Before global nomads, rich hippies and "gypset" style, there was Giorgio di Sant' Angelo. And this fall, the Phoenix Art Museum's Fashion Design Department will present the first ever retrospective of the designer from Sept. 17 to Feb. 12, 2012. Featuring more than 40 ensembles and accessories, along with sketches and collection books, the show will span the designer's career from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
Sant' Angelo was born in Italy and raised in Argentina and Brazil, and his multicultural upbringing informed his style. He worked briefly at Walt Disney Studios before moving to New York City. Breaking from the mod, Space Age designs of Pierre Cardin and Courreges in the 1960s, Sant' Angelo's boho collections mixed American Indian, gypsy, Asian and African influences; eclectic fabrics; and rich ornamentation. His celebrity clients included Mick Jagger, Lena Horne and Diana Ross.
"He was highly creative but not as commercial as some of his contemporaries, like Halston," said the exhibition curator Dennita Sewell Thursday in L.A., where she is doing research at the UCLA Library, which houses the designer's paper archives.
It's perfect timing for a Sant' Angelo show, with Native American patterns and Western influences showing up in so many recent collections -- Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Opening Ceremony to name a few. And it's long overdue, considering how his piled-on, multiculti aesthetic seems to have reverberated through the years, with Tom Ford at Gucci (those feather jeans), John Galliano (the Eskimo, geisha and Pocahontas collections), Anna Sui and Haider Ackermann.
Many of Sant' Angelo's most famous fashion magazine editorials were shot out West. His breakout was in the July 1968 issue of Vogue, which featured an eight-page editorial with his model-muse Veruschka clothed in colorful fabrics, ropes and furs, introducing his signature nomadic chic.
A Look magazine spread from October 1970, shot in the Grand Canyon, was billed as a celebration of "Indian style," with warpaint, feathers, furs and skins. Sewell was able to interview the fashion stylist and model on that monumental shoot for the exhibition, which will also feature never-released, original footage of runway shows.
Throughout the 1970s, Sant' Angelo's clothes became more streamlined. He worked exclusively in jersey, with the body guiding the silhouette. (It's no surprise that Donna Karan was heavily influenced by the designer.) "At that point, he said, 'The costume party is over,' " said Sewell, adding that Sant' Angelo worked with DuPont on developing Lycra and other new stretch fabrics for fashion use. He even did fashion shoots in DuPont factories.
Sant' Angelo died in 1989. Sewell is working with Martin Price, his longtime partner, on the exhibition.
Sant' Angelo was known to say, "I'm not a fashion designer but an artist who works in fashion -- an engineer of color and form." Sounds like another designer with a major museum retrospective right now: Alexander McQueen.
-- Booth Moore
Photo: Designer Giorgio di Sant' Angelo and model Barbara Carrera in 1968. Courtesy of Martin Price