Speaking candidly to the camera, the actress Jessica Lange remembers the time when she worked as a model for the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez during the 1970s. She can’t hide her smile: “Everybody at that time got swept into Antonio’s world. There was something magical about it. He had this way of bringing joy into people’s lives.”
Lange is just one in a long list of Lopez’s collaborators who appear in James Crump’s seductive new documentary, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco, screening this Friday as part of Doc NYC. And their admiration and devotion toward the artist are key in understanding the magnitude of his work.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1943, Lopez moved to New York as a child and grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. When he was 12, he won a scholarship for the Traphagen School of Fashion’s Saturday children’s program, and attended the High School of Art and Design on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Later, he was accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology, but never completed his degree. While at school, Lopez started working for John’s Fairchild Women’s Wear Daily, and within just a few months, his illustrations were featured on the cover of the prestigious publication. He quit school to work for Fairchild full-time, when his work was noticed by Carrie Donovan, the legendary fashion editor for the New York Times. She offered him freelance work, and that exposure eventually turned him into a regular contributor for some of the most influential fashion publications of the time, such as Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar.
Along with his collaborator and boyfriend-turned-lifelong-friend Juan Ramos, Lopez is credited with saving fashion illustration from extinction. Starting in the late 1930s, photography had started to overshadow illustration, as the work of Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn became more prominent in fashion magazines. “The first photographic cover of [American] Vogue was a watershed in the history of fashion illustration and a watershed mark of its decline,” fashion historian Laird Borrelli-Persson writes in her book Fashion Illustration Now. When Lopez brought his style to the glossy pages of magazines and portrayed his models dancing and moving across the page, breaking with the old tradition of stagnant poses, he injected life and fantasy into the work. Speaking in the movie, Vogue’s creative director-at-large Grace Coddington explains: “Until he came along, a fashion drawing was just like a very stiff couture model. Antonio brought this thing where he put them in a fantasy.”
Directed, written, and co-produced by Crump, who’s also an art historian and collector, the film is an unapologetic love letter to Lopez’s work and to the glorious days of the art and fashion worlds of downtown New York during the 1970s (a theme the director has already visited in his 2007 debut feature Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe).
Crump doesn’t try to hide how he feels about his subjects. He became fascinated with Lopez and Ramos when he was a young teenager living in rural Indiana and read about their “magical lives and milieu” on Interview magazine. You can feel the urgency the director feels in telling the story of an artist who’s been unfairly overlooked. The film feels personal without being too sentimental.
Through interviews with Lopez’s entourage and incredible archival footage, Crump documents the duo’s creative process and intense appetite for the nightlife: From wild parties at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan to wilder parties at Club 7 in Paris; from a trip to St. Tropez with Karl Lagerfeld to a shoot in Jamaica with Norman Parkinson and Jerry Hall; from the set of an Andy Warhol film shot at Lagerfeld’s Rive Gauche apartment, to the legendary designer Charles James’s home at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. (Jessica Lange memorably describes going into “Charles’s strange little studio living apartment with this obese beagle called Sputnik that lived in the bathroom.”)
His entourage, by the way, is an impossibly impressive collection of powerhouse names in the industry on both sides of the Atlantic: magazine editors (Vogue’s Joan Juliet Buck, Interview’s Bob Colacello), legendary models (Jane Forth, Donna Jordan, Pat Cleveland), living icons (Karl Lagerfeld, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones) and the soul-touching Bill Cunningham — the late New York Times photographer and one of Lopez’s closest friends — who gives his last interview before passing away in 2016. (The film is fittingly dedicated to Cunningham.)
Enhanced by a soundtrack that nears ‘70s dance floor perfection (Donna Summer, Chic, Marvin Gaye) and subtle visual effects by Andre Purwo that alternate between Lopez’s drawings and jaw-dropping images of decadent lifestyle, Crump’s movie delivers its message of 1970s glory — sex, fashion, and disco — without ever feeling gratuitous.
Lopez was also a champion of diversity and inclusion, and the film underscores how this was a unique attitude for the high fashion world at the time. While the American public was just starting to discover the new phenomenon of the top model and was going crazy over the sweet perfection of the all-American girl (made official by a 1978 Time magazine that featured Cheryl Tiegs on its cover), Lopez was challenging stereotypical modeling poses and celebrating nontraditional beauty with his models: Donna Jordan’s gap toothed-smile, Jane Forth’s shaved eyebrows, Grace Jones’s extreme haircuts. Over time, he developed a following among a group of models, who became known as “Antonio’s Girls” (a somewhat patronizing term popularized in an essay by Jean-Paul Goude that appeared in a 1973 issue of Esquire).
“Race, ethnicity, sexuality have become the primary underpinnings of their art, as opposed to fashion, which has always been how everybody perceives Juan’s and Antonio’s work,” the artist Paul Caranicas says in the film. Caranicas was Ramos’s partner from 1971 until his death in 1995, and he’s the executor of the Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos.
When Lopez passed away from AIDS complications in 1987, a New York Times obituary described him as a “major fashion illustrator [whose] always flamboyant style has influenced the work of many other fashion illustrators since the 1960s.” But Lopez was more than that. His vision, which was multicultural and glamorous, made him a unique artist in the high fashion world. His life was cut too short and Crump wants the world to remember that. As he said to me, “[Lopez’s] older contemporary [Andy Warhol] successfully made that jump from illustrator to being considered a studio artist. I think that Antonio might have been successful [at that] had he lived longer.”