Tony Viramontes (II)

Tony made his the explosive mixture of styles that he picked up in the streets of New York and London.

Eugenia Melián. 28/10/2015

In an earlier post I wrote about how I met Tony Viramontes. This is the second part of the story.

It was the early 80’s. Tony Viramontes was 27 years old when he arrived in Paris, and I was a few years younger than that.


I had not grown up in an urban environment as opposed to Tony who was very inspired by the 80’s club scene and the larger-than-life characters that inhabited it. Many of the portraits he did at the time were of terrifying, insolent and aggressive girls and boys, thickly covered in strong make-up and boldly dressed. He had a street sensibility, there was nothing reserved or prim about it, and he was fascinated by counterculture and the creative creatures that inhabited those worlds and expressed themselves loudly and fearlessly. Tony made his the explosive mixture of styles that he picked up in the streets of New York and London: punk, new wave, dandyism and sportswear. When he styled his models the look was tough and sexually charged.

Knowing that I was a bit of a country bumpkin he liked to tease me and shock me by talking about his wild student days at FIT and then Parsons and his dangerous and decadent nights at Studio 54.


He often spoke of Diana Vreeland as being one of his sources of inspiration, as well as his mentor Antonio Lopez and designer Hanae Mori, the Japanese visionary and fierce business woman. In fact Hanae Mori supported him for those first years in Paris as she was constantly commissioning work for her fashion network around the world….boutiques, advertising campaigns and art direction, Tony did everything for Hanae.

That year we got a proposal from a close Mexican pal of mine that Tony could not  refuse.  Ignacio  Garza had a massive apartment in the 7 th arrondissement on Avenue De Saxe which could also double up as a studio. He would exchange it for Tony’s smaller but charming and more affordable flat on the Place De la Contrescarpe, right behind the Pantheon.

Ilustrations by Leslie Winer for Vogue UK

It was as if we had to turn the  page and  consider ourselves finally ready to start showing his new portfolio and launch his career. That was it! No turning back any more, it was a terrifying thought but we took the risk.

The flat had a big double living room where Tony set up a long work table on a trestle, his back against the wall. Behind him a moodboard that changed every other week with tears from books and magazines, Polaroids and bits and pieces of stuff that inspired him….a thank you note, a post card, an invitation, a weird shopping bag…it all went up on the wall, as well as his collection of black hair pieces, extensions, wigs and hats that he used on his male and female models. In the second living room, right in front of his table, he installed the apple box he used for the models to pose on.

Leslie Winer. Polaroid by Tony Viramontes.

On the table were many big jars full of paint brushes, eyebrow pencils, lipsticks, eye liners, pastels, Rotring pens, Chinese calligraphy brushes, charcoal… and dozens of bottles of inks. He used the make-up on the paper and on the models alike. The table was tidied every morning by one of his helpers/models/lovers/squatters and by the end of the day there would be stacks of scrunched up paper, torn Polaroids and black ink stains all over the floor.

Tony always played opera music very loudly and would enact the exact poses that he wanted from his models: big open mouths, contorted limbs, extreme poses that became his trademark. To watch him illustrate was electric, he would do dozens of sketches in order to seize that one pose, or the essence of the pose, going as fast as he could, throwing out page after page until he was satisfied. I remember once he was slashing at some paper with a cutter in order to mash it up as an illustrated collage, a technique he later developed when he started taking pictures, when suddenly he sliced off a piece of one of his fingers.

Le Printemps logos and campaign by Tony Viramontes.

He was so caught up in the moment that he did not even realize that the finger was spurting blood everywhere. Eventually I had to turn off the music and shout at him to stop what he was doing and to let me wrap the finger in a towel. We ended up having to go to the emergency room of the hospital which was right down our street to have it properly taken care of and stitched. But the moment Tony moved into that huge place the party also began. And that was not such a great thing in the end.

The flat had two bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, plus the work area. Every day I would arrive to find a new guest on the living room floor. Tony bought some mattresses that he stacked in the entrance hallway and they were then spread out at night to accommodate the latest arrivals. It was all pretty tumultuous and promiscuous. You never knew who was his lover or helper or muse or all three. On one occasion he opened the door to a very cute french Fedex delivery boy  and asked him for his number. I saw this boy many times after that , delivering during the day and posing at nights. he was also one of Tony’s lovers. Eventually a fantastic studio manager by the name of Paul Hendrix, who was also a top male model and one of Tony’s muses, took over the studio and for a few years there was a semblance of order in the chaos that had become Tony’s life.

Polaroid of Teri Toye by Tony Viramontes.

As soon as Tony’s portfolio felt finished I called my best friend from school, Lucinda Chambers, she had just started working for British Vogue  as the assistant to the fashion director and I asked her to take a look at his work. I can really say that we owe a lot to Lucinda for her vision and balls so early in the day and that meeting was followed by a first commission from British Vogue for a short hat story that ran on two pages  in their December 1983 edition, the model was Leslie Winer, a punk model and “dub lesbian witch“ who became Tony’s muse and the badass model all the designers and photographers dreamt of working with. The hats were beautiful, very couture and lady-like so right before the Vogue session Tony shaved off Leslie’s hair and turned her into a mean-looking street urchin, the contrast was stunning and unexpected and that first job for Vogue was to open many doors for us later down the road and subsequently Leslie became fashion’s first really androgynous model.

