NOWFASHION asked designer Antonio Marras to sit down with the muse of his fall/winter 2015 collection, the Italian fashion model Benedetta Barzini, to talk about whatever they wanted.
Nothing was off limits.
So Barzini opened up about the sensation of her first kiss, hanging out with Andy Warhol, working with Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Ugo Mulas and escaping a mental institution.
I. CHILDHOOD, FIRST FRIEND, KISS
Antonio Marras: Your mother has a beautiful name, her name was Giannalisa Giancana... I wanted to ask you if you remember your desk mate at elementary school...
Benedetta Barzini: Haha. Roberta Freiman. I loved her a lot. I looked for her also on the internet. I found her but it isn't her anymore.
Marras: In what sense?
Barzini: The characteristic of the socialite that lived in ... Spain it isn't her. She was a girl that I met also on the school bus. At the time I lived in New York and went to French school. She is the daughter of the usual political Jewish refugees. She had a lot of trouble memorizing things. The last part of the bus ride to school, we would help each other with the poems. We helped each other. We were both a little bit desperate. She became a signora and me never.
Marras: Your first kiss? In high school?
Barzini: What do you mean high school? Much earlier than that.
Marras: Me too. In elementary school.
Barzini: (Laughing) First kiss.. I still remember this strange thing, this strange first encounter. Two lips, two mouths and two tongues.
Marras: And you were little?
Barzini: I was young. I was only ten years old. But I was very mature/sharp and he was a young boy that I never saw. I was at the seaside and I only saw him a little bit during the summer and he cheated on me with this Tullia girl that was a lot older. He was 13 years old. I was so upset for years.
Marras: You waited for the summer to come around to see him?
Barzini: Yes, to see him in the arms of this Tullia “Maccioci” ... I was so upset.
II. VREERLAND, CRESPI
Marras: So at a certain point this Consuelo Crespi came into your life and said “send me a photo” to America and Diana Vreeland saw your photo and they called you to New York.
Barzini: We want this girl a week, she said, like that.
Marras: So what happened? You got a call and they told you to come to New York to have some photos... from Vreeland...
Barzini: No the call came from Consuelo Crespi and she said “do you feel like coming to New York this week? What should I tell you the truth or...
Marras: What the hell do I know? We are here for this. Sofia Celeste came here from Los Angeles to hear the story...
Barzini: The truth is I was very sick. The truth is it was the first time that someone said 'I want you.' And I was stunned, and so I said whatever they ask of me, I have to put my all into it. I have to do it because nobody ever told me: I want you. And I can't disappoint someone said I want you. So I left for New York with this thing inside. One ... if I could get better and the other - I will get better- if they really want me. If I really am worth something.
Marras: If I am really worthy...
Barzini: If I am worthy. So even if they asked me to wash the floors, it would have been the same thing. They wanted me.
Marras: Perfect, we are going to go back to this. You go to New York and you end up staying there for five years instead of for a week. A few things happened. You entered into the "Factory" of Andy Warhol in the sense, that you cross the threshold and you enter in that world, that atmosphere... What did you feel in front of Mr. Campbell's?
Barzini: Feeling very sick and very orphaned, I was my own guardian, so I was very strict with my self. Number one. And this helped me avoid ending up in the trap of drug use and things like that. The second thing was that I ended up being the friend or secretary of Leo Castelli, the Pop Art gallerist and she loved me. And I loved her Kate Berman... and she brought me with her when I was free around the Pop Art artists. And it really moved me and the person that really touched me and even if I was really sick and if I was really distant from things it was Jasper Johns.
The Factory was a big medieval square where in every corner something was happening: there were the minstrels that were playing, the poets reciting and the drug addicts that were rolling around on the floor. Andy in a corner with his assistants that did everything because he signed, purple, they put a silk screen down and he signed it. All these things happened in the old Factory. The silver one. The one you use to pack food. I wasn't particularly fascinated but I like the elevator because it was a freight elevator full of mice and rats. This degradation of this building that was falling apart where this factory was, intrigued me.
This person Gerard Malanga took me a ben volere. He was a poet that was at the time Andy's lover.
Marras: Gerald Malanga who told you at a certain point that you are beautiful like a Giacometti statue.
