Open five randomly picked issues of Italian fashion magazines from five different decades (from the '60s to our days) and you will quickly realise that, while styles and clothes dramatically changed, something - or rather someone - remained the same, Anna Piaggi.
The Italian journalist and fashion editor who died on Tuesday at 81 was indeed not only the last flamboyant Italian icon of style, but also the last knowledgeable fashion journalist in Italy.
Born in 1931 in Milan, Piaggi started her career as an interpreter and translator working for publishing house Mondadori.
As a young girl her only connection with fashion was her father, manager and buyer for the department store La Rinascente, who died when she was 7.
After marrying in 1962 Italian photographer Alfa Castaldi, a contributor to Italian Vogue, Piaggi started working for fashion magazines.
Women's monthly Arianna was the first magazine she worked for together with colleague and friend Anna Riva.
Even in her early work it was possible to detect her talent: the May 1967 issue of Arianna included for example a photoshoot styled by Piaggi and Riva with pictures by Castaldi (taken around San Felice Circeo) that focused on swimwear and summer trends. The piece opened in a poetic way: "The sea is boisterous and raging. The high waves look like clouds. At dusk, it is possible to feel in the wind an innovative trend, Oceanic fashion - a new beach style".
Fashion historians could easily spot in the shoot Piaggi's influence in the glittery and oversized earrings donned by the models, Riva's passion for colours, but also Castaldi's elegant style in some of the black and white pictures.
While working as a journalist and fashion editor, Piaggi also started developing an interest for collecting vintage clothes. A genuine friendship with fashion historian and antique clothes dealer Vernon Lambert in London helped fostering this passion: in the '60s the two of them would often go around London's markets in search of fashion gems for their wardrobes.
Often photographed working at her beloved red Olivetti “Valentine” typewriter, in the '70s Piaggi worked in Italy for Vogue; from 1981 to 1983, she was the editor in chief of Vanity, and, since 1988, she worked as creative consultant for Vogue Italia.
She created a monthly spread for the magazine, called “D.P.” or “Doppie Pagine” (“Double Pages”), collages that achieved a cult following as they looked at everything that inspired her, from art to fashion, mixing her passions with current designs.
Her journalism also appeared on various Italian publications such as La Settimana Incom, Epoca, Linea Italiana, Annabella, Panorama and L'Espresso and she soon turned into an inspiration and a guiding light for many designers including Karl Lagerfeld (she appears in his Lagerfeld's Sketchbook: Karl Lagerfeld's Illustrated Fashion Journal of Anna Piaggi), Manolo Blahnik and Stephen Jones (whom she started featuring in Vanity in the early '80s).
Piaggi was also honoured in 2006 by the Victoria and Albert Museum that organised the "Anna Piaggi Fashion-ology" retrospective: according to the exhibition notes, Piaggi owned at the time almost 3,000 dresses and roughly 1,000 hats.
The journalist dedicated a volume to Missoni's Africa inspired costumes for the Italia 90 World Cup opening night (Africa di Missoni, co-written with teh late Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera) while Thames & Hudson published in 1998 the book Anna Piaggi’s Fashion Algebra, celebrating 10 years of Piaggi's "Doppie Pagine".
Eccentric, flamboyant, theatrical, exuberant, fearless, visionary, wild and at times grotesque, (like Blow) Piaggi wasn't a conventional beauty, but she knew how to use her style to highlight or hide her features, creating through it not only her own image, but an art form or rather a language, a very personal fashion semantics, and a way to bridge in one outfit different sexes, times, styles, eras, ideas and concepts (she was probably the only person capable of being a punk and a royalist at the same time in the same outfit...).
Like American icon Iris Apfel, Piaggi, who usually donned white-powdered make up, red cheeks, red lipstick and a miniature hat perched on her partially blue hair, wasn't afraid of mixing colours and styles together.
The last supporter of the maxi-maximalist aesthetic in Italy, Piaggi was a spectacle of daily surrealism throughout her life and probably the only person capable of wearing all together an inflatable flower on her head, an antique cape that had belonged to the Ballets Russes, and a vintage piece of haute couture more fit to a costume gallery than to the front row of a commercial runway show, accessorising this outfit with gloves and a parasol or a walking stick.
In a way she was the antithesis to all that the current editor of Vogue Italia Franca Sozzani stands for, but she was also a walking museum as her garments often had a cultural and historical value.
Despite Piaggi was always considered a fashion icon and despite a younger generation of fashionistas have now superficially started taking an interest in what the media annoyingly call “advanced style” (having suddenly realised that you can be above a certain age and still look stylish... a somewhat obvious concept if you think about all the grandmothers who inspired their grandchildren to become fashion designers or simply passed on a passion for clothes and accessories...), Piaggi's strong influence had started to wane in the last few years in favour of younger, yet less knowledgeable characters including bloggers, celebrities and other assorted self-centered individuals and fashion editors.
Having lost decades ago the less flamboyant but extremely knowledgeable Irene Brin and Maria Pezzi, Anna Piaggi's death marks the loss of the last influential fashion journalist in Italy. The path is now open for more flamboyant and excessive, but also more historically clueless characters, to officially emerge (Anna dello Russo? I'm cringing here...).
Who knows, like for the late Isabella Blow, now that Piaggi has gone we will probably have books, further exhibitions and even a film about her, with so many people eager to pay tributes and honour her. At least Piaggi won't be here to see these characters, these wandering window shops who have swapped their humanity in favour of visual overdoses of metallics, eye-popping digital prints and trendy colours. You can bet she will be somewhere up there laughing with the most flamboyant angels and shaking her head at the funny circus she left behind.
Images of Anna Piaggi's editorials on Arianna, Panorama and Vogue Italia are taken from my personal archive.
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