Truth and purity.
Interview | Roberto Maria Clemente
From Italy to London and back. But always with London in mind. Here we tell how to become a creative director for a recognized brand as Saville Raw, starting from a “homely” school. You must have as friends Peter Saville and Nick Knight.
Carlo is shy. The first impression is that he wants to barely speak about himself, but then his readiness to talk contrasts his behaviour. Maybe this is why he decided to go back to work and live in a small city near Piacenza and spend the rest of the time in London. A man behind the scenes. He says” I prefer to be remembered for my work rather than for my face”.The story lying behind this meeting tells us about this man, his curiosity and his passion: I could find him in the middle of August thanks to some photos he had posted on Instagram from Casa Mollino in Turin (the tool “Search place” is quite useful) and I wrote to him even if we have never met before. This happened after a few days and talked about Ied. He immediately asked to visit it. That is quite awkward, considering that he preferred an autodidact education to Central Saint Martin. His first works, in 1992, already contained the ideas he would later develop and an intuition that well represented the atmosphere of the so-called “Cool Britannia”: Squire, located in an former brothel is perhaps the first multidisciplinary concept store ever created, which combined fashion, art and design but also sponsored its own line.Early admirers of Squire were some of the Pop Art classics like Allen Jones and Bridget Riley as well Kate Moss or the Massive Attack and also the great innovators in the fashion world like Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen. His team and collaborators of that time (nowadays still the same) could not pass unobserved: Peter Saville, the graphic designer who made the visual world of the Factory Records become a legend and Nick Knight, one of the photographers of that generation who would end up working with the most prestigious fashion companies. In 2003, his wide-ranging creative ideas made Carlo be voted Creative and design director at Kilgour, one among the most memorable brands of Savile Row in London (think about Fred Astaire’s tailcoat, and Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant’s favourite suit): his purpose was to make modern principles merge with the English menswear hate couture tradition. Carlo takes care of everything, from the collections to the campaigns, up to the development of the showrooms. And in short time the Brandelli style, if on one side upsets the most traditional clients of Kilgour, on the other attracts a flock of hardened “outsiders”, such as the everlasting Bryan Ferry, David LaChapelle, Bobby Gillespie of the Primal Scream. And if up to little time ago he had as a client Jude Law, now is the turn of Danielle Craign.
It was clear: Kilgour was revolution and thanks to this Carlo was appointed British Fashion Council’s Menswear Designer of the Year and Britain’s Most Stylish Man. In 2013, after a five year break (he gave up the charge due to a transfer of title), Carlo was again Freelance creative director at Kilgour. In these five years he went on working for other clients, but directing his career towards new worlds: for example sculpture, with the exhibition “Permanence 2010-Travertine marble stone & gold at the RCM Gallery in Paris or with the rubber coated cotton sculptures realised in collaboration with the American artist Matthew Brannon for the gallery Casey Kaplan in New York and exhibited at London’s Frieze Art Fair in 2011. In 2013 and 2015 he made several glass works in Murano (Floating series and Glass forms).
Finally in 2015 he also realised a minimalist installation, perfect epitomizing the physical world created for Kilgour. The essence of his approach and of his inspiration have not changed throughout the years, “the design truth; the function, the shape and then the concept”; and also his interdisciplinary approach:
“I consider fashion, photography, sculpture, video and graphics equally important and sharing the same purpose: communicating and creating”The list of his favourite artists reveals the core of his design philosophy: Bruno Munari, Naum Gabo, Carlo Scarpa. “Every now and then I am pleased to discover that I thought the same things as theirs, that I drew up the same conclusions, even before getting to know their work”. And other inspirations were Louis Kahn, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre. And Carlo Mollino, indeed.
First, we would like to understand fully your approach: what kind of education did you have?
I belong to a family of artists and craftsmen. I grew up surrounded by uncles and aunts that made customised jackets, painted and worked with leather every single day.
This is how, day by day, I could absorb different disciplines at a time and make experience. For example, since I was an adolescence I could already cut paper patterns… I grew up in London during the 70’s, when all creative ideas were exciting and started to become popular. I could experience punk in its evolution both in music and into the indie fashion, Vivienne Westwood and Factory Records, the Smiths, the goth, the new romantics, the Skin Heads, the Casual and the influence by the North-the Happy Mondays and the dance music by Primal Scream. In the meantime I used to spend summer between Milan and Naples (my father comes from the North of Italy, my mother from the South).
From the age of 15 to 21 years old, I used to play in a band like most of my fellow did and fashion was clearly part of this creative community; therefore I was personally involved in the birth of whatever fashion, music and arts styles.
My friends were photographers, artists and architects, we went to the same places and I spent lots of time in their studio and learnt a lot. Work and free time coincided: during the weekend we used to experiment together and we shared the studio with people who painted or made sculptures. For our generation, having fun meant creating, making, not drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
We can say that you could not be labelled into one category thing since the start of your career… a sort of “trapped Carlo”.
