Tony Viramontes (III)
I learnt a lot from Tony Viramontes and in particular to be ruthless and uncompromising with your vision and artistic instinct.
“It was the most talented and most beautiful that everyone wanted to make love to in the 80’s, so they were the ones who died”, as Fran Lebowitz noted in Scorsese’s biopic, doomed by their beauty, their talent, their joie de vivre, damned for all the wrong reasons.
In two earlier posts I wrote about fashion illustrator and photographer Tony Viramontes and how meeting him changed the course of my life and that of many other people as well. Tony Viramontes Part one is here and Tony Viramontes Part two is here. Here is part three:
I was forced to leave Paris abruptly, you can read about it in part 2 of this story, so I went to Milan in the fall of 1983 and opened my agency with Tony as my first client. While doing the rounds of the advertising agencies and fashion pr offices with Tony’s portfolio of mounted transparencies I met fashion pr Maggie Newman whose office Audience handled Adriano Goldschmied’s Genius Group.
Tony was fast becoming an underground name in Paris but it took a few months for his Italian career to take off because the Italians were scared and put off by the ugly beauty and the strange models they saw in his book. “Mamma mia, che paura!» they would say and sometimes do the sign of the cross like they had seen the devil in those strong, twisted, tormented and contorted features, silhouettes and expressions. Nothing was tame about his work and Tony’s anti-models and muses evoked images of the “Wild Side”, a dark, louche and dangerous place in sharp contrast to the elegant, measured and “per bene” Italian women they were used to seeing in the pages of Vogue.
In the spring of 1984 Maggie put a call through to Adriano because he was looking to advertise the Genius Group for the first time and as a single unit. The designers in the Group were Goldie, Goldie Italia, Goldie Junior, Goldie Shoe, Replay, Retour, Via Vai, Martin Guy, Hot Products, Diesel, Dieselito, Bo-Bo Kaminsky, Clothes On Fire and Ten Big Boys. Adriano took one look at the portfolio and asked us, my partner Carlo Baccheschi Berti and I, to come immediately to meet at the headquarters in Treviso. At the now famous and very rushed meeting in May he told us that Tony was the perfect man for the job and that he wanted a “groupage” of the 15 brands for the September 1984 issue of Vogue Italia. Tony’s book was sent by Maggie to Franca Sozzani for overall approval and everyone agreed on the choice.
Adriano was looking for something unique, strong, bold and memorable, the September issue being the most important and read by everyone in the business. Tony told me to pass on the message that he wanted to experiment with a combination of Polaroids and illustrations, collage style…Adriano said without hesitation “go for it ! He can do whatever he wants». We then had Adriano for another 20 minutes to iron out some of the creative and budget details and then he announced that he was off to a catamaran regatta in the Atlantic Ocean and would be uncontactable for the next month.
The meeting went sort of like this: «Adriano, where can we see the clothes to shoot ?”, “Oh no problem, just call the Paris showroom, they have everything, all the new collections and they will be available to give you anything you need”…”Great!”
“Adriano…and the budget?”. “Oh , anything you need, just tell me how much it will be and my accounting office will wire you the money in 24 hours, budget is not a problem….how many days shoot for 15 totally different setups? 5 days? not a problem”.
“Adriano, and do you want casting approval? Do you want to speak to Tony about the concept? How do you want to proceed?”
Adriano’s annoyed reply: “Look you two…if I hired Tony its because I trust 100% his vision so he can do anything he wants however he pleases. I just want to see the images on my desk when I come back in one month, not one day later or I will lose the pages and the advance I already paid.”
“Whaaaaaaaaaaa? In a month? But Adriano we have not even started production! How can we budget this, cast this, style this and post- produce this in 30 days if we have not even started?”
“Well…then START! Just leave for Paris this week and START for God’s sake!”
“Byeeeeeeeee! Arrivederci! I’m outta here! C-YA in 4 weeks!” And he grabbed a duffel bag with all his boat gear in it and right in front of us left the offices waving goodbye.
And start we did, even if we had never produced a big shoot before, 3 days later we were in Paris still trying to call the Genius Group showroom who had no idea what we were talking about: “Clothes? For the shoot? What shoot? The new collection? We don’t have anything from the new collection yet!” They told us over the phone.
