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A passionate line of illustrations.

Until his early death in 1987, Antonio Lopez, known simply as Antonio, was the world's foremost fashion illustrator. His vigorous style, synonymous with dynamic line and vibrant color, conjures up images of agressive good looks and a frenzied baroque lifestyle characteristic of the second half of the twentieth century. The indelible mark of this Puerto Rican laureate artist was underscored last year when the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) hosted an encyclopedic exposition in New York City entitled "Art Fashion." Focusing on the pantheon illustrators of this century - everyone from Paul Iribe to Cecil Beaton - this event showed Antonio to be one of the last great voices of a dying art.

In the 1920s and 1930s Erte and Benito (from Russia and Spain respectively) created styles that were widely imitated and were definitive reflections of their times. In their hands illustration took an unprecedented turn. Throughout the world, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, the smart set witnessed the emergence of their immediately recognizable creations. Likewise, in the 1960s Antonio established himself as the reigning arbiter, giving fashion a much needed impetus. As art historian Herbert Muschamp succinctly put it, "Antonio used enchantment to break the spells of racial prejudice. The enchantment was that of beauty ... he never stopped looking for it and never stopped finding it. " Antonio also summed up the moment through his unmistakable iconography, becoming the embodiment of everything that was "in" from the 1960s to the 1980s. He often used his magic to transform the work of well-known clients such as Rudi Gernreich, Yves St. Laurent, Valentino and Zandra Rhodes.

Although FIT did a major Antonio retrospective in 1975, a more comprehensive one was arranged posthumously in 1987. Starting in New York, this show, which includes his commercial as well as fantasy works, has toured Tokyo, Milan, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. This fall it is slated to travel in Australia to Melbourne, Sidney and Brisbane. Arrangements are being made for the show to open in Germany and France in 1993. Like the revivals of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the return of the '60s and '70s is already here and, not surprisingly, Antonio is one of the prime luminaries.

Antonio's early youth was decidedly more sober than his fastpaced, globe-trotting latter life. He was born in the Puerto Rican farm country of Utuado in 1943. The marriage of his parents, Francisco Lopez and Maria Luisa Orama, was arranged by their families when they were 17 and 14 respectively. A precocious child, the first of three sons, Antonio was always attracted to visual things. He started to draw at the age of two, teaching himself the essentials of a craft that only needed to be elaborated. Antonio's mother was his first model. A seamstress by profession, she was an extraordinary beauty and the child loved to sketch her while she was busily making clothes. He would arrange artfully the leftover cloth she gave him on makeshift stick figures and then draw them. He quickly developed an understanding of fabric, learning to transform its illusion onto the flat surface of paper by carefully observing how garments were worn. Another early influence was the pageantry of the Catholic Church with its many festive holidays and dramatic processions such as those of Holy Week. Antonio's roving eye took note of the blue of the Madonna, the red of the Sacred Heart and the purples that seemed to permeate the entire spectacle. "I was brought up a Catholic, but since my father was a spiritual healer I was also influenced by white magic and its mystical aura. " Those who knew him well say that the elder Lopez, who was a farmer by profession, was primarily a santero and a highly respected one. This coupling of orthodox Catholicism with native folkloric sensibility accounts for much of the dynamism and radiance that is an integral part of Antonio's work.

Antonio also remembered his father as being strangely encouraging to his fashion work - he often gave him dolls instead of baseball bats. When he was five, the family moved to San Juan where he was taught to read and write by his grandparents. Antonio did not go to school until age eight, when the family moved to New York City. He loved to tell the story of how his father had to resort to trickery to get his family to join him "up north." Having made the decision to settle in New York and knowing that the family would not adjust easily to such a drastically different climate and culture, he decided to send them a postcard of Miami which he had purchased in Florida while serving in the military. The card, depicting gorgeous tropical gardens drenched in copious sunshine, arrived with the inscription "Greetings from New York." From that moment on, Antonio's dream was to join his father in that utopia he thought existed in el norte. When he finally arrived, in the dead of winter in sub-zero weather, he was totally unprepared for the tall buildings and gray atmosphere of his new home in Spanish Harlem.

Although the experience proved to be traumatic for such an imaginative child, Antonio soon grew accustomed to his new life. His father, who had astounding manual dexterity, promptly learned a new trade - he began to create store mannequins. The process of molding plaster and subsequently applying paint fascinated Antonio, who decided that this occupation could open new creative possibilities. After school he joined his father to help put hair on the mannequins. "I was exposed to fashion through my mother, and through my father I was able to create doll-like objects and style them. It was a wonderful time for me - my fantasies were fulfilled. In most other respects I led a very ordinary life, playing baseball and doing things normal kids do. But I always thought my home more exciting."

His mother, whom he considered his first makeover, fully blossomed at the age of 28 when, according to Antonio, she became incredibly beautiful. "She was the kind of woman who exuded sex. It was all learned. So I found out early on that with very little you can go a long way, and that's what I tell all my girls now," he would later recall. His obsession for shoes, which was manifested in innumerable drawings, was kindled by his mother's penchant for collecting them. In school, Antonio sought out the most beautiful girls and they responded to him because of his sensitivity. "I knew what they liked and how to please them. While other boys were too busy intimidating them or teasing them, I was charming them!"