At the age of 11-12 years old, apart from being surrounded by artists and artisans, I used to read publications about fashion, architecture and music: there was so much to learn! Then, when I was 16 years old I started to study martial arts, a very important discipline. In the end, I believe, that you cannot really define “work” something that you love to do. Creativity means developing our personal way of looking at things, (your own eye), then you start to get information and learn your point of references. Only at this stage you can start to define your ideas and your work. Quite soon I realised that creativity included music, art, design, fashion. And your attitude must be same: be open-minded, be aware of the technical aspects and of your points of reference. Ultimately, I believe that you cannot be defined a creative or art director if you are not 100% sure to be expert in many creative fields.
Is it important what you discover during the design process?
At all. I try to find truth and purity in each single work. If the design is pure, well developed and every points of view and approaches are taken into consideration (technical, emotional, contextual, historical and aesthetic) then the project will be perfect. It is just like the sensation you feel when you look at something-a building, a chair, a photo, a car or a dress- and you do not feel the need to change them: it is the mere pleasure of “what is right”.
It goes without saying that in my opinion the best part of the creative process are the beginning and the process itself-the final product is less important. To be honest, my greatest desire would be just to imagine the projects and design without producing the real objects. When you realize an object you are obliged to face problems like sale, production etc… A thousand years ago, philosophy was intended as creativity, the finished product did not exist!
Going back to your design method: my impression is that the project is the result of a well planned process, that can be further defined in the course of it, but nothing is left to chance, isn’t it?
I look at the project both in its entirety and details and I analyse its history. I Identify the most evident message and extrapolate it.
I am trying to imagine how you approach a field you have never experienced before: you observe it and start making attempts, without a precise plan. Then, after having acquired a certain know-how, do you concentrate on a specific concept and develop it?
I learn by doing, thanks to experience, observation and collaboration. Let’s make an example: I have never designed a plane so far, but if someone asked me to, I would accept. I would work side by side with the engineers and contribute with my expertise, for example with suggestion on the aesthetics, etc. But at the same time, I would observe the engineers doing their job and I would try to give them new ideas and reasoning. For instance: the audio system on planes is terrible: the notices coming from the pilots cabin are broadcast with a higher frequency and often disturb travellers causing headaches to them, therefore I would suggest to improve the quality of sound. At the same time, I would rely on my experiences to spot out problems.
Do you consider negative being a dilettante when you approach a new field?
No, I don’t. Naivety is quite important, because when you are naive, you are open-minded and you learn more rapid how to see the truth. If you are already aware of something, your ego can influence your project. In my case, I could gain experience in each of the fields I work for-fashion, art, architecture, interiors, graphics, photography- thanks both to the work opportunities I had and my collaborators. For instance, I worked with Nick Knight only on advertising images and for twenty years I saw him mounting his sets and the lights for us. But I kept on taking my photos, so working individually and close to professionals are both good ways to learn.
As for the graphics, I was lucky to have Peter Saville among my best friends: he met me and my first exhibition at Squire, and he is still here after 20 years. If I insisted on graphics and page-layout is because I saw Peter and his collaborators working. The secret is to work together from the beginning of the projects, I never leave them alone. Ideas and collaboration go in the same direction: this is the key.
Who among the contemporary artists you consider most interesting and why?
At the moment, I am more keen on craftsmanship rather then on contemporary artists… This is the major difference between applied arts and fine arts: the former-like fashion, architecture and product design aim at designing objects with a purpose; the latter, instead, create objects to discuss about.
Is there someone you consider your ideal twin, in terms of sharing the same interdisciplinary approach?
A mix of Carlo Molino and Gerhard Richter, with some influence by Joseph Beuys and minimalist architects, an hint to the Renaissance, and a bit of samurai!
For instance, people who are really fond of fashion, could be fascinated by the arts from which it takes its inspiration?
No, I think that people who buy clothes are not so smart and people involved into the fashion business only aim at making money and nothing else… too much ego. In my case, I use fashion to teach people to appreciate other cultures.
What should a young designer do in 2016 to train and improve himself and ultimately create original ideas?
Nowadays our world is full of easy-to-access visual contents in the world. The young designers risk being confused by so many messages and potentially acceptable contents. It is quite frequent to come across works of art that exploit different methods indiscriminately, just as if watching an image on TV and on a smartphone screen were the same: we are surrounded by too many visual contents. The human eye cannot assimilate so much information, a former selection is needed, but young designers absorb this information like sponges and some of them cannot take the right decisions. If each of them can rely on the same tools-Google-for instance-also the conclusions will be the same. Young designers should put a distance from the digital world if they want to let their imagination free.