Gianfranco Ferré and the Architecture of Design

Gianfranco Ferré was scheduled for a brief tour of some of the art galleries in Chelsea. The cultural excursion on March 24 began with a proper lunch, of course. The Italians are the only people in fashion ever seen actually eating. Mr. Ferré and four of his colleagues, including his first cousin and right hand, Rita Airaghi, dined at Heartbeat, the trendy-looking restaurant in the W hotel on Lexington Avenue. Heartbeat had been suggested for its décor as well as its cuisine. Mr. Ferré was an architect before he became a fashion designer.

Dressed splendidly in a three-piece pinstripe suit and watercolored silk tie, Mr. Ferré made his way to his table, stirring interest among the darkly dressed yuppies fueling themselves with ornate expense-account meals. A friend once compared the designer to an “Elizabethan lord in a Verdi opera … exquisitely barbered, slightly distracted, and formidably refined.” The description fit.

“Nothing is simple in America anymore,” the designer said, surveying the menu that mixed assorted recherché rations. He ordered risotto and an entree of grilled beef.

Mr. Ferré’s entourage had much to say about the events of the preceding night: A special, millennial edition of Frescobaldi wine–bottled and sold in a package designed by Mr. Ferré –had been presented at Le Cirque 2000. Mr. Ferré attended the dinner, and surprised wine aficionados when he told them he would never know the taste of the wine, which will sell for about $450 a magnum.

“Gianfranco doesn’t drink wine,” Ms. Airaghi laughed.

Mr. Ferré shrugged. He ate contentedly while the others gossiped about Bill Blass’ recent announcement that he would retire from fashion late this year or early in 2000. About Brooke Astor heading to Oscar de la Renta’s place in Santo Domingo. About whether Sophia Loren was well dressed, or not, by Giorgio Armani at the Academy Awards. About a cocktail party at Mr. Ferré’s New York boutique that evening to show off the redesign of the shop at 845 Madison Avenue.

The meal concluded; Mr. Ferré found his chauffeur and chartered Cadillac on Lexington Avenue. He paused, and looked high into the gray matter of sky overhead. “I came to New York the first time when I was 18 and an architecture student in Milano,” he recalled, settling himself into the car. “In my mind, New York is a town with a huge blue sky that commands you to look at it. The vast blue sky was my first impression.” The Cadillac tumbled past Grand Central Terminal. “The town looks a little less blue now,” he said.

Change and loss are themes for Mr. Ferré. He still lives in his family’s house about 30 minutes from the center of Milan. Mr. Ferré feels most comfortable surrounded by pieces of history, especially now that his parents are deceased. Creative work may be his shield against flux, but his famously artistic approach to fashion was not what the press heralded most from the Milan collections the first week of March. Mr. Ferré’s fashion poetry, his graphic creations and intellectual constructions, paled when compared to, say, Tom Ford’s hip and swinging looks for Gucci.

“I can’t tell you I am having a load of fun lately,” Mr. Ferré said, “but I love my job because I still love fashion design from the creative side. From the business side there is too much hype without a great sense of sincerity. Fortunately, I am an architect. I like to express myself. Projecting the maximum amount of human experience into the object I am creating is the highest expression. Mine is a sensuous approach.… One of the pleasures of getting older, I am 54, is you develop the philosophy that ‘That’s your point of view. This is mine. As I respect yours, please respect mine.’”

In the late 1960′s, after he got his architecture degree, there weren’t many jobs in Italy for young architects. Mr. Ferré tried interior design but found he could make money designing accessories. His first commission, in 1969, was some silver bows for an Italian Vogue shoot. He also designed accessories for Karl Lagerfeld, still a close friend, and Fiorucci. In the early 1970′s he went to India for the first time. “The colors I saw there, the geometric cuts, were so refined, so emotional,” he enthused, “that for me the experience gave new light to femininity.” In 1974, soon after his return to Milan, he began his business.

Mr. Ferré emerged from his Cadillac in front of the Feigen Contemporary gallery at 535 West 20th Street and joined what looked like a flock of church ladies to see an exhibition of digitally rendered animations and architectural paintings by artist Jeremy Blake. Mr. Ferré’s tour was quick. He found the work too minimalistic, “You will never get emotion from minimalism,” he said.

At 529 West 20th Street, he shared an elevator with a gaggle of model girls on their way to a casting call. Mr. Ferré responded to a vivacious young blond woman named Kelly.

“How old are you? 16?” he asked.

“Twenty-three,” the model answered proudly.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Mr. Ferré advised her.

He got off on the ninth floor for a show of photographs by Aaron Cobbett at the Debs & Company gallery. Mr. Cobbett’s colorful pictures, showcasing some of New York’s formidable demimonde of go-go boys, drag queens and whomever, amused Mr. Ferré. He snooped briefly at other galleries in the building, and got back in his car in time to make an appointment at the Pierre, where he always stays.

The car stopped at a red light near an MTV crew filming in Times Square. “With the new century, people are always talking about the future of fashion,” he said, looking out his window to the digital skyline. “I remember when I was 6 my dad showed me pictures of Sputnik. I thought then that by the new century we’d all look like spacemen with helmets and big shoes.”

The city turned electric for Mr. Ferré. “What happened?” he asked. “We need helmets to protect us if the sky falls. Big shoes to make us stronger.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. On April 8, the Gagosian Gallery will exhibit a selection of Andy Warhol’s “Philip’s Skull” CAT-scan paintings. Who was Philip?

a. Prince Philip of Greece.

b. Philip Niarchos, member of the mid-1980′s jet set.

c. Warhol’s pal Philip Armour, the 1980′s porn star who claimed he was related to the Chicago meat fortune.

2. Who or what is Funky?

a. Model Helena Christensen’s new magazine.

b. The cherished parrot mascot of the band Jamiroquai which recently flew the coop.

c. The name of the small inn André Balazs is opening outside St. Tropez in late May.

3. Name the “top notes” of Jil Sander’s first fragrance for men, launching in the U.S. in August:

a. Steel and peony-cinnamon.

b. Ivy leaf and Brazilian mint.

c. Cuban tobacco and Kentucky lettuce.

Answers: (1) b; (2) b; (3) b.