NATALIA BONIFACCI MEETS HIM AFTER THE EXHIBITION’S PRESS CONFERENCE IN HIS STUDIO WHERE OVER AN ESPRESSO THEY CHAT ON THE STORY OF HIS CAREER, INFLUENCES, THE CLUB AND THE BEAUTY OF SMILING.
Your bell tag says The Situation. What is that?
The Situation is my consulting firm. I manage Sansovino 6, my brand, and The Situation it’s kind of a 360 degrees design company consulting agency which I started with my business partner Alessio (Lepore) almost two years ago. We offer design consulting to firms, at many levels, from luxury to mass market. It’s my side gig. We kind of do full scale and capsule collections. The name came because a “situation” for me was a kind of a predicament that I would find myself in. I use that term a lot, so the name was suitable for the company because it was something we wanted to find ourselves involved in: it was “that” situation.
You are a fashion designer. Is that something you always wanted to do since you were little?
Actually no, because I didn’t know as a young child that that was actually a career. I was raised in the Mid West in America, so for me careers were policeman, fireman, plumber, housewife (he laughs). Although I was from a creative family, my mother was a musician, my grandmother was a seamstress, she would create things for other church ladies in the neighborhood. It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by creativity, but fashion and clothing was quite abstract to me. My primary studies were in fine art and illustration. I was always a drawer from the beginning.
Is that when you attended Parsons?
No, the first school I went to was the Colombus College of Art and Design in Columbia, Ohio. I grew up in Cleveland and I moved to Colombus, a few hours away. It’s a fantastic college town, there were a lot of creatives and a lot of energy going on. I was always interested in style and for money I started doing visual merchandising to pay for my college. A lot of my friends that were graduating one year before me moved to NYC so I said ‘Ok, I wanna move to NYC too’. I got a transfer doing window display and I moved to NYC. I ended up starting to work and making a lot of money and I decided to go back to school. My first degree that was a bachelors in Fine Arts. I went back to school with a major in Fashion Design at Parsons. I got all my partying and my college shit out of the way in Ohio, so in NYC I was quite focused. I worked my whole way through Parsons: I was full-time student and working full-time as a visual merchandiser at a very highscale. I was working for Calvin Klein, Giorgio, Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, That was my introduction to Europe because incidentally through Giorgio Armani I was working on European accounts as well. Then I started interning. I knew at that point that I was a creator and an artist and that I was really interested in the design of the product and what goes into making the product.
Was Italy the first country you visited in Europe?
No, the first city I ever came to in Europe was Berlin because I had a German boyfriend, Semjon, that was an artist from Berlin. It was early on and I was just mesmerized. Berlin, especially in the early stages, was this fantastic place.
Berlin is still a bit your obsession.
Yeah yeah yeah. It’s my second home. I spend a lot of time there. It’s still a city that inspires me. The first time I came to Italy was to meet with the owner of Bottega Veneta. I was finishing school a friend of mine that was doing visual merchandising for the company told that they were looking for a ready-to-wear designer. Up to that point Bottega Veneta was only bags and shoes, so they were looking for a designer to build a capsule collection that was kind of an accessory to the accessories. I was green. I was an incredible illustrator. My presentations were amazing but I didn’t have any luxury experience. I said ok. At that time Bottega Veneta to me was bags for old ladies, if I thought at time to work for someone it would had been Helmut Lang, or something like that or some Belgian situation. But I put together a portfolio, they set up the appointment and I met the owner, because it was before Kering, before the Gucci Group bought the brand. Laura Moltedo and I had a chemical connection, we laughed and we talked and less than two weeks later I was hired. I moved here. It’s been more than eighteen years.
Do you miss America?
Logistically… Well… Of course I miss America.. I miss my family, my family is there. My mom is in Atlanta. I don’t miss living in New York. New York is this incredible cultural mecca. I’m a total pop culture fanatic so that’s always my interest in New York. But then when I leave NYC I am ready to go. I feel at home here in Italy.
What were the challenges and what was the beauty of being an American in Italy?
My connection to Italy started out as work, so I remember when I first moved here I was miserable because I was such a New Yorker. All those daily things about living in NYC especially in the ’90s. The culture, the nightlife, the easiness and relaxation of such a multicultural city. When I first came to Italy, it was a struggle for everything. If I wanted to go out to a nightclub I had to have a proper shoe, everything was so official and precise. I had an initial friction. It took me a long time, a few years before I got really used to it, but it was also my dream. I was able to be right next to the factories or the maglificio or the pattern maker. That was part of the creation for me that I always wanted to have. I never wanted to have this distance between the manufactures and my creation. I just dove into work, my first years here was just work work work. But I am also an extremely social person and I got to have a great group of friends. As I get older now in retrospect there needs to be a division between work and life. I still have a very close knit of group of friends.
Do you think that separation between work and life is an italian quality in a way?
