Film Review: Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco

The Picasso of fashion is given his deserving due in this irresistibly seductive documentary, chronicling his inspirational—and very wild—life in the jungle of style.
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Although in the 1970s New York City was said to be going down the toilet, it was, for all its pre-Disneyfied grit and crime, incredibly exciting and glamorous. The so-called Swinging ’60s, punctuated by driving rock ’n’ roll, had given way to the lusher, softer and often funkier sounds of disco, the Stonewall uprising threw open closet doors for generations of gifted gay men, and life seemed one endless, glittering party.

No artist captured this thrilling ethos better than fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez (1943 - 87). His renderings went far beyond mere pictures of clothes, with their dazzling palette, sensual, kinetically flowing lines and the strikingly exotic models wearing them. No All-American WASPy girls next door were they, being unique beauties with names like Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland, Jerry Hall, Jessica Lange, Tina Chow, Alva Chin and Donna Jordan. Each one of these stunners was an Antonio girl, for it was he who not only first discovered most of them, but magically glorified them in ad campaigns and editorials for Conde Nast, The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar, which any lover of fashion, beauty or indeed art looked forward to with bated breath.

Lopez’s brief but fascinatingly phoenix-like life has been documented in a lovely, loving and very real documentary,Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco, by James Crump. The film takes him from his Puerto Rican New York roots to his instantaneous success in the fashion business, where his wunderkind talent was swiftly recognized. He loved the work of such fashion-conscious master painters as Winterhalter and Boldini and early on incorporated elements of the Pop and Op movements into his drawings, forever pushing the boundaries of illustration and turning it into a true art form.

A lengthy sojourn in Paris, where he befriended and lived with Karl Lagerfeld, was inspirational to Lopez in terms of both the rich culture and nightlife; he and his bird-of-paradise flock would nightly descend on the Club Sept and joyously dance legendary night after night away, taking the town by storm. The racial diversity of his muses was something more readily embraced in Europe than America—I recall taking illustration classes at Lopez’s beloved alma mater, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and forever having teachers snark about the big noses and thick lips I’d draw for my models. When I’d protest that I was inspired by Lopez, they’d admonish, “But you’re not Antonio!”

Mesmerizing archival footage, especially of the artist in swift, jaw-dropping action, executing exquisite sketches of Charles James couture—sometimes worn by lithe Hispanic bike messengers plucked off the street—with the eminent couturier in rapt attendance during wild, all-night sessions at the Chelsea Hotel, wonderfully bring his creativity to life again. The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham recalls how he seemed “to be pulling the magic right out of the atmosphere and [it was] coming out through his fingers on the drawing pad.” Interviews with intimates like the deliciously chatty Cleveland, an especially eloquent and thoughtful Lange, Vogue editrix Grace Coddington and myriad others attest to his breathtaking gifts as well as his complex and passion-filled personal life, besides evoking all that Studio 54 glamour once more.

Jerry Hall, who was his second big find after Cleveland, was even engaged to marry him at one point, and it comes as no surprise, really, especially in that heady pre-AIDS era, that the feverish, sometimes excruciating sexuality throbbing from his work was no mere put-on. Whether the dance was vertical or horizontal, Lopez partied hard, which led to his truly untimely death in 1987 at age 44 of the disease that claimed so many of his generation. The most important figure in his life, Juan Ramos, with whom he was first lover and then creative partner, followed him eight years later, and their passing left a void in international fashion that has never been filled.

Lopez’s work remains as fresh, exciting and seriously influential as it was a staggering 40 years ago. At a time when the street/ethnic sensibility that fueled his creative revolution has become commonplace, and fashion itself an ever more depressing, derivative and banal commercial enterprise, his name retains its full magic and his gloriously original, flamboyant yet deeply human art is still providing both inspiration and instruction.