Barzini: Pshhh. Malanga came from Calabria and inside me he saw an umbilical cord to his origins. I was sick and so forget it if I was about to put myself between Andy and Gerard. Never. It was him that sort of kept me into this environment.
Max's Kansas City a squalid pub near Lexington Avenue where the whole druggie gang and the parasites of Andy would meet up and dragged themselves around eating chickpeas. I didn't take part. I observed them.
And the Balloon Farm, and this place that was as big as a rectangle and on Fridays and Saturday the Velvet Underground played. And on the terrace... On one side Andy and on one side me. I don't know why they chose me but we would do psychedelic lights and we would hold these little plates with different colors and with our fingers and with a projector it was like this on the background...
And this was... I didn't dance. I remember this song that lasted 20 minutes: "Heroin" and I observed. Then my relationship with Andy didn't really exist... Andy didn't have relationships. He was cynical, cold and genius but not as a painter eh, in terms of intuition. It was before the "Chelsea Girls" or his films. The prelude to his cinema. The period in which he photographed... put a person under the camera, completely still for 10 minutes in the dark with the light on their face.
It was the period in which he took pics of people taking a crap and the one eating spaghetti in real time. He was experimenting that way. And he put me under the camera. I asked myself what am I doing here. What am I gonna do for ten minutes. I made sure not to blink my eyes or close my eyes.
There was none of this: Hi Benedetta how are you? He didn't give a damn about that...
It was before Edie Sedgewick. This sensation that he liked to see the children of the High Class Bourgeoisie of New York roll around like cockroaches inside the abyss - into drugs and into agony and suffering due to abandonment because these people grew up practically into nothing. And he enjoyed having these cockroaches around him. And then... and then I left.
Barzini: My students ask me. Wow, you saw David Bowie. At the time, he wasn't David Bowie. He was this guy that played in the Velvet Underground. Of course I said yes, I met David Bowie. It is interesting when you meet someone before they become famous.
V: PENN AVEDON:
Marras: You arrive there... and you work with all the greats from Penn to Avedon but in reality and what you like and you were most affectionate with was Irving Penn. Why?
Barzini: Because he slept under the table while they prepared the girls. There were these tables filled with foulards, accessories, jewelry, shoes and he would slip underneath and sleep. I liked Penn because he was real. Because he was without music, without noise, really serious, deeply worried about the lighting and not you. You are a figure there. I worked in a period in which there wasn't even a strobe in the beginning. In 1964. There was theater lighting that illuminated the set. So you had to remain still. If you moved a few centimeters you ruined the placement of the lights. My job was to stay still. When everything went well 20 minutes had passed. This was Penn. He didn't really care about fashion in terms of glamour. What was important to him was rendering the photo how he wanted it with the help of the lighting. He was very nice to me even though we never really exchanged so much as a few words. We felt it. He had this connection with me in the sense that neither of us were theatrical about the situation unlike some who arrive late and say 'oh, sorry, ' with the Rolls Royce that was waiting downstairs.
And say: 'Sorry a little late (three hours late).' I was punctual, serious and pretty quiet. I never said I am hungry or I am thirsty or I don't like this or what are you doing to me. It's raining, I am depressed. Silence. It was a good exercise because my professionally is not what you see, my personality is not what you see it is what is behind it. Working to give a form to a dress, because Penn could have been pleased finding the form in it.
He worked with these assistants that were quiet and precise and deep like him. That's what I liked.
Avedon was the opposite. He was jumpy and always shouting. He was noisy, all these things happened at once, one didn't understand anything. It was all a mega confusion. He disgusted me. I never liked Avedon, not even a little bit. The beautiful thing though about Avedon was when I met him at Palazzo Reale in Milan in the 1980s or early 90s and at the time I wrote for Amica and they asked me to interview him. I was really excited to see him again 45 years later. He was at the top of the stairs and he was putting together his things and he was saying pass me the hammer poom poom and he was putting his stuff together and he was about 72 years old perhaps and he looked at me and said "Hi Benny" and I said "Hi Dick" and he got down from the stairs and maybe the first thing we both said to each other was:
"You know I didn't really ever like working with you," I said to him.
And he said, "I didn't [like working with you] either."
And there we found each other: him as a real artist. I wasn't that married a famous film director or one of those that created a lingerie line. I was a normal person. And we looked at each other like two human beings and it was beautiful . And so I realized that in life you have to let 50 years pass before you really understand someone.