Kind of. You know what is really interesting, the close friends that I have, we spend time together. At their house or at my house, many of them are international people. It’s not really necessarily an Italian thing to have these kind of parties. I’m used to that, it’s really an American thing, the separation for me is a feeling. Italy in generally is still a very classic country. I think that the level of comfort that I found in Italy was created by the comfort that I had with work, but mostly it was created through my friends. And that is very Italian, you know? Everything is based on family in this country, you’re in a family or a collective group of friends. Everyone watches out for everyone else.
I feel that your group of friends has a “factory” feeling, you help each other creatively.
Of course. Yeah. Most of the friends that I have I met in the club when I first arrived here. Of course they come from lots of different facets but a lot of us have a fashion connection and we also have a nightlife crossover. I’m a total gemini so it’s not difficult for me to talk to people and I am curious. When we met we were all in development, we had just gotten to the city. To collaborate artistically was a natural process to grow up together and love and respect the people that you know.
Wasn’t the first Sansovino 6’s look-book a family affair as well?
Totally. Totally. Sansovino 6 started as an extension of me. The brand was launched in collaboration with the knitwear factory I was working with in order to get them more work, it was sort of created as a window of display. Yet I knew that I wanted it to be a collection of things that were for me and my friends, it was completely selfish (he laughs). I was creating things that we wanted asking ‘What do you have in your wardrobe that you covet and you love?’ I got back different responses and I responded to those things making them specifically stylized in full knitwear. The first look-book was with Lea (Cerezo) and Michele (Lamanna) and we kept shooting friends. We shot Patrik, my ex-boyfriend, Debra Shaw, who was a friend of mine, we shot you (he smiles), Marcelo (Burlon), Paolo (Farcic), everyone of us. Zelinda (Zanichelli) has shot so many look-books. I think that when you work with people that you know very well in a kind of comfortable atmosphere you get the best results. Of course it’s a collection and you wanna reach out different people, but if it doesn’t come from an honest place you can always tell.
What’s the Sansovino 6 kind of woman?
As a designer I never wanted to have the intention to be a dictator in any way. I know that is against what many people think of how a designer designs, but I always wanted to create things and allow the individual to interpret the pieces with their own sensibility. The woman or the man for me is confident, comfortable within themselves. They know themselves. I am also realistic. It’s not about a total look of anything, we mix those things. So I am offering these pieces for the individual to interpret how they want to integrate them in their wardrobes.
You have this kind of constant collaboration with some models, like Lea or Debrah. Are they muses?
Yeah. They are because they are friends and I respect their style. When I am creating looks with the friends I work with I allow them to say ‘Oh, I feel good in this or I feel good in that’. It would be strange for me to dress someone and seeing them not comfortable in the pieces. There is this idea of a model: everyone thinks ‘Oh, that’s their job to be good in anything you put on them’, but I don’t believe in that angle. When I collaborate I wanna make sure they feel at ease and they get back to me with an opinion. If I am working with Lea she’s gonna tell me “Eh, non mi piace” and then we work it out (we both laugh).
You are very vocal about the lack of diversity in fashion. Do you think there’s progress?
You know, it’s somehow this rolling wheel. When there is a vocal awareness in this industry about the diversity issue there’s a change. There was a moment two seasons ago. Everyone was very aware of it. You saw a visible change, but then a season later there was nothing. It’s an interesting thing. I can say this as a minority from the outside looking in. Growing up I didn’t see a reflection of myself in advertisement or television. I didn’t buy a bar soap that had a black hand on it. I would never see a pair of Calvin Klein underwear with a black body inside of them. It’s a very realistic perspective. As a costumer there were not pictures of product that were speaking specifically to me. That in a child can be very damaging because you don’t respect your own beauty. You don’t respect what you are because they are speaking of someone else. You become envious of what they are. I had a lot of issues about that as a child, issues about not being comfortable of who I am because of those things. Of course as you get older you understand the mechanism. It’s not true that you are not beautiful, but then you become angry. You do because you were fooled as a lot of people were fooled. The same thing within the fashion industry. You were told that black women on the magazines covers don’t sell. Based on what? Why not? And it is not true. These magazines have a lot of power, especially in this social media world that we live in. The big problem is that you can’t expect diversity coming through on the ou.php?post=50682&action=eity on the inside. I’m always working with companies where I am the only person of color. You can open up your IG account, look at young companies and look at the full feed from top to bottom on what they are inspired by, and you can look at many profiles and you won’t see a person of color. No asian. No black. Only white. We are moving ahead in baby steps but I still see a huge problem and who knows where is gonna go.
This is your way to make a change, being vocal about it.
Absolutely. It’s a provocation and I speak from a place of honesty. I worked in this industry for 20 years. I know that discrimination exists when you can say that in luxury design houses at top level you can count in half of your hand, maybe, the creative directors that are at the helm of these companies that are other than white. So in other positions as well. What are they saying: that there is no talent other than white? Are they not finding them? Are they not studying fashion design, photography or art-direction? Impossible, They are not being selected. Why are they not being selected? Question mark. And that arises to what we see in the communication of the final product, through the casting on the runway and in editorials and advertisement.
It has changed in better though.
Of course. As I said it earlier, but in waves. I find so funny at a certain point there was a moment where everyone was looking at the Prada runway ‘Oh my God, Miuccia Prada has a black girl!’
