The Aspesi shop on Milan’s Via Montenapoleone has long been a favoured destination for the fashion cognoscenti because its beautifully made basics are the kind of timeless pieces that form the backbone of many wardrobes. Or at least they would do so if more people knew about the brand. That’s the thing about Aspesi. It’s been small enough to remain more or less a secret, and that’s usually how the cognoscenti like things to stay. But that may be about to change now that Lawrence Steele is creative director. He debuts today with a collection for Spring 2022.
Steele first met Alberto Aspesi in the mid-Eighties, soon after the young American arrived in Milan. He was assisting Franco Moschino, and one of Moschino’s side-gigs was designing for Aspesi. Steele moved on to work with Miuccia Prada for four years, before launching his own label in 1994. Alberto Aspesi helped finance him, and Steele signed on as a creative consultant for the brand. He closed his own label in 2004, but consulted for Aspesi until 2017, when he became co-creative director of Marni with his partner Francesco Risso. So there is a strong sense here of a career coming full circle. It’s an odd sensation for Steele. “Like going back to my past to correct my sins,” he muses. “A lot of the work I did years ago is still part of the collection that’s sold. The brand is about basics. It evolves very slowly which is what I love about it.” He singles out the bias-cut dresses and the use of silk cady as Steele holdovers. “It’s funny to be haunted by things that you designed years ago. You’ve changed and some things don’t change. Which can be a great thing but also not.”
The haunting bit is the reminder that time is passing. “Being in the perennial present makes me feel more Generation-Z,” Steele says in his characteristically droll way. “Recognising that time has passed kind of ages me and puts me out of sync. Also, the last few years I’ve been working on Marni, a very different kind of project, and it’s like time travel at a certain point. You’re moving backwards in time and in that sense it’s kind of haunting, because I really feel connected to this particular moment, which I feel is the most exciting moment since the moment before the big, big corporations starting buying up the brands and making everything vertical. The time before was very liberating, there were a lot of young designers doing amazing things, then the whole fashion world evolved into a very big machine. And this moment — I don’t know if it’s post-Covid — has brought a lot of interesting and very necessary spontaneity.”
At which juncture, I should point out that Steele, now in his late fifties, is so elegantly ageless that the only way he’s out of sync with time is by being the living embodiment of timelessness, a notion which he has successfully carried over into his work, as women who still wear his dresses from a quarter century ago would happily attest. “I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of timeless clothing, of making the perfect piece that stays in a wardrobe for a long time. But when I look at that garment, I can only think about how differently I would do it today. It’s like looking at an old photograph of yourself, when you had hair…” The analogy makes sense given that the last time Steele had hair would have been in his earliest years at Aspesi.
The brand’s timeless aspect was always a lure for Steele from the moment he encountered it. “It was very Italian and I was new to Italy,” he recalls. “I fell in love with it because it was very small, and you had to be in the know to know about it. Today, the world has opened up so vastly through technology and there’s something quaint about Aspesi being a small brand, but there’s something very exciting about taking its values out into the world. There are so many ways you can speak about core values. You can reach millions of niches at the same time. Being a secret and doing things well, but reaching the far corners of the earth — I think that’s an exciting prospect.”
There are so many ways you can speak about core values. You can reach millions of niches at the same time. Being a secret and doing things well, but reaching the far corners of the earth — I think that’s an exciting prospect.
“Fashion has always been about grand gestures and quick changing and I think that the DNA of Aspesi has always been slow change — or no change,” Steele continues. “As opposed to speaking loudly, it’s a quiet thing. When you put it on, it connects to people who get it.” He compares it to the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the subtly imperfect, lived-in quality that triumphs over the grand gesture for a particular kind of cultured customer. Steele insists there are many, many more of them than the fashion industry might think.
But, then, he has always posed a subtle challenge to fashion orthodoxy, always been an outsider. “My father was in military, I travelled throughout my whole youth, didn’t live anywhere for more than two years until I reached the age of 15. I lived in Germany, Japan, in different parts of the United States. I’ve always seen what is different in humanity and what is similar from the point of view of someone who comes in, has to fit in, and then moves on.”