Barzini: It's true you know. You have to see how it goes and how it evolves.
VI. UGO MULAS
Marras: In Italy, then you met a signore that was a photographer that at the time was named Ugo Mulas and you sort of became his muse.
Barzini: Let's try to use the right words. I wasn't a muse. I was one that he worked harmoniously with, I was someone with whom he could talk to. I was one that wasn't a mannequin but a person. And he worked willingly with me.
Marras: Was it the Bar Jamaica period?
Barzini: No later. Bar Jamaica was 1950s and here we are late-60s. I don't know how many jobs he had in Milan but we worked mainly for Mila Schon and very little other than. He worked well with Mila Schon and he worked well with me and me with him. He was the only Italian photographer I ever worked with. I never worked with any other. It was the time that things had ended. I slipped right out of the profession like a fish that slips right out of your hands.
Marras: But then you know jumping around here and there you met extraordinary people. This love story with Salvador Dali' is real or... ???
Barzini: It's fake.
Marras: It's fake? You never kissed him?
Barzini: Deep breath. No, never.
Barzini: He really liked me. He intrigued me a lot and this world of observation. He invited me to drink a tea with him at St. Regis where he lived and I one day I said: Stop it. Stop all these scenes. It's so annoying. Calm down. He took my hand and squeezed it and looked at me in the eyes and said: Benedetta, if you had a brother by the name of Salvador who died at 9 years old and then you were born and they called you by the name of your dead brother, and whatever thing you did they told you that your brother did it better. Even you would have started to invent things that your BROTHER was never able to do.
And I said: "Yes, it is probably true but you need to get over it. Basta."
Barzini: One day. This was our relationship. Also a really sincere relationship. He told me once: I have to be sincere, you really remind me of my wife Galla when we got married. Would you mind if we reenacted the scene of the wedding? Come on. I will give you a dress of Galla's and you do your hair like this and I would be so happy.
So we did this pantomime in St. Regis with a wedding cake. Basta.
There it was something similar to Warhol and both of them, him [Dali'] in a baroque, European way, full of the know-how in terms of painting. He was bravissimo. The other one [Warhol] had an intuition about the stupidity of Americans and about how to screw with them. He screwed the high class, collectionists and he screwed them over for how good they were.
The other one [Dali'] had an intuition and screwed them over for their stupidity and ignorance.
Because you can't stay in front of a sign with a hamburger with a cow face like that and say: isn't this fabulous. You have to be an IDIOT.
Everyone wanted a silk screen by Warhol. Which is not a portrait, it is a plastered photo...
They were both similar. Both geniuses. Totally opposite. They were both capable of an interesting sort of exhibitionism.
Him there [Dali'] with his big mustache and the other one [Warhol]with his court and his Factory and ... he was a snake charmer and they both had the bourgeoisie in their hands.
Certain things I understood later... At the time, I was accumulating a bit of information and then I understood these things...
VIII. THE MENTAL INSTITUTION
Marras: Listen, at a certain point going way back, you decided to get better... Actually someone told you to go to a hospital in Zurich to try get better. And you escaped...
Barzini: 27 October 1961 (voice faint). You know .... It was a prison. That had this surrounding wall and an electric door and houses that depending on your sickness, were organized in a certain way... Most of the people there were from concentration camps... people who had lost their minds.
They kept me there in August and I escaped in October.
They kept me there because the doctors told me I had no family and so it was better for me to stay there.
It was evident that you aren't going to get better in a situation like that. In fact, you just get worse.
So... I had a curative doctor, a fierce Hungarian doctor, that told me : "Dear Benedetta, Sunday I am going on a sail boat. If you see a sail or a blue boat, look at it, it is me."
There was this type of therapy where they leave you for ten minutes to do nothing. They wanted to see what you do when you have nothing to do. The rooms had a glass so that they could spy on you in your room. And you didn't have any activity. I brought a book by Tomasi di Lampedusa and I translated it into French. It was a way for me to do something. I was able to bring this book.
I decided to escape because there was no sense in staying there.
This doctor told me: "You know that your father is coming tomorrow."
And I said: "Can I see him?"
And the doctor said: "Of course."
And the next day he told me he already left. "We thought it was better for you not to see anyone," he said.
