BoF Exclusive | Italo Zucchelli’s Sublime Futurism — Part I

Calvin Klein Menswear by Italo Zucchelli | Photo: Karim Sadli for 032c

In an exclusive two part interview, courtesy of our friends at 032c, Pierre Alexandre de Looz explores the work of Italo Zucchelli, Calvin Klein men’s collection creative director, known for grafting the infallible promise of technology — the 21st century’s cultural hope — to the fibre of masculine elegance. Today, in Part I, we examine Zucchelli’s menswear philosophy.

NEW YORK, United States — Snug. Well cut. Brilliant. A smack-your-lips example of product design, it defines a point of no return in menswear that equates less with the demise of the top hat than the birth of the iPod. In the story you are about to read, nearly everyone had something to say about Calvin Klein underwear, even the bootlegged kind: MoMA PS1 Curator Klaus Biesenbach, for instance, purchased emergency briefs after losing his luggage on a trip to China and “they are still going strong,” he said, 10 years later. Minimal, clear and universally known, they are like the dark slab of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, a portal to somewhere beyond our tatty reality. Welcome to the tailored universe of Calvin Klein Men.

Beyond the spread of new men’s fashion rags, growing menswear revenues, and greater assimilation of male customers into the larger fashion system, the Calvin Klein identity sets an ideal stage for modern menswear. If fashion historian Anne Hollander is correct, that “Male dress was always essentially more advanced than female dress throughout fashion history, and tended to lead the way, to set the standard, to make aesthetic propositions to which female fashion responded,” then menswear is the future and the Calvin Klein man is like modernity to the second degree, our escort on the red carpet to a distant horizon.

Italo Zucchelli, an Italian-born designer picked by Mr. Klein, has directed the brand’s Men’s Collection since 2004. I dress as a man, and from this perspective, fashion seems more of a problem than a pastime, a frankly stiffer medium of self-expression than it has been for women. Zucchelli on the other hand doesn’t seem to shoulder any grudges. He wears New Balance sneakers as pleasantly as his Buddha-like face. Nian Fish, 18-year veteran of the KCD production agency and now an independent creative director, tells me, “People don’t get stressed around Italo because you ride his wave of being present and in the moment. He is very light.” Biesenbach, a friend, adds, “He is so modest and at the same time very precise – a rare quality.”

True enough, meeting Zucchelli was light, clear and precise like the tubular steel armchair that graces his living room, a signature Starck design of 1983. A large-scale print of model David Agbodji’s naked back, a molten monolith from Calvin Klein’s Spring and Fall 2010 campaigns sits close. More effusive than his portrait let on, Agbodji later confided: “Italo is probably the nicest, down to earth person I know in this business. Working with him greatly changed my own style. I had no clue how much I love modern minimalism until him.”

Zucchelli invited me to sit at a comfortable distance from the overpowering photo. I hoped to learn a lesson similar to Agbodji’s, to understand Zucchelli’s world and philosophy of menswear. We sank into a soft gray couch that frames the view of midtown from his penthouse apartment. Reflecting on a skyline built of testosterone, I asked, “Should a man dress to show his power?”

“A man should dress to show who he is,” Zucchelli replied. His tautology dispelled any hopes I had of borrowing an identity from anyone or anything outside myself.

Editors and retailers alike appreciate Zucchelli’s no-nonsense focus. Reporter Eric Wilson from The New York Times explains: “He tends to start with a clean line that’s very accessible and adds elements that are more challenging and unusual, but always in a way that a customer can relate to. Italo keeps in mind that he is designing for men and not women, that there is a real world outside the bubble of fashion insiders. It’s a big mistake that a lot of designers make, especially the Europeans.”

Zucchelli keeps a constant reminder of American “realness” in his corner office, a portrait of bulging bare-chested Marlon Brando posing as Stanley Kowalski from the 1951 movie A Street Car Named Desire. Zucchelli has never removed his vintage paperback copy of Tennessee William’s play from its cellophane slip, as if to contain the power of its iconic cover model. Idols like Brando or James Dean served as widely accepted prototypes of masculine style, especially in the way they galvanized a generation of casual dressers (T-shirts and jeans), but was it them or the characters they played? Is Zucchelli thinking of Brando or Kowalski, or both?

David Agbodji, for example, defined the Calvin Klein man like this: “extremely confident and fearless, strong, in great shape and super duper confident. Classic American superheroes like Bruce Wayne or Superman come to mind.” But, how real is Superman? He may be more real than you think. The image of “real men,” particularly in American culture, combines fiction and fact to a degree where the two are inseparable, indistinguishable even.