“I’m also gay and black,” Steele adds with a dry chuckle. “There’s so much that keeps my perspective centred in myself. I was never about making things to necessarily succeed. I didn’t want to sell my label either, that’s why I shut it down. I wanted with my work to create something unique to me. It was never about how big I became but how true to a signature I could be. And of course clothes are an easy way to introduce yourself to the world when you’ve just arrived, and that language to me was always what I’ve been about: the power of identity, clothes as an extension of the best self that you want to put forward to the world.” He was sewing his own from the time he was 14, and his heroes were always classic designers like Charles James, Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga, “people who had made a mark with form and shape, who sculpted”.
In 1999, the New Yorker profiled Steele famously — or notoriously — highlighting what the journalist Michael Spector felt was a lack of the hunger he felt a young designer needed to make it. It was a time when the industry was swinging into major hype mode. Steele remembers the launch of P.Diddy’s fashion range gobbling headlines. He didn’t fit into that at all. “I never thought I had to be about the short game.” Spector clearly saw that as a failing, so his piece made painful reading for the designer. On the other hand, he insists now that he could afford to be sanguine. “Ten pages in the fucking New Yorker! That was the win right there. Who cared about the rest of it? I think I was the first to have that kind of coverage. For him it was about where I was going, for me I was already there with the article.”
Read it now and Spector’s story stands as a portrait not just of Steele, but of that time. The journalist posited the industry as a Darwinian competition. “A lot of the people he was comparing me to don’t exist,” Steele notes with a hint of schadenfreude. “I was in for the long run. I never stopped working. And it was my choice to shut down my business because I didn’t want to sell it or get a partner. At some point, fashion moves on, and you move with it or become extinct, so I moved on with it. I moved into the houses that were being supported by the industry and I stayed relevant.”
That meant more to him than the ego massage of fashion stardom. Goodness knows he could have tried that route. The year after the New Yorker story came out, Steele dressed Jennifer Aniston for the Oscars and for her wedding to Brad Pitt. “But it’s more about leaving a legacy than it is about being on the front page,” he says in the cold light of the post-pandemic Twenties. “Also, I suppose I’m very conscious about how my identity, my own person remains as a legacy. I hear from people that I’m loved. I’ve taught people, and assistants of mine have gone on to do amazing jobs and they mention me, I’m very conscious that being an example of a kind of humanity perhaps has more value to me than being a superstar. I do have a big inner world in which I’m happy to live, I care about being in love, I’ve had amazing love stories. I’m very connected to meaningful experiences.”
I get the feeling Steele is someone who learns a lot as he goes along. For the last while, his love story has been with Marni’s Francesco Risso.”Living Francesco’s experience, he’s younger, he has a trajectory, a lot of creativity and energy, he’s the guy in the Roaring Twenties who wants to party, he’s all about that moment, and I’m the guy who sits back and considers, after this moment we’ve been through, what the way forward is. I see a very clear storyline in that explosive energy which someone might miss but I say, ‘Oh no, this is classic’. I can recognise the pieces he does that become classic. In a parallel universe amongst the noise and haste, there are these images that you recognise immediately. ‘Oh that’s iconic!’”
We were making images on a very narrow band of identities and we were doing a disservice to people who were passionate about what we were doing but who were not finding themselves there.
Youth is something Steele comes back to often, even when he is saying something like, “I look exactly the same as I always did because that’s who I am. I’m not saying there’s a karma that prevents my face from wrinkling, but there’s a serenity that works well with my biorhythm.” Still, it isn’t exactly serenity he has on his mind when he talks about fashion’s responsibility to the young in a tumultuous world.
“We don’t just make clothes, we make images. I think there was a moment when we were making images on a very narrow band of identities and we were doing a disservice to people who were passionate about what we were doing but who were not finding themselves there. I lived that on a daily basis. We’re only rising in our consciousness of what that actually feels like because we’re closer and closer to each other through this technology. We cannot ignore the person standing next to us anymore. We’re on the same ship and it’s either navigating in the right direction or it’s sinking.”
Still, Steele’s own serenity is shored up by optimism. He photographed his first Aspesi collection on the children of friends, involving a new generation in his creative process. That could be read as a subliminal expression of Steele’s faith in logging on for the long run. As the old shibboleths of wealth creation and competition reassert themselves, Steele remains convinced that, “there are people coming into the business that think about it differently. It’s going to be exciting to see how the opportunities play out. And being able to communicate in a more creative way is only going to be added on top of that existing platform which was in need of evolution.”
So Steele’s last words on Aspesi are these: “A work in progress that will evolve to the right thing.”