When he was 11 Antonio had a brief stint as a tap dancer, performing for a year on children's television. Nevertheless, he soon returned to his all-consuming passion for drawing. Winning innumerable awards, he was encouraged by his teachers to pursue a career in the arts. As a student at the New York High School of Art and Design, he already possessed a fluidity of style that was later to become his trademark. In 1960, at age 17, Antonio enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He was one of the youngest students to be accepted and the illustration department, noticing his outstanding talent, made sure to hold on to him. While at FIT, Antonio persistently visited the offices of editor Rudy Millendorf at Women's Wear Daily (WWD), then a great bastion of style. Showing a growing portfolio, he begged for the opportunity to get a foot in the door of this powerful journal. He was finally given a job illustrating hats and accessories. As his work became more impressive, the resident illustrators became increasingly jealous. Eventually his unmistakable graphics caught the eye of the editor of the New York Times Magazine, Carrie Donavan, who had the brilliant idea of having Antonio cover important Broadway openings. Antonio's innovative illustrations of celebrities attending these premieres began to appear regularly in the Times. By this time he was considered the star illustrator at WWD and its publisher, John Fairchild, would not allow him to freelance for other periodicals. An ultimatum was presented: he was to work exclusively for WWD or there would be no more assignments. Antonio, who felt this would limit his artistic growth, chose to leave and consequently became persona non grata at WWD until he and Fairchild reconciled years later. However, his departure from the "bible of fashion" paid off because it led to other far-ranging projects on the international scene and contracts with important publications, designers and firms.

Antonio's key words were beauty, volume and shape. Throughout his life he worked three-dimensionally, often altering, fitting and redoing the garments that he was about to draw. Although the idea of actually creating clothes was always at the back of his mind, he never started his own line. "To me, the human body isn't naturally sexy. The clothes are responsible for making us aware of our sexuality, while nudity leaves little to the imagination. It's like truth when it's so obvious - there's no room for anything else. Clothes give us many choices and possibilities."

The late 1960s were frantic, as well as prolific, years for Antonio, whose Broadway apartment doubled as a studio. Preferring to work through the night and sleep until noon, his schedule was usually of marathon proportions. He juggled several projects at once, creating a major book on his fashion philosophy entitled Antonio's Girls, a delirious interpretation of 1001 Arabian Nights, and lecturing on fashion at colleges and universities. Frequently his work took him to other countries. From 1969 to 1975 he lived in Paris where he collaborated closely with luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld, Kenzo, Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. His apartment on the Rue de Rennes became a center for wayward models, many of whom went on to become internationally recognized. Among his Galateas were actress Jessica Lang, disco diva Grace Jones and model Jerry Hall. The latter reminisced about working with Antonio in the early years. "Antonio really taught me everything. He wouldn't pick up a girl who didn't have some sort of personality. He'd teach you what to do with your hands when you were posing. I learned how to do makeup from the way he drew me. I'd sit with his drawings of me and copy the makeup exactly."

Antonio's European following paled in comparison to the "Antoniophilia" of cult proportions that took root in Tokyo, where he was received like a movie star or political hero. Artist Philip Smith commented, "the Japanese study Antonio's work for hours, reading his map of American culture, deciphering the social code that can be traced in the eyes, the nose, the hair, the posture and the movement." His numerous visits to Japan were celebrated with sell-out exhibits of his drawings.

Nevertheless, Antonio remained loyal to his adopted home, the Big Apple. "My inspiration comes from all over but my true energy has always been here, and my years in Paris only helped to reinforce my belief that my creative force springs from the vitality of New York City." Living in this world capital also enabled him to maintain a close cultural proximity with his Caribbean homeland - he never forgot that he was boricua. Although fame came to him at an early age, he always encouraged beginners, especially Latin Americans, towards whom he felt a deep sense of solidarity.

Paradoxically, the single Antonio trademark signature actually encompassed two individuals: Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos. Juan, also a native of Puerto Rico, was referred to as Antonio's alter-ego and "engineer of the impossible." They met when both were studying at FIT, shortly before Antonio's career took off with his debut at Women's Wear Daily. Of the two, Antonio was the flamboyant one, inspiring countless photographers to pose him with some of the world's most striking women. On the other hand, Juan remained the silent partner, preferring to stay out of the limelight. A man of exquisite taste and art director par excellence, Juan has a mind that never stops generating ideas. He is a former Alvin Nicolai dancer who has not lost the muscular agility nor the mental discipline required to perform the most demanding tasks. Designer Charles James summed up his attributes, "his supreme talent is to make order out of the chaotic inspiration of other artists ... all of whom must, because of their nature, work under and/or invite stress. He has the genius necessary to equate the emotional with practical issues, a mountain which all artists with the same problems must face. "