We also put in call after call to the accounting office in Treviso and the so called allotted budget of unknown quantities was nowhere in their books, so basically we were in Paris to shoot a huge campaign with no time, no clothes and no money: Great! I thought.
Tony was thrilled..he loved working in chaos, he enjoyed the drama, the tension. We spent hours in his studio trying to figure out what to do, how to cast, style and shoot the job and Tony came up with a great but expensive idea: You will rent the biggest Polaroid camera in Europe, there are only 3 in the world and I will shoot these huge photos and will fuck around with them and it will not matter that we don’t have clothes since you won’t see them anyway… I just need a bunch of very strong faces, some good bodies, a young kid for Goldie Junior and that’s it.
Little did it matter that he did not know how to operate the thing since it came with a technician. We got busy and started calling Germany to try to get the machine delivered in time. It was all rush rush rush. Tony was thrilled that after years of taking small Polaroids of his models he would be able to do his first ever photographic shoot with the biggest camera in the world, with no client around to breathe down his back, and no time to get into too many annoying details.
Since we could not afford a hotel room we moved into my friend Florence Maeght’s home and turned it into our offices. It became a nightmare for her, the phone ringing day and night as we cast a bunch of “real” people from agencies like Quasimodo who represented odd and unusual types, but not finding the models we needed Tony called his friend, model agent Cyril Brulé who also helped us. I ran around Paris looking for clothes to use in the styling.
We had brought huge suitcases full of wardrobe and props from Italy just in case: my mother’s 1960’s Nehru jackets and turbans from Asia, some Andalucian flamenco hats, matador pants, bright stretchy fabrics, cummerbunds, ties, pleated silks from Michel Leger and a bunch of tube knits in every color bought by the meter from La Soie De Paris in Belleville, these could be shortened, lengthened or scrunched up as needed and we ended up using them on most of the models, girls and boys alike.
Every piece of clothing that you see in the campaign belonged to us, except for an old Bob Bo Kaminsky man’s blazer and a canvas sailing jacket in bright orange and denim that we salvaged from the showroom. In the end we cast Christine Bergstrom who was a friend of mine and modelling for Jean Paul Gaultier, Nick Kamen, Paul Hendrix, Lisa Rosen and Catherine Mathis’s young son Ian.
The shoot was a nightmare to say the least, Tony had never done anything of such magnitude and it was chaos, we had no schedule, he told all the models to turn up at the same time on the same days everyone got bored and got into trouble, we could not afford a stylist so I ended up doing the styling with my own clothes, the camera arrived only 1 day before the shoot and Tony never had the chance to meet with the technician who then took an instant dislike to him anyway and they ended up fighting all throughout the shoot, one of our models whose name I will not say, started taking drugs and went ballistic because she had to wait for so long while Tony figured out how to shoot everyone else, so she ended up locking herself in one of the empty studios at Pin Up where we were working, yelling that she was going to set the studio on fire if she had to wait one minute longer….she also wanted her dealer to come on set and was desperate for a fix.
The studio assistants had to break down the door and pull her out of there, we then called her agency and she was carted away howling like a wildebeest and sent back to the airport. Nick Kamen, our gorgeous and super sweet male model, ended up assisting Tony too, often butt naked because he was in many of the shots, either in a tube top with no underwear or just simply naked….Nick Kamen then went on to star in the famous Levi’s laundrette commercial, with no clothes on of course.
On and on, the shoot dragged on for three nightmarish days and nights but the worst was to come. Our models, clothes, Tony and our small test Polaroids started disappearing. I was so tired and hallucinating from the lack of sleep but not to the extent where I did not know who or where my team was. After confronting Tony on the last day in a huge screaming row I discovered why: a well-known french art director and contributing editor was shooting at the same time with Tony and for an Italian magazine, in the studio building just one floor down, it was Machiavellic! No one in their right minds could have plotted a more perfect but twisted coup and right below us, one floor down, thinking they could get away with it .
