just make life for them easier. And it's actually the truth.

Photos: Courtesy Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Fashion folk are fairly obsessed with the art world. Do you think the art set is equally enthralled with the fashion crew? Or do they just find us irritating?

The art world is a pretty good liar. They love fashion. They all want to go to the Met, they all want to go to the shows, they love the vanity, they all want to be successful, but they don't wait to say it because they're afraid of being criticized. You know, many artists are way richer than designers. That's not true in my case because I'm not a market star, but some artists really are. I welcome the day that a famous artist will bankroll a [brand like] Rodarte. I can't wait for Andreas Gursky to be the backer of Rodarte, or what's the name of that smart guy, Patrik Ervell. They should find a great rich artist to finance them.

You're famously a huge Prada fan—you even teamed up with the brand for your twenty-four-hour museum in 2012. Why are you drawn to Miuccia Prada and her work?

Funnily enough, neither I nor she can remember how we met. We have a blank. But I've always been drawn to Miuccia. And now I'm drawn to her even more because she's taught me how to build an inner life. She lives in Milan like me, which is not the city of three hundred museums or three hundred plays every month. But she's taught me that there are places where you can nurture your inner self, and that is creatively way more productive than another walk through Chelsea. I've taken so many walks around Chelsea, but sometimes an afternoon under the sun on a bench in a park can be just as productive.

Are there any other designers who intrigue you?

I'm interested in designers who create a universe around their ideas, so I've always been very impressed with Marc Jacobs. I know it's a predictable name, but every single season he creates a universe. You'd probably be more interested if I said a younger name, but I'm more fascinated when I see a full identity blossoming. I was really impressed with all those references that Proenza Schouler paid to the Memphis movement. I told them I was really touched. Their show helped me discover something more about what moves them or what they like, and that was a step for me in understanding more of their world. So that's why I say Marc Jacobs, because he's somebody who has projected his obsession and his identity. I think that's fascinating.

Naturally, Pitti is all about Italian fashion. How would you describe Italian style?

Jesus, I hate this question. Please put that in print. But only for you, I'll say a one-word answer: effortless.

What do you mean by effortless?

I don't believe in style. I believe in fashion. I believe in culture. But style is something I don't believe in. Style is either effortless or effortful, meaning over-the-top. I remember being a kid in London [at Central Saint Martins] and walking the streets and going to clubs with [fashion designer] Rifat Özbek. Rifat would stop people and say, "You really look fabulous!" And he would stop the really over-the-top people, and those were the days when Leigh Bowery was like, it. In my opinion, style is either Leigh Bowery or Marcello Mastroianni. There is nothing in between. They just look like they were sleeping like that on the couch and they woke up for the interview or the television or the movie. In 90 percent of his movies, Mastroianni's wearing something he would in real life. And the same goes for Leigh Bowery.

You have to live it.

Exactly. That's what I mean when I say effortless. Even Leigh's style was effortless. He was dressed like that at home.

What are you excited to see at Pitti?

The cute guys. That's all I want to see. I'm going to use every inch of my status to check out all the cute guys. And if my boyfriend gets mad at me, who cares.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Just say I look effortless. Effortlessly effortless.

Photos: Courtesy of the Artist
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