Tony Viramontes (I)
“It is essential to capture the image, not a detail, not a garment or an expression, but an impression", Tony Viramontes.
I am so happy that a proper biography on Tony Viramontes( 1956-1988 ) is coming out this fall: Bold, Beautiful And Damned, The world of 1980’s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes click here. Tony was the first artist I ever represented. It was 1982, a few months after finishing my internship at Yves Saint Laurent, as assistant in the Haute Couture PR office.
As an intern at a fashion forecast office in Paris I was Myriam Schaefer’s protégée and one day she came looking for me in a panic because an American was at the door with a huge portfolio and no one could speak the language well enough to understand his accent. It turns out that he was a Mexican American fashion illustrator from LA who had just graduated from Parsons’s NY and was proposing to work for us illustrating the office “look books» at 50 francs ($ 10) per illustration.
I was mesmerized by Tony Viramontes, not only by his work but also because he looked so different and mysterious. He had long shiny jet black hair and was dressed head to toe in black . I know this sounds strange but in those days no one was wearing black, yet. I am talking about the days pre Comme Des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto.
When Tony opened his portfolio (which I still have) and the mounted boards with the transparencies of his illustrations were spread around the meeting room , everyone went silent. We had never seen work like that before, it was as if he was taking the work of the iconic illustrator Antonio López into a new realm…the few bold strokes on the paper opened a new world of weird and unconventional models looking glamorous and beautiful in an extreme way we had never seen before, styled in a combination of Couture and edgy Japanese designers alike.
Gone were the poses we were familiar with, the hand on the hip, the pinup shapes, the smiling faces…instead Tony’s illustrations were of screaming bodies contorted into graphic shapes, tense and dynamic silhouettes that told more about fashion than an elaborately stylized photo could ever do.
I slipped my number to Tony and told him to call me that night and from then on we became inseparable. There was no way I was going to let him work for the forecast office at $10 an illustration. Instead we focused on updating his portfolio with as many Paris-based designers as we could with the intention of showing it to a couple of the fashion contacts that I had made in the industry after working as an intern at Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture press office in 1980. And this is how I became a photo agent.
Tony was my first client and with this came also a new way of doing the business of fashion photographer’s agent, till then dominated by Xavier Moreau, ex Elite models director and famous party bad boy.
As an intern at the Couture press office of Yves Saint Laurent I had learnt how to look at beauty, fashion and art as a serious business that moved millions of dollars of revenue a year through a cunning combination of beautiful and provocative modern imagery, sharp marketing, aggressive advertising and massive micromanagement at every level of the Maison. Pierre Bergé, Monsieur Saint Laurent’s partner and commercial director of the Maison, controlled everything and shouted all day in his office, a few meters away from ours. I was always terrified of doing something wrong, which as an intern I did a lot.
One day I was on a shoot in the pouring rain for John Fairchild of W Magazine. The model , in a pencil skirt and stilettos was told to stand on a column on the Pont De L’Alma bridge and hold a pose for hours , the wind was blowing so hard that the umbrella shielding her broke. As was to be expected she eventually slipped and fell off the column, twisting her ankle badly: do you think that Mr Fairchild would let us stop the shoot and find a replacement model? the poor girl had to finish the shoot on one leg, soaked to the bone and shivering while everyone around her pretended nothing was happening: «The show must go on”, and on it went indeed!
Lets say that the experiences I got from interning at YSL , as well as at Christian Dior Fourrures or modeling for Comme Des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Sybila, Romeo Gigli, Jean Paul Gaultier etc was the best preparation I could have have for what was to come afterwards when I started representing Tony. It was a funny coincidence that I managed to get my YSL Couture internship through the house muse and model Violeta Sánchez, a Spaniard like me.
Violeta was YSL house model by day and the PR of the uber famous decadent hot stop Les Bains Douches, by night. When I started working with Tony I eventually introduced him to her knowing that he would be inspired by her whippet thin and angular couture body and her dramatic nose. Violeta was to become Tony’s muse and worked with him for the duration of Tony’s career.
As an agent/photographer team working with Viramontes it was all improvisation, bluff and balls in the beginning , but we had a master plan. I called the showrooms of the designers we loved: Comme Des Garcons, Miyake, YSL, Mugler, Montana,Gaultier and begged for clothes. In order to convince them to lend us clothes I had to show them the portfolio and after they took one look at it we got minivans full of samples delivered to his tiny 1 bedroom flat on the Place De La Contrescarpe , behind the Pantheon.
For the next 4 hot blistering months of spring and summer I would pose as a model for Tony, dressed in heavy layers of unconstructed woolen clothes, hats and boots. The first thing he did was to shave my hair into a kind of Mohawk and paint black smudges under my eyes for make up, after which he would start painting with loud opera music blaring from his small paint covered stereo for hours,not even breaking for food.
Every time Maria Callas would hit a high note he would yell at me over the music, gesturing for me to open wide my mouths, flapping his arms as he painted he would show me how to bend my body and twist my arms,fingers and neck in order to achieve the graphic and dramatic pose he needed.
These sessions lasted well into the night, every single night, after which I would have to walk home because the metro was already shut. I suffered from severe lack of sleep and food and would sometimes doze off at my desk in the office during lunchtime, my black eye shadow still smeared across my eyes.
Tony taught me how to look at things and how to reinterpret beauty. During those early 80’s years the fashion magazines featured beautiful athletic girls with white smiles and long silky hair. The photographer of choice was Bill King, who we called Bill WindMachine. The girls that were stars then were Patty Hansen, Renee Simonsen, Kim Alexis, Janice Dickinson, Roseanne Vela, Carol Alt. Tony and I would look at those magazines and know that one day, on those same Vogue pages, it would be our turn. Tony was so sure of himself, his drive and focus were disturbing. He pushed himself very hard and never stopped drawing for one single day. We were not ready yet, and we knew it .
Look at this space for chapter 2: The first jobs, the new flat , the crazy partying , Leslie Winer and the model gang, Steven Meisel, Teri Toye, Matthew Rolston, Paul Gobal, Way Bandy ,Paul Hendrix , the girls looking like boys that were trying to look like girls, hanging out in Paris poor ,unknown, but inspired.