I was devastated. Adriano Goldschmied had insisted that he wanted the exclusivity for the shoot and since it was Tony’s first time taking actual pictures instead of just pure illustration, he did not want him to publish any editorial anywhere else in the world with the same concept for 30 days after the publication of this groupage. I went downstairs, tore the studio door open and yes, up on the wall were all our Polaroids, two of our models, some of my clothes, and worst of all Tony and the art director on the seamless, directing the next shot.
I went over to them and asked what they were doing even though it was clear to me. Tony looked sheepish and ran away and I faced the art director whose idea this was telling him that he could not do this, we would all get sued by Adriano and what he was doing was illegal. The verbal exchange got out of control and I had to be restrained by my partner and the studio assistants because I was ready to hit him in the face …..I guess I was not a passive aggressive type and where I came from brawls were the real deal: with fists and throwing punches and not running away like a little girl.
I was so angry and scared and this event ruined the magic of the shoot for me and everyone else. I sadly learnt not to trust Tony, he was his worst enemy and seemed oblivious to the dangerous situation he had gotten himself into, in fact, not only it was dangerous but it was also disloyal, unethical and unprofessional. Maggie Newman and Adriano Goldschmied had entrusted us with a very big and important job, they had believed in us and had rooted for us, and Tony was double crossing them, betraying all of us just because he wanted so desperately to be in that Italian magazine as soon as possible and did not want to wait one month for the Genius Group embargo to be over. *All images above are some of my Polaroids of the shoot.
Tony had also started doing heavy drugs and on two occasions, one in spring 1983 and another in the summer of 1984 I went with him to get a check up at the hospital near his apartment on the avenue de Saxe. His hair was falling out in big bunches and he had a nasty looking open sore on one of his legs. The doctors gave us their opinion in french and I translated to Tony. They blamed stress and his unhealthy food and drug habits. AIDS had not come into the picture yet, in the sense that we had never heard of the word. But Tony, unbeknown to us, was already sick and also sleeping around with his entourage of muses, models and assistants…
When we finally returned to Milan, broke but with some stunning pictures in our hands, the first thing I did was was to warn Adriano and Maggie of what had happened. Adriano called me crazy and probably thought I was on drugs too because how could such a thing happen? This young little agent was accusing Italy’s biggest magazine group and fashion editor of theft, industrial espionage and disloyalty ? Pazza!
The insanely beautiful groupage came out at the end of august 1984 in Vogue Italia and so did Tony’s other editorial in a separate magazine, two days later as I had warned. And the shit hit the fan in a big way. I will not go into details because I prefer to talk about other more creative and positive things but the ensuing scandal was very ugly.
The publication of the Genius Group campaign brought a flood of work and requests for editorials. Valentino commissioned Tony the massive Haute Couture special Jubilee portfolio consisting of dozens of pages to appear in the Vogue Italia Couture issue in the winter of 1984. Off he went to Rome to live for a month in a suite at the luxurious five star Hotel De La Ville, entourage in tow to live the dolce vita at the expense of Valentino. His favorite models, assistants and muses flew in by Concorde of course, some for just a few hours, for one magnificent dress, and others never left and squatted the suite for weeks on end. I was horrified when I came to visit him while he was working, there were empty room service trolleys everywhere, a tangled mess of clothes and suitcases all over the floor and ink spots on the walls and carpets, but the illustrations he did for Valentino made the brand very modern and were probably the most beautiful he had ever done, most likely because he was so inspired by the exquisite dresses.
Valentino’s office sent us a lawyer’s letter demanding that Tony pay for the repairs of his hotel suite and the massive room service bill. I don’t blame them. Tony worked up to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and produced hundreds of unique illustrations for Valentino for a very small advertorial fee, so I guess he thought he could get away with anything. He also partied hard at night and some of the private and intimate parties we were taken to during those years in Rome could compare to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, or the 120 days of Sodom. Nothing seemed to shock Tony though.