Italo Zucchelli: When I do a collection I think about the things men would want to wear. On the other hand, when I do a fashion show I have to create a fantasy. My ideal is to reach a perfect balance. It’s like a perfect pop song. It is the most difficult thing to achieve for an artist: to create something that may not seem commercial, expressing his or her creativity to the fullest, and then to see it become a commercial success. Kate Bush’s first single “Wuthering Heights” comes to mind. She was 19 and she sang a song that in 1978 was not what the radio would play – just a girl with a piano and a voice. She fought to release it as her first single (her record company favored another song). It made her a star immediately, number one all over Europe. It was the perfect combination of creativity and commercial success and it’s very inspiring.

Pierre Alexendre de Looz : Perhaps the consumer we think exists is just a fantasy?

I recently read that Steve Jobs avoided focus groups. He believed you have to show people what they want and he proved it. The iPod is a great example. I obsess over music and to me it was revolutionary; a minimal and perfectly designed object that everybody uses, and the most commercially successful product of the last decade. Jobs was incredibly clever and intuitive. I’m fascinated by the fact he applied Zen principles in his “creative strategy” and the result was pure innovation.

How do you use intuition?

Without comparing myself to Jobs, I’ll give you an example. I wanted to use neon color for a while. I debated whether it was chic enough and the many ways to use it. Suddenly, in a vintage store in LA, I saw a wet suit with perfect neon colors. I thought it was a message and decided it was the right time. I assumed the fluorescent suits would simply be an editorial piece, but they did not even arrive in stores – people bought them over the phone! There was clapping in the middle of the show – it was a real moment.

How do you keep your intuitions fresh?

Transcendental meditation. Intuition is something everybody has and meditation is a great way to develop it. I was given a mantra 20 years ago. I sit down and close my eyes, repeating the mantra for 20 minutes. It’s a tool. I would do it even if I cultivated tomatoes because I love it!

What defines the style of American men?

On an elemental level there is a casual, less conceptual or philosophical way of living in America. American men have been trained to take good care of their bodies, practicing a sport or working out at the gym. It’s very different from Europe.

It’s an obvious exception to the distinction you just made, but what do you think of Versace’s menswear from the 90s, since his men were on an American scale?

I thought it was fantastic. It was the opposite of what was going on and it marked the moment of Versace’s career when he enjoyed his greatest success. Sadly, he died shortly after. I see the 90s as a reaction to the 80s, which were about flamboyance and excess. You could design anything, even skirts for men. It would sell and people would wear it. Then came the Gulf War and we entered a major recession. Fashion in the 90s turned to purity. It was almost “non-design” – the opposite of 80s maximalism. But then, Versace became even more baroque. He was making people dream in sad times, you might say. Did I wear it? No, it wasn’t for me. But, it was fun. He invented the super models. He worked with Bruce Weber and Avedon. He created the kind of excitement that fashion always needs.

If the Calvin Klein identity were ever to part ways with minimalism, it will have taken a radical turn; yet, you seem to flirt with the possibility. Do you ever let yourself be kitschy?

In a sort of minimal way, I actually did for one of my earliest runway shows (Spring 2007). The aesthetic was clean, of course, but I sent some models down the runway with leggings (I don’t think anybody got it, but I pretended they were the kind of swimsuit worn by Australian surfers.) When the first of the legging models came off the runway he said, “I think I caused a stir!” That was the show where everything changed: people gasped. It was borderline underwear, borderline kitsch without having to do skirts or brocade. I had taken a staple of American sportswear and combined it with the sex value of the Calvin Klein brand. One reviewer said that you could see whether the models were circumcised or not! A lot of people laughed and some didn’t like it at all, but you need these moments! The midriff T-shirt (Spring 2011) was also very risqué. In eight years it was the most photographed item I’ve designed!

You sexualized the man but did you also feminize him?

Androgyny as a concept was one of the things that drew me the most to the brand because I was always fascinated by it, but especially androgynous women. That’s why I love Tilda Swinton, Annie Lennox, and Grace Jones. David Bowie is on the other side. In fact, I hope Tilda Swinton will play David Bowie in a movie someday. She would be perfection in the role, not least because she is playing a man. There is something extremely modern about the genders coming together, or men and women who dress alike. Calvin always played with that. Even Kate Moss was a creature in the beginning. She was a girl but also otherworldly. That’s the power of unisex. I grew up with this fascination. Even if I am unaware of it, this attitude will come out of what I do from deep inside my imagination.

