For years, the sliding doors of creative director appointments at key fashion houses has taken on such a breakneck speed, it can be difficult to keep up. Among the rigmarole, those steady names who have quietly delivered consistent work for years tend to get lost in the noise. Grazia Malagoli is one such designer—a quiet achiever whose long-term reign as the fashion director of Sportmax (she began with the brand in 1979), has consistently catered to the bright young things of the fashion world, both in its native Italy and abroad, including a loyal and growing customer base in Australia.
Best thought of as Max Mara’s cooler younger sister, Sportmax’s Spring/Summer 2022 outing, presented in Milan last week, blended an opulent baroque sensibility—corsetry, jacquard prints—with a sparse ascetic minimalism, courtesy of ribbed knit leggings and sturdy structured jackets. After the show, Malagoli invited Grazia into the brand’s Milanese Headquarters, located a stone’s throw from the bustling Duomo, for an exclusive interview and run-through of the new collection. Our conversation is below, and condensed for clarity.
The Spring/Summer 2022 collection you showed was inspired by the iconic American philosopher and composer John Cage. How did he influence the collection?
When the team and I started designing this collection we began thinking about the idea of silence, and in particular about the studies of John Cage. He really focused on this idea that everything needs an opposite to exist: so there’s only sound if there’s also silence. Together with his partner, a very important choreographer Merce Cunningham, who had an impact on the avant-garde dance, Cage explored the relationship of opposites within both music and dance. So starting from this idea, we tried to put together concepts and features which are opposites of each other, like the Baroque and the minimal.
The result are these important pieces that we call ‘fragments’ characterised by a clash between essential silhouettes and volumes. These are historical costumes defined by side cuts and worn with super clean pieces, it could be a tank top or soft leggings for example. We have also introduced some references to the ballet: the lightness of gauze, georgette and tulle helped to give an idea of fragility and poetic movement. All these distinguish themselves from the consistency of leather, the very strong cotton used for example for the structured jackets, coats and pants, and jacquard. The colour palette includes different shades of whites, from nude to ecru, but, again, in contrast with a touch of colours, such as bright colours like orange, fuchsia, yellow, light blue and lilac.
There was a quote that played over and over while the models walked—”Silence and love are the only untranslatable languages”—was that a John Cage quote?No, the music is by Teho Teardo, an Italian musician and composer who will also perform at La Triennale here in Milan tonight. He understood the feeling of Cage and composed a music in the same direction of the collection.
What do you think is the key to being able to tap into what young people think is genuinely cool?
When I joined the company, Sportmax was a collection—among the brands of the Group—for the younger generation, devoted to a younger target. And over the years, we tried to remain true to this, Sportmax continues this path of doing research and experimentations to offer a product that is always innovative. I work with a team of young designers and they put a lot of energy into this and they have a lot of new ideas that I can help to transform into something in line with the company and the brand.
You began with Max Mara in 1979. Do you remember your first encounter with the brand?
My mother had a small atelier, so I grew up in this environment. I was very young, but in my mind I started to think that I wanted to do that kind of a job but in a real company, and so I studied design. Max Mara is based in Reggio Emilia, and I’m from Reggio Emilia as well, and where I went to school, Max Mara had, I think, one of the first boutiques in the world. At that time, it was a kind of multi-brand store. When I saw the label Sportmax, for me it was something very interesting.
I was lucky because at the moment I finished school, I tried to work there and they chose me. So I was very lucky. At the beginning, I worked with Laura Lusuardi who was the fashion director so, from the beginning, I worked for Sportmax, and then after three or four years, the founder of Max Mara Company asked me if I wanted to work alone, and I said “I’ll try”. At that time, I remember there was only one other brand that worked in the same way as Sportmax. It was the only collection dedicated to young customers. At that time there was not a strict distinction in terms of style, like we have today. Today we have a more precise distinction in terms of attitude and style, and collections as well. Everything has changed since then: the communication, the way you buy and the way you sell. So this means that you have to manage the collection in a different way compared to the past.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for designers nowadays? What has been the biggest shift for you in the decades since you started?
I believe the biggest challenge is to understand what surrounds you, because if you don’t understand it you won’t receive any response. But also create projects that are able to receive quick responses from the audience. And create stimulating, fun content that reflects the strong energy of the moment. One of the biggest changes in fashion has been the styling. Today the styling is crucial when you are working on a collection, it’s almost a priority. In the past this didn’t happen, the important thing was to create an item with a good quality and a good shape but all the rest had minor importance.
How do you stay creative when there’s so much noise? Is there anything you do in your design process to step away from the fast-paced nature of social media or the constant demands of retail?
To me social media is a way to know humanity, not customers. I would say I’m an observer and not an active user. It’s clear that social media are useful to deliver institutional messages. Creativity is a different thing, it starts from several sources of inspirations, it might be an artist or vintage fashion or visiting a museum and so on. All these inspirations in the end converge together and after an editing process we find our way.
Can you talk to me about this collection’s moodboard?
The moodboard reflects the dichotomy of baroque’s opulence and ballet world’s minimalism, we refer especially to the avant garde ballet. The collection includes clean and essential features from the ballet world, as well as some garments that come from the ballet, such as leggings, all-in-one, bras. The baroque is in the shapes and in the consistency of some fabrics, such as satin and jacquard. Some of the images represent the concept of fragment, that we developed in the collection. Another important theme is the concept of corsetry. The colour palette of the collection is also represented in the moodboard: we mostly used very pale colors with some injections of delicate colours and some super bright colors with the aim of shocking the audience.