After that job followed another important commission and this time for another friend of mine, Jean Pierre Joly,  director of the Woolmark association at the time. Jean Pierre asked Tony to illustrate one important piece from each one of the designers that belonged to the Woolmark  group. That job was crucial for us because it gave us instant exposure and recognition, access to fantastic clothes from all the major designers and “createurs”, as well as the contacts we were able to make at each showroom since we were always begging for clothes and accessories to use to build Tony’s portfolio.

Polaroid of Steven Meisel by Tony Viramontes.

It was also at around that time that we got our first proper advertising job and consequently got ripped off big time. An acquaintance of Tony’s asked him to do an illustrated logo for Le Printemps department stores in Paris, they wanted something very Parisian and quintessential and yet did not want to spend any money so Tony stuck a tricorne on a model, put her in a striped sweater and high heels  and drew three variations of what became one of the most iconic fashion logos ever. The only problem was that  we were dealing with a sort of a  friend of a friend and because we had no contract nor purchase order from anyone, the agency in Paris was able to use that image in perpetuity without paying a usage fee: billboards, pamphlets, bus shelters and on thousands of shopping bags, that image has been everywhere since.

That taught me a painful lesson and it was to keep Tony away from any type of deal making and contracts, specially the ones made at 5 am in the morning on the dance floor of Le Sept.

Polaroid of Janice Dickinson by Tony Viramontes.

Those months in Paris after Tony moved into the new flat were a succession of parties, with his friends and muses flying in from New York and London to crash there. Leslie Winer was a permanent fixture, as was another one of his “jolie laide“ muses  Lisabeth Garber; Way Bandy  who was Nancy Reagan’s make up person and  whom Tony was trying to fix up with the edgier designers in Europe in order to reboost his career, Matthew Rolston:  a young LA celebrity photographer, Steven Meisel, Tony’s teacher at Parson’s and whom Tony naughtily nicknamed Sissy, their muse and stunning boy-girl Teri Toye who went on to win the Elle magazine Girl of The Year modelling price, but was in fact a boy, Sophie De Taillac, Ignacio Garza…

Polaroid of Antonis by Tony Viramontes.

All this crowd crashed and partied at Tony’s flat for days on end. I remember Tony telling me to look at Steven Meisel’s portfolio and consider representing him because he desperately needed an agent in Europe. As soon as I took one look at those first fashion editorials of Steven I of course said YES ! but Tony had a jealousy fit and said to me bluntly: “It’s either him or me, but not both”.  So I stayed on with Tony.

Polaroids clockwise of Leslie Winer, Mike Hill and Paul Hendrix by Tony Viramontes

The days and nights were intense as we worked long hours and then spent another few sitting on Tony’s bed with piles of make-up and accessories getting ready to hit the night-life, in particular Le Privé, Le Palace and the Japanese restaurant Issé on the rue Saint Anne, right by another favorite gay club called Le Sept (Featured repeatedly in the excellent biopic Saint Laurent by Bertrand Bonello.) Tony liked to dress me up in his black suits, mess with my undercut and black make-up so as to make me as look as fierce and androgynous as possible and throw at me: “Oh, I love you from waist up, but not from waist down. I just wish that you were a boy!»

I thank my lucky stars that I was so broke that I could not afford to go clubbing every night, also I was very sporty and healthy and I did not drink or do drugs. That is what saved me in the end. Unfortunately I cannot say the same of many others that were part of that explosive entourage.

Polaroid of Eugenia Melián by Tony Viramontes.

By September 1983 all this networking and promoting was giving its fruits and a real buzz had started around him but that same month I was given two weeks to leave France!  Spain was not part of the EC yet and my request for a work permit was refused even though I had already spent four years in Paris studying and had a work contract with a company that wanted to hire me on the spot.  It turned out for the best since exciting things in the fashion editorial world were then beginning to happen in Milan at the new young edgy Conde Nast magazines that everyone wanted to work for: Lei and Per Lui. In two weeks I had to drop everything and relocate to Milano and with my then Italian boyfriend we opened a photographer’s agency with Tony as our first client.

Polaroid of René Russo by Tony Viramontes.

Very soon after that I met a fantastic pr called Maggie Newman who became our closest friend and took us under her wing. She  had one look at Tony’s book, picked up the phone and called one of her clients, Adriano Goldsmith , then owner of the Italian fashion group  The Genius Group.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this story:  the Genius Group campaigns, Valentino, Montana, Lei, Per Lui, Rai Petri and the Buffalos, The Face, Arena, I.D , Nick Kamen, Paul Hendrix, Boy George, Duran Duran, Janet Jackson,Mike Hill, Violeta Sanchez, Cristine Bergstrom, Lisa Rosen, Walter Schupfer, Tina Chow, Paloma Picasso, the first symptoms of his illness and much much more.


*Copyright: fashionsphinx. *Read  here PART 3  and the end of the story. *Princial photo: Leslie Winer posing for Tony’s first Vogue assignment.

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