Two seasons or something ago, yeah, not too long ago.
Everyone was so excited, because prior to that it was Naomi in the ’90s. So the award went to Miuccia. Of course it’s a very visible company, and I have the ultimate amount of respect for Prada as a company, but once again, what does that really mean? I’m optimistic, I do my part in anything I am involved in and I question people. I ask questions and I am vocal when I need to be to move this forward.
You got in the exhibition that is opening tonight, congratulations for that!
Thank you. It’s interesting because in the exhibition they are talking about the new vocabulary of Italian fashion since 1998.
Talking about diversity, being included into the history of Italian fashion as a black designer is really something.
Yeah, of course! I don’t know if I’m the only black person in the exhibition, but I was the only black person at the press conference this morning. I noted of course, it often happens in Italy. But, it’s an amazing thing! The exhibition is extremely well done. I kind of had a moment of wow, because in the exhibition they are talking about the new vocabulary of Italian fashion by the way of Italian and foreigners who actually work in Italy. So I thought to myself ‘Wow, does that mean I am an italian designer?’ You know, my school and everything has been Italian, my history has been Italian. It’s a beautiful exhibition so it was nice to be included.
You’ve had Sansovino6 for a about 10 years. It’s a nice achievement.
You know, of course my thing is that I do what I do because I love to do what I do. So of course it’s nice when someone taps you on the back saying you are doing a nice thing, but I am not that guy. I trickle along. I could had made certain decisions in the path of my career and I could had been in a much different place than what I am in today. We are slowly growing. It’s a manageable growth, we are a small company and a small team. When I see a sweater on someone on the street of course I am very happy, sometimes I don’t realize the reach or the effect of what I do or have done until someone actually tells me. So this is one of those instances. When they contacted me to be part of it I thought ‘You even know what I do.’ I always have this underdog attitude, I always like doing things quietly and I am not a screamer.
What was the most influential encounter of your career?
They are three. A game changer was the Bottega Veneta job. So it would be Laura Moltedo, she was the owner. She put so much trust in me. I was twenty-something… She chose me based on nothing, besides beautiful drawings and passion, I am not sure that would happen today. My intro to Europe was made through Samian, my ex-boyfriend, that was important. And then my ex business business partner. Before Sansovino I had a clothing line called LEFLESH with Manuela Morin: she’s my soulmate. We learnt a lot together. We made a lot of mistakes together. It was a very important relationship in my development.
The quality you like the most in people?
Whichone do you like the least?
You use a lot the word “chic” (he laughs), what’s elegance to you?
Elegance can be an attitude. When I use the word chic it’s not always based on how people put themselves together. It can be a mode in the way of acting or being. To me a chic person is a respectable proper honest person. You know when I say ‘Oh my god, I love, she’s so chic.’ I talk about a full attitude about a person. I use it loosely in that respect. And chic to me in style means also a lot security, when you have that ability to carry what you feel good in in a really strong convincing way.
What’s the best quality about you and what is your biggest flaw?
I think I’m charming. Honestly charming. Because you can be fake charming we know that (we both laugh). And that was honest as well. Flaw? I have a short attention span.
This is a rhetoric question because I know you, in that sense, we are similar: good night sleep or night out?
What is the magic?
When I was in NYC it was the fear of missing something. I would go to a blank envelope opening if you invited me (we both laugh). I’d be there. I came from Ohio, so my entrance in NYC I wanted to see. It wasn’t about being seen. I was never that guy. I wanted to hear great music and be with fun people. I loved the club. The moods and atmospheres, I find it extremely inspiring. I am still at forty-five years old at the club and I got no problem with that (he laughs). If I had the opportunity to go somewhere and I am not exhausted, I will go out. It’s tapered though. And this tapering thing it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve been Ok i don’t need to be out everywhere with everyone. It changed in Milan, but when I go to Berlin, I’m out again.
If you were to be able to give a piece of advice to your fifteen year old self what would you tell yourself?
I would say be more focused at an early age.
Which is funny because hearing you talk it seems you were extremely focused.
Yeah, I was, but I made a lot of mistakes… Ok, not mistakes, this is life, life rolls that way (he laughs). In my early career I was more lazy, in the sense, I was working very hard, but I think I could had gotten more out of the experience than I did personally. Development and really learning.. Part of that was that I wanted to be out and about, and it’s normal when you are young. Yet what ends up happening, when you have responsibilities of a huge company at such a young age, you can go out, but the next day you have to deliver. I was always good at pulling something together in the last minute and still, I can deliver last-minute when I need to, but often you need development time for the ideas and you not always have that time when you are fucking around.
…in the club.
Yeah (he laughs).
You are very close to your Mom. What’s the best piece of advice she has given you?
So many (he pauses) Super simple. She always used to tell me that if I didn’t smile to others, if I frowned, my face would freeze in that frown and I was gonna grow up with this frozen frown on my face (he smiles). My Mom has the same gap and teeth as me. Even if you’re having a bad you need to smile when you meet someone.
It welcomes the world.