With deep breaths, the flick of a pencil and an eye for the sublime, he defined an era through his enigmatic sketches of the day’s silhouettes. Courted by a cavalcade of stars including Jessica Lange, Grace Jones and Jerry Hall, he documented the opulence of Parisian haute couture and heady pedestrians for nearly 30 years on the pages of newspapers and magazines.
He added color where there wasn’t ever before. And did it with a style that was entirely his own.
Each work was signed with an unequivocal signature: Antonio.
More than 100 illustrations and photographs by the Puerto Rican-born fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez and his creative partner, Juan Ramos, will be on display at the Phoenix Art Museum from Friday, Sept. 21 to Jan. 5, 2020. The exhibit, “Antonio: The Fine Art of Fashion Illustration,” explores 30 years worth of commercial, editorial and artistic works that interpret a garment at its most evocative.
“The biggest thing with Antonio was movement. It was all about the body and how clothing moves, not how it looks on a hanger. (It begs the question) how does clothing inform your behavior?” says Loretta Tedeschi-Cuoco, an Arizona-based artist and educator. She’ll teach a fashion-illustration workshop at the museum on Saturday, Oct. 5.
“I try to do that with my work today. How do you make something playful? You want to keep it engaging and not just an aloof fashion figure on a page.”
Elevating fashion illustration to fine art
Many of Lopez’s fashion studies convey the staccato rhythm of a disco hit from Nile Rodgers or Sylvester pulsating across a light-up dance floor. It’s in the way a magenta ostrich feather shrug frames a gazelle model’s body like a cocoon. It’s exhibited by the manner a model saunters out of frame in an oversize teal coat. Even when they’re faceless, his figures vibrate with life on the page.
“He elevated fashion illustration into the realm of fine art through his use of color and composition,” Tedeschi-Cuoco says. “The artwork went well beyond ‘selling the merch’ and was more about engaging the audience through storytelling.”
Tedeschi-Cuoco, who spent decades working in New York’s fashion industry as an illustrator and instructor, describes the mononymous Antonio as a game-changer in the paradigm of fashion illustration. She met him only once during an exhibit of his work in the early ’80s. He was at the epicenter of a group of students asking for him to scrawl his signature across their faces “and he couldn’t sign his name fast enough.”
An admirer of Lopez’s work since she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology from 1972-1974, Tedeschi-Cuoco says that Lopez remains an influence of hers along with Kenneth Paul Block.
“There was no longer a vapid figure looking into the distance with a hand on the hip,” she says, adding that his models weren’t just a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Connecticut-bred set. “Himself being Puerto Rican, he found ethnically diverse models. It was very inspiring and always different.”
Lopez also attended FIT and was scooped up by fashion-trade paper Women’s Wear Daily before graduation. He later worked for glossy magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and sketched the work of designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent during an era in which photography was becoming prioritized over illustration.
As the ’70s rolled on, Lopez left New York for Paris and segued between mediums by incorporating Instamatic photographs in his portfolio including snapshots of legendary pop figures and muses like Pat Cleveland, Tina Chow, Hall, Jones and Lange.
Those halcyon days of creativity, beauty and burgeoning stardom are on display in the 2017 documentary “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco.” Upon the film’s release, director James Crump, told the Hollywood Reporter that he was happy to bring to light to Lopez and Ramos’ achievements.
“…It’s a worthy and exciting story about a bygone period that will never exist again. Anything was attainable, anything was possible,” he told THR. “That period didn’t go on very long. Things changed and got darker. We lost Antonio and we lost Juan and hopefully, this film will raise awareness of their lives.”
The Phoenix Art Museum will have two showings of the documentary on Saturday, Oct. 5 and Saturday, Oct. 20. Both showings will be free with an RSVP.
‘Strong and assured lines’
The exhibition was curated by Dennita Sewell, a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s fashion program who served as the Phoenix Art Museum’s curator of fashion design for 19 years.
She created a progression of Lopez’s earliest ’60s commercial work through his “Tales from the One Thousand and One Nights,” an illustrated book of stories from Arabian folklore. It was one of his last prominent works before he died at age 44 in 1987 of complications of AIDS; Ramos died at age 53 in 1995 of the virus.
“He was prolific and did so much important work with all the major designers and stores. The drawings have such style to them and the work changes stylistically over the years because he had such a great range of skills,” Sewell says. “I would be hard-pressed to draw a line between his editorial work and his artistic projects. I think he gave his artistic all in every project. It was never an assignment.”
Though Lopez’s work has been on display a number of times in New York for the fashion set, there are still some hidden gems that have made their way into the show. Twelve large-scale drawings created in 1973 during a series of Vogue seminars will be on display for the first time to the general public.
Sewell has stewarded several high-profile shows that have gone beyond traditional showings of historic fashions including Gianfranco Ferré’s ode to a wardrobe staple “The White Shirt According to Me” and the museum’s first virtual reality exhibition “Moonage Virtual Reality.”
For more than 50 years, numerous exhibitions and acquisitions at the museum have been made possible through the Arizona Costume Institute, a group of donors that supports and supplements fashion design endeavors. The organization’s president, Kathie May, told The Republic that it’s particularly exciting to discover and expose pieces of the past that make people see fashion as art.
Sewell said the museum was lucky to display Lopez’s work, which captures the life he saw in all his subjects.
“I feel inspiration in how strong and assured his lines are. Look at the work and really imagine how he might have done it,” Sewell says. “You’ll notice certain styles that draw from the pop culture of the ’60s and a different, free and bold style in the ’70s and ’80s. He had the antenna to draw forth what our time is through art.”
(Full story available on azcentral.com. This article originally appeared in The Arizona Republic, Sunday, September 22, 2019.)