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

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

In Part I, we examined Italo Zucchelli’s philosophy of menswear. Today, we explore the designer’s creative process and approach to innovation.

NEW YORK, United States — A honeyed accent doesn’t give away Italo Zucchelli’s heritage as much as his ability to cut a jacket. A Wagnerian sense of color and experimental materials reveal professional stints with both Romeo Gigli and Jil Sander respectively. He may seem of a piece with European contemporaries like Prada or Raf Simons, but critic and friend Tim Blanks argues that Zucchelli is refining an entirely personal viewpoint, what he calls “subtle futurism,” an evolution sewn discreetly into every collection. Stitch by stitch it could add up to an altogether altered reality.

Everyone agrees Zucchelli has stepped into a big pair of shoes – a pair of Calvin’s as it were. He’s won respect for not kicking them off, but Zucchelli notes the paradox faced by a generation of talented designers who, like him, are breathing new life into old brands: “If all of us were strictly referential we would be criticized. It’s very important to respect the language and understand the staples, but also evolve because time moves on.”

With nearly two decades of witnessing audience reactions to every twist, fold and turn on the runway, Nian Fish warns that the pressure to innovate is ruthless: “If you are safe, they will kill you.” In her opinion, Zucchelli is moving not only the clothes, but also the whole brand forward. Forward? Fashion may innovate, but certainly not in the same way as technology, or does it?

It’s a common perception that men’s fashion is slow to change, and Zucchelli acknowledges that: “Few men will respond to a fantasy as freely as a woman.” However, he observes that many more men are interested in fashion today than a decade ago. In numbers alone, international consumption of men’s apparel and accessories had nearly caught up to women’s by 2000, and with increased freedom of choice.

In the years that preceded Zucchelli’s arrival at Calvin Klein, innovative menswear seems to have been largely defined by flashy changes in shape. New York Times reporter Eric Wilson recalls: “Thom Browne created the shrunken suit, Hedi Slimane the extremely fitted suit and Tom Ford the louche, high-waisted big lapel suit. They were contrasting looks but they worked all at the same time, making menswear feel very exciting all of a sudden.” Currently, Wilson believes, a band of niche designers has splintered menswear center stage leaving no clear headliner. Things are set for a major voice to rise. So the question facing Zucchelli, as Nian Fish puts it, “is how far to push without the shock of pushing too far.”

Are you ready? Cotton and metal weaves (2006); nylon moirés and PVC packaged wool (2007); silver PVCand mesh covered neoprene (2008); reflective wool and liquid twill; stretch, heat-bonded, debossed and molded foam wrapped in wool and nylon; punched and bonded paper-based fabric (2009); bark-texture coated cotton and heat-bonded Mylar; transparent nylon (2010); laminated nylon pile (2011); laser cut mesh cotton, resin suede bonded jersey (2012). Perhaps more than anyone in the field of luxury menswear, Zucchelli manipulates the genetic code of clothes, merging natural with synthetic materials as if engineering a sneaker, a car or the wardrobe of a Hollywood cyborg.

Zucchelli’s laboratory, a modest fluorescent-lit space with a discolored concrete floor, emerges from down a blaring all-white corridor in Calvin Klein’s 7th Avenue headquarters. The other surfaces are plastic laminate, the most ubiquitous and virtual of today’s architectural finishes, and they are pitch black. The contrast ignites my eyes. Everything looks sharp, most notably a few well-chosen crystals Zucchelli keeps by his desk. “The next time you are on the beach, pick up a grain of sand: that is a quartz crystal,” he says, explaining his fascination. “They are beautiful to look at and they have been used since the dawn of civilization. Our telecommunications system, like computers and telephones, is silicon-quartz based. Crystals have a ‘connecting’ power with other worlds or dimensions.”

Similarly, Zucchelli strives for higher-order connections in his working process. He almost never sits in his corner office, but prefers to share the open studio space with his five-person team listening to atmospheric and “mental” music. He favors small, well-appointed groups of “very good people that are happy and engaged.” Together they initiate every collection, which can include upwards of 40 pieces, by travelling, either to Los Angeles, London, Tokyo or Berlin on a scavenger hunt for books, magazines, vintage clothing and, most of all, ideas. At the moment I find myself looking at meticulous, hand-drawn sketches and material swatches the team is preparing for the Fall 2012 debut show in Milan.