Many people, including Antonio, benefitted from Juan's valuable suggestions. "He and I blend our observations," said Antonio in 1976. "There are no rules. Often Juan - whose insights are keen - steers me in the right direction. Over the years he has been my backbone, even by putting me down." Since the unfortunate early death of his associate put an end to their rich collaboration, Juan has been busy giving lectures, organizing exhibitions and keeping the name alive, while making sure details are correct. An element he feels was fundamental to Antonio's style was his Latin sensuality, an ingredient, heretofore, missing in the fashion world. What was refreshing about the Antonio/Juan team was that, in spite of their popularity, they never became jaded. Instead, they approached their craft as a never-ending, learning experience through which they clearly saw so much of the falsity that is prevalent in chichi couture circles. They found their greatest mentor in Charles James, the only recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in the world of fashion. James, whose clothes were akin to great paintings and architecture, refused to compromise with commercial considerations and thus had great appeal to the iconoclastic younger generation who saw in him a rebel. This septuagenarian designer was equally impressed by the Puerto Rican duo. "In my distraught, if super-colorful life, both Lopez and Ramos have played more important roles than any of the so-called self-styled fashion experts, whose approval of my work so often seemed to condemn it as worthless."

Currently Juan is putting together the catalogue raisonne of his deceased partner. The opus will be organized into three volumes corresponding to the three decades in which Antonio reigned. Each decade seemed to bring out something unequivocal in Antonio. In the '60s he created galvanic drawings that captured the vigor as well as the explosiveness of that period, including a series that was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine. These svelte figures strongly resemble the work of French cubist painter Fernand Leger. Antonio's work also had a timely "Pop" quality, with a scattering of psychedelic elements that made it highly suitable for the poster art then in vogue.

In the uncertain, nostalgic '70s the experimentation went even further. Antonio added more color and movement to the ever changing complex schemes and actually drew with lipstick, mascara and nail polish. He also went through a phase which emphasized his superb sense of line. The incorporation of photography was another addition to an already mixed media. He and Juan started an obsessive collection of candid shots of their friends which now constitutes an unusual record of those times. Paloma Picasso, Giorgio di Sant'Angelo and Marisa Berenson gladly disrobed and appeared in bathtubs for these spontaneous pictures. Valentino posed with a plastic bag over his face; Andy Warhol, Margaux Hemingway, Halston and countless others appear in equally provocative shots. Warhol shared with Antonio a certain mask of passivity and notions about the artist's life as a work of art. It is unclear which of them first started using the Polaroid camera, but both admired the flat, dumb quality of the resulting pictures, which "arrested instantaneously the evanescence of our lives." There is also a large collection of conceptual series photographs that are on a par with the best work of Les Levine or Dennis Oppenheim.

The extravagant '80s were to witness some of Antonio's most powerful work, with even more explosive color and some of the most vivacious schemes ever concocted. His schedule continued at the same frantic pace. During this time he set up two fashion workshops in the Dominican Republic, bringing in thirty students from the United States to work with local recruits. He also continued his magazine work, including a large assignment for Vanity in Milan. Then an unfortunate turn of events took place in his life. Antonio became yet another victim of the devastating AIDS scourge. He chose to confront this tragedy in his own unique way. The chemotherapy treatment prescribed made him more ill and confirmed his decision to avoid conventional medicine and hospitals. Working strenuously every day, he decided to take a homeopathic approach and traveled to Guadalajara for a remedy that actually made him feel better. He stopped in Los Angeles for the vernissage of an exhibition of his work at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica. With 1000 people attending the opening and a nearly complete sellout of the works on display, this show was an overwhelming success. Two days later Antonio died at the UCLA Medical Center, surrounded by friends. Artist Paul Caranicas recalls, "he looked grand until the end." It was as if he had willed the ugliness to stay suppressed within. Somehow it was fitting that even in death a ruling sense of beauty should emerge in order to protectively cloak him.

Antonio's manifold art left a considerable legacy. A large part of his success was due to a constant, restless experimenting and searching. He immersed himself in the essence of several mediums, borrowing and learning from the mainstreams of art - nineteenth century Japanese prints, German Expressionist painting, Botticelli and the pre-Raphaelites. Explaining the sources of his inspiration, Antonio once said, "it changes daily. Today it is Leonardo da Vinci, yesterday it was Elizabethan costume and the day before it was what some guy was wearing at the gym. My use of the period ideas has nothing to do with adapting a certain style or look. Instead, it forces modernism to go somewhere else. To become more than it is. "Ultimately, it was a process of reshaping the world.

It has been said that one advertisement by Antonio could sell 300 skirts in one department of one store in one day. Those who sought his services were primarily interested in the merchandising of their products, but whether they realized it or not, there was a serendipitous fringe benefit attached to the contract. Decidedly going beyond the commonplace, Antonio created a vital and timely vision, and the designers whose work he illustrated were thus assured a piece of immortality.

Federico Suro, a native of the Dominican Republic, is a freelance writer residing in the U.S. He served as Ambassador of his country to UNESCO.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez
Author:Suro, Federico
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1992
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