So I decided to escape.
Not because I was better at home.
There was one that was called Helen. An American pianist. She wasn't able to stay away form alcohol. She was the only normal one.
And I told Helen: I am going to escape.
And she said: How will you do that?
There was this surrounding wall and there were all these leaves and barbed wire and then this thing like this there.
I studied the place and the moment.
At 2pm the nurses were chatting and the patients were supposed to all be sleeping. And in the afternoon, I slipped on a raincoat and 20 francs that Helen gave me and she looked at me from the window.
I put a lot of faith in her because she could have told on me and vindicated herself and I told her no. She gave me the money and she watched me. I crossed this garden and I arrived at the end of it, and I climbed up the leaves and threw my shoes and my purse over the wall. I climbed over and was careful to not jump where there was barbed wire and I arrived outside... It was outside of the city and I saw this old man and he said: What are you doing?
And I said: Maybe you could help me down... and later I will later explain.
I got a little injured, my legs and tore my jacket. I got down and I left this old man and ran like a crazy person down the lake and there was a truck at the auto stop and the driver asked me: Where are you going? My heart was beating so fast that I said, if I don't have a heart attack now, I will never have one. Buboom buboom.
So I told him I have to go to the Bahnhof (STATION) and so he took me there and I closed myself in the bathroom for a while for a few hours because I needed to catch my breath. I took a train and went to Geneva where my mother was hosting a dinner. They had told her I had escaped and I was in her house and she told me: Call your doctor and tell him you are home.
I called the doctor and he responded: "Happy Ending"
This story went on. I was very good friends with the wife of the consul.
She was a wonderful woman and we are still close. She was outraged.
It was the third time I was in the hospital.
The Consul gave me an Italian passport and I left that house and never went back. I went to my brother's in Milan.
Marras: You are a mom. How many kids do you have?
Marras: Four. There is a beautiful photo of you in which you were breastfeeding your twins like a wolf. It was a really beautiful photo that really touched me.
Barzini: Did you find it on the internet?
Marras: I found it. It was really a symbol of great things. Maternity.
Barzini: I had to make up for all the disasters that had happened to me. It was the only way to remedy it... was to be an animal, to be close... to love. Was the only way.
Maybe you make mistakes in trying to do the right thing.
Marras: After a few years after you finished being a model, Galliano called you and asked you to model for Dior.
Barzini: Mother of God you really dug up everything.
Marras: Another named Meisel invited you because Donna Karan was doing a campaign and you reappear...
Barzini: Peter Lindbergh and Meisel. Two campaigns I did. Actually three I did. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?
Marras: You leave for Paris and John had you find a limousine at the airport that took you in your hotel that prepared you for the runway show...
Barzini: NO. Two dress fittings. All the models that were there were called for the fittings ... there was someone from Hong Kong and LA, to do the dress fitting. Mine was horrible and it was all embroidered and it weighed at least 50 kilos like that. Super heavy. It was the fashion show in which he interpreted a nightmare that he had of Dior, thinking about Dior. A nightmare of the mother of Dior. In which these cruel women and these horrible men, these dogs.
It was an extraordinary experience because I understood the grandeur, because the runway shows of Galliano they were like a preparation for a ball at Versailles.
This is art. Art doesn't need to serve anything. Just needs to be itself.
That preparation that 5 am to 11, everyone there, to witness all this frenzy and makeup and precision in the makeup and the details and there was nothing in disorder, it was all effervescence and it was like a party at Versailles for me. It really helped me understand Paris.
Marras: You one day you saw your mom that was cutting out your pictures from Vogue and you said that is not me and your mother said that it didn't matter you are ALL the same.
Barzini: Yes. It isn't like that. She gathered two leather folders and she said she didn't know what to do with them and she gave them to me and I opened them and said this is not me.
Completely idiot. Yes.
She came to New York once and a while and she stayed at the Plaza to go to the dentist and I went to see her sometimes and do my duty.
What are you doing with this face made up like a prostitute?" She said.
"Nothing mamma, I am a working as a model," I told her.
"But what is that?" she asked.
"Nothing mamma, it is a job," I said.
And she didn't understand what Vogue was. Someone told her that your daughter is doing magazine spreads with Penn and Vogue and from there she started collecting my photos.