Italo Zucchelli: I start every collection early. Nobody starts as early as I do. This is a system I inherited from Calvin. I never abandoned it because there is an ocean between us and where the clothes are produced. During the six-month process I get three fittings, which is a lot. It’s good. I can perfect things. The core concept I come up with now is what you are going to see in January. I say it because it has always been like that – that’s what I do.

Pierre Alexandre de Looz: What did you learn from working with Calvin Klein in the beginning?

I worked with him for three years and it was an amazing relationship. He always knew if he liked something or not. He solved things without compromise. I am similar in that sense. He was very quick. He made decisions almost immediately, which is very American. Europeans can be philosophical about things, but these are clothes! His response was very good, it was the main thing that allowed me to go in one direction or the other and then apply my European sense to make it the best possible. I learned the immediacy from him. I never heard him say, “I don’t know” … ever.

You never doubt yourself?

No I don’t. I question myself but not in that way. Last January the concept for the show was “protection” and I came up with it in August. Then we perfected the concept until the end.

Didn’t you tell me you have a German bent?

I joke about it.

You are being conceptually rigorous because you identify an idea and you stick with it. In other words, if I look at any collection, everything I see refers back to the exact concept you came up with in the beginning?

On the runway it is definitely the case. When you do a show the message should be self-explanatory. It’s important to express the vibe of it very clearly. Often it is verbalized at the beginning, but it can also happen towards the end. It helps the team to communicate and work together, and convey the construction of a mood.

To give it a name is to make it recognisable to everybody else, like the public and the press. Do you ever let yourself use more than a single word?

Yes, but I prefer one. I think it’s more powerful. I also like journalists who do their job when they see a show. I give them a word and they elaborate on it.

Is the person who wears your clothes American?

The world we live in now is global. People take planes the way we took buses 20 years ago. Of course different markets have different requirements. What I design is produced the same for every country, but retailers in each area purchase different elements, based on what they think they can sell. What you see in a runway show is only a third of what compromises a complete collection and the rest appears in the showroom for the buyers. The show gives a message to the journalists. The buyers however see the depth of collection in the showroom. The presentation is an edit and we aim for consistency. I could do a show where every outfit is different but it would be completely wrong and the press would get confused. You have to meet commercial needs.

So how do you keep your audience interested?

Instead of giving you a flannel blazer, which will always be in the collection, I might use a fabric that looks like flannel from afar but in reality it’s a techno-fabric mixing black and white; it’s a texture and it’s nylon; it doesn’t crease and it makes you look very sharp and modern. For Fall 2008 I used a thermo-fabric that loses color based on body heat. On the runway, the material gave off an impression of the model’s chest. These special effects are made to look effortless and it’s a way of updating familiar clothes.

As a matter of fact, some of your designs would not look out of place on a CG character like the T1000 Terminator. What kind of special effects, to use the term loosely, do you think men are prepared to wear today that they would not have accepted so easily in the past?

Men want more color. They do plastic surgery, use facial products, exfoliate and hydrate. I don’t think men will be wearing lipstick, but men’s make-up will become mainstream.

What are the most technologically challenging pieces you’ve ever created?

We created a Mylar suit, although it’s not really a fabric, for Fall 2010. The concept of that collection was protection and Mylar, which is used for marathon blankets, is very thin, light and insulating. It also has great texture and nothing else quite gives you that effect. Mylar is only produced in silver, so we found an American manufacturer who could print color on the material. When we started making the pieces, which were heat-bonded, we found that the color would melt and fade in the heat, so we had to start over. We learned we had to face it with a protective layer. It was a whole process that took three or four months to develop and the manufacturer doesn’t speed up just because you have a fashion show! We managed to include the pieces in the show and they looked great on the runway, but it was very challenging. These types of pieces are very specific and are not necessarily bestsellers, but the Mylar suits actually went into production and were well photographed.

What’s your advice for my fashion well-being?

Be yourself is the golden rule. It is very important to choose clothes that represent your personality. Choosing clothes is one of the most powerful ways to express who you are. You should wear the clothes and not the other way around. You also can’t look in the mirror for hours or be too analytical and obsessive about being perfect, because it will feel and look contrived, especially in a man. That’s what’s strong about the American fashion spirit and why sportswear was invented here. It is casual, less studied and spontaneous. That language really speaks to me because that’s how I choose and wear clothes myself. I almost never look at myself in the mirror.

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.