Apart from his illustrations Tony was also working more and more with photography and the best magazines in Europe started giving him free reign: ID, The Face, Arena, Jill, Lei, Per Lui: Everyone wanted a piece of Tony. As he evolved in his style he also perfected the team around him: Stylists Ray Petri and Susann Guenther, make-up and hair artists Paul Gobal and Way Bandy, made his vivid dreams possible and helped him in many ways. Sadly Paul Gobal overdosed on a job, one of the many tragic deaths around Tony’s now celebrated life and another event that marked me for the rest of mine. His work for The Face, in close collaboration with Ray Petri, Barry Kamen and Mitzi Lorenz , helped define the Buffalo style period of the 80s, the period that The Face was considered to be at it’s peak. Ray Petri passed away in 1989 aged 41. AIDS got him too.
That winter Adriano approached us again to commission the second Genius Group advertising groupage . Since the no-clothes formula had worked so well the first time around, he decided to let us do it again, a whole advertising campaign that showed no product, only image.
Because Tony was now shooting and publishing his brightly colored images everywhere, the brilliant Adriano asked for something very different, something that no one else had. And that is how the monochromatic campaign was conceived. Off we went again to Paris to produce the enormous shoot and this time Tony only wanted unknown faces so he sent me and Nick Kamen to scout the nightclubs in London looking for original faces he could use.
The kids we ended up using were unique: Scarlett Napoleon Bordello, Mimi, Rudy, Ben Shawl, Walter Schupfer, haute couture goddess Violetta Sanchez who was a friend of mine from my SYL Haute Couture internship time (read part 1 and part 2 of this story) and one more blond scraggly kid called Christophe. Rudy worked in a circus and Scarlett was a nightclub host, Mimi had a huge mass of blond curly hair that was like a living sculpture and her skin was milky white and transparent.
We shot in a secluded studio this time, Studio Rouchon, on a closed set: a cavernous empty studio that felt like the inside of a cathedral. It was the studio they used for shooting cars. There was a wide seamless and some wooden stands and nothing else, just dark empty space. I brought some bits and pieces from the Genius Group showroom for the styling but mainly we used tight Spandex unitards and leggings, for both the girls and the boys and for film we used Polapan 35 mil film which allowed us to be able to look at the results immediately and it was also the particularity of that film: the eerie black and white grainy results. Such a pity that it has been since discontinued.
It was a haunting moment. In the same way that the first Genius Group had been wild and chaotic, this shoot was intimate and focused. Tony knew what he wanted: totems made of bodies, hair, skin tones, black, grey and white…nothing more. When I look back at those I am still amazed by how he achieved such strength over so many shots without diluting the effect. There is not one single boring picture and they all worked fluidly as a whole . The make up was extravagant and for one close up of Scarlett the make up artist spent the whole day attaching little men dangling from chains from each single eyelash, on another he blended Mimi into Scarlett like a living statue made of driftwood.
After this second shoot and the ensuing success, mentions and awards that came from everywhere in Europe and Japan, we started a strong season of advertising campaigns in Italy: Montana, Jenny, Complice, more Valentino, album covers for Duran Duran, Janet Jackson etc but I was never to see the fruit of my hard labor and of my special relationship and collaboration as his friend, agent and producer of so many years because a new Italian agent was on the prowl and without giving it a minute’s thought poached Tony away from me, promising him the moon and the stars and taking away my clients and jobs a couple of weeks before we were to shoot. Tony never called me to discuss this new situation and severed the relationship. Sadly for Tony their collaboration ended badly as I thought it would and the new Italian agent held on to Tony’s money and clients, and thereafter never payed him.
I was heart-broken and stunned. I never heard from him or saw him again despite the many calls I made to Paris. A couple of years later I found out he had been sick and had passed away. I only regret one thing and that is that we never met again. I guess we held on to our grudges for too long instead of just sweeping them under the rug and moving on . I never got to say goodbye to him and he will always hold a special place in my heart. The first artist I ever represented, the mischievous bad boy, the shit-stirrer, the ruthless friend or enemy, the drama queen, the genius artist but also the man who supported his entire family in LA without ever complaining, the generous pygmalion, the unique mentor.
I learnt a lot from him and in particular to be ruthless and uncompromising with your vision and artistic instinct. I also learnt what it took to create magnificent images and the sacrifices it involved, as an artist and towards his teams and friends who were there for him.