XII. COMMUNIST PARTY
Marras: Then from the world this extraordinary world. This dream world. You were living in this world as a girl from the city and then you sign up for the PC (Communist Party).
Barzini: I signed up for the regional labor union. At my kids' nursery school, I met this docent of Sociology that worked with unions and he asked me if I wanted to organize a course. I accepted the challenge. I didn't understand anything.
There was this really funny incident: Inside my car there were homeless that slept there every night. I never closed it, I never closed my house door. There was nothing to steal. And then I had to go to the meeting. You could see that this one was smoking Muratti. I told him: "Don't worry. I am just going to the party meeting."
"I refuse to be in a car parked in front of the Communist Party. How disgusting! I am getting out of here."
One day he left me a note to clean my car.
He was a crazy man, clearly, but I would have liked to have known who he was. I never asked. If he does this life, I didn't want to interfere. I wanted to invite him up and give him some soup but I never did it. It seemed like an invasion.
The kids complained because of course the car smelled. "How gross!" the screamed.
And they would roll the windows down. And even the doorman complained that there was this homeless man that was sleeping and peeing in front. "There is this man that is always urinating in front of the building"
Marras: "Significato degli abito nel tempo" (the purpose of garments in history)
Barzini: Decodification of female and masculine garments and understanding the garment in terms of architecture, religion and politics, and working on the forms and work on the reasons in studying costumery and you understand the female and social conditions. This isn't a fashion subject.
It was interesting to understand what happened. The architecture was interesting. The doors had to be wide, because otherwise the skirts had to fit in the door. How they washed them. There were no closets, there chests.
Who invented these clothes? Who from where did they come from? I invented formulae from the tailors at court. They brought their rolls of textiles to the queen because there were these balls and maybe the Ambassador of France was coming.
Helps us understand the world that we live in.
Marras: At a certain point, you don't want to see anyone? Why?
Barzini: I didn't have my house, because I left the house my kids grew up in because they tripled the rent. I kept the office. My kids were in Rome, UK, Siena, Milano.... Alone, I understood that a lot of people don't look for you anymore and I didn't look for them either. I didn't have the house anymore and everyone went away. I wanted a sense of peace. I didn't want drama or evenings filled with stupid comments like 'how did you cook this.' Milan didn't look for me anymore and I didn't look for it.
I don't like to go out anymore at night. I always ride my bike. Sometimes I have to. I like to be home early. If not, I wouldn't be able to do my blankets. It's like a mantra because you repeat the same thing.
Celeste Morozzi: How did you meet?
Marras: I arrived here catapulted from Sardinia with my 4 rags painted by hand. Of the few people that came to see them was Benedetta. She clearly ... In her presence I was incredibly timid, I was fascinated but inhibited. She was right away... there was this physical connection. I think that animals understand each other among themselves. I did my first fashion show in Milan. I asked ... if she would have liked to do a runway show. We did the rehearsals and we came and she wore a few things and she told me I feel really nice in this. And that's how our correspondence began. In all these years... Our friendship continued even though we don't live the same city. I concentrate my appointments in a few days when I come here. I am sometimes not available, because I don't have time. But despite this, we were always in contact.
Barzini: You know what it is. In my "Significato degli Abito del Tempo" I divided clothes in four sectors: One is the artist that I call auteur, and every auteur that produces a fashion show writes a chapter of his book. An artist brings his work forth. There are not many people like this. They are ready to suffer and persevere despite the hurdles. They are the only ones I respect. The other more commercial ones - I mean there are exceptions - Missoni and Armani they have their way. But the artists have their voice. Antonio's work is unique. This for me is fundamental. When I met him, I met the authenticity of a person. Basta. This keeps me connected to this person. Even if we only see each other sometimes. Then he did these get togethers in Alghero and it was chance for me to see his house and his habitat. It annoys me when people say house. it's a habitat.
For this I have respect for him because he is courageous. In fashion there is this hypocrisy to brings forth a brand when the founder of the brand isn't there anymore. It takes opportunities away from young people. People are really clever you know they take the Christian away from the Dior. I find this revolting. People have the right to leave their masterpiece behind.
Antonio has courage to go ahead, I hope not forever. Fashion is strange, you can't die.
I hope that Antonio's work one day when he wants to stop, ceases so that nobody does Antonio Marras for Antonio Marras.