But you grew up in a country where the gender roles are so clear?

That’s probably why I was fascinated with the middle, as a rebellion.

Are you familiar with Fellini’s sketches where he imagines a muscle woman whose clitoris stands erect like a penis? Modern androgyny was probably invented in Italy.

The Park Hyatt in Tokyo has those drawings on display! It’s an ancient tradition, but that’s where we are headed. The future will be less worried about gender and it will be reflected in clothes.

You are nudging us there! Your collections could be described as a battle between the T-shirt, which is increasingly genderless, and the man’s collar shirt. Lately, the traditional men’s shirt seems to be losing.

Lately, it’s true. T-shirts are very American; just think of James Dean! I was not born here, so I fantasize about the American look – again, we go back to the fashion fantasy. How do I make menswear look relevant and iconic but at the same time highly designed? The T-shirt is the number one staple of American sportswear and the American identity.

Nevertheless you’ve manipulated the traditional shirt. Would you call that fashion in its truest sense – because you are making small changes to a prototype, and these changes can cycle from season to season – or is this what we call progress?

To achieve any results in fashion, it takes time; that’s why I have three fittings in my process. Every collection starts from what you achieved in the last one. Menswear elements like the suit are subtle, whereas sportswear can be extreme and bolder and it’s easier to update. In menswear you have more rules and fewer elements than in women’s fashion, which I like. I find it more challenging to achieve something new while staying within the rules, or, you might say, breaking but not destroying the rules.

Hindsight shows us moments when contemporary fashion reached decisive points, like the little black dress or pantyhose. Do you have any inkling what the next major step for menswear will be?

When Chanel did the little black dress, fashion as we know it was at its beginning. She was a genius, but she arrived at a point when women were still wearing frocks. She simplified the woman. When Giorgio Armani put women in suits, that was genius and both times fashion was still young. These kinds of avenues have been well explored. I am not sure a statement as vast could be made now. My biggest fantasy for the future is that we’ll be able to disappear and not even need clothes. When we live on spaceships, maybe then someone will come up with something as groundbreaking as Chanel.

So, the revolution will come from life and fashion will respond. Thinking back over the last 60 years, who together with Armani has shaped menswear to modern life?

Armani created the power suit for both men and women and empowered women to be as powerful as men. He also created a whole new language, still very relevant today, for men in business and for celebrities – think of Richard Gere in American Gigolo. He created an effortless, everyday man that lives in a modern world, unfussy and real. He always speaks about sobriety. That is his mantra. His company is 30 years old this year, but something so good doesn’t have an expiration date. Helmut Lang created something very sleek, street cool and desirable, especially for men. He defined an era and it was a big loss when he retired. I wore a lot of his clothes because they fit me so well – like a reflective pair of pants!

What other American designers besides Calvin Klein attracted your attention?

Stephen Sprouse was the only alternative designer in America that I was interested in as a student. I never wore anything by him, but I know his vintage is hard to find, and expensive. The fluorescent colors, graphics, graffiti and punkiness; everything about it was underground.

In a similar way, Hedi Slimane has been recognized as having applied countercultural references to men’s tailoring. How do you describe his contribution?

He brought back youth culture. He influenced fashion through the shape he created – a skinny idealistic guy – which was androgynous in a way. All his muses are very young. I relate to his music interests and his interest in the underground, which is where everything comes from.

In the Wim Wenders movie A Notebook on Cities and Clothes from 1989, you see Yohji Yamamoto explaining his love of August Sander’s photographs. They are predominantly images of early 20th century working class men whose clothes are loosely fitted. It reveals a secret code of fashion: if something fits perfectly, it looks tailored and non-proletarian. You are clearly obsessed with precision, so what does looseness mean to you, and how do you use it?

I recently started doing over-sized shapes – let’s use that word – in sportswear. For Fall 2011 I did a bomber and I wanted to make the classic bomber even rounder, to emphasize the iconic. Yamamoto is a master and Japanese fashion has been over-sized since the beginning. But, I would never do this with a suit.

Tomorrow, in Part II, we explore the designer’s creative process and approach to innovation.

This article was written by architect and writer Pierre Alexandre de Looz and was first published by 032c. Click here for a preview of the current issue 0f 032c.

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  1. Such a mind relief to read a great interview, which is so precise and cultivating the ideas in reader’s mind in each question asked and answered ! one of the best interviews i have read so far from fashion industry in recent years !!! hats off !!

    mohit dandwani from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India