Some golden Sunday. Probably 1967. Although no one remembers the date, models Donna Jordan and Jane Forth recall with perfect clarity the Technicolor moment they met Antonio Lopez at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. They were teenagers. Lopez, the Puerto Rican-born, Harlem-raised fashion genius, would have been about 24.
“Those were wild, hippie times when everybody gathered [at the fountain],” says Jordan in James Crump’s new film, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco. “There was this vision in red that was coming down the main steps: top hat, red suit, red pants, cane in hand, and it was Antonio.”
Forth recalls Lopez looked “almost like a pimp”. He wanted to draw her. She was not in the habit of going home with strange men, but “he had such bright eyes and I just agreed”. Forth and Jordan soon became his muses. Lopez drew them both on repeat, first in New York, and then in Paris, where they moved in 1969, and became a major source of inspiration to Karl Lagerfeld.
Filmmaker James Crump is an art historian whose previous documentary subjects include Robert Mapplethorpe. “Antonio was incredibly intuitive,” he tells AnOther. “He was free. In his way of working and moving through the world he was completely open to the possibilities.”
Lopez was still in college when hired by Women’s Wear Daily; commissions soon piled up from the New York Times, Interview, British Vogue and French Elle, bringing fashion illustration back from the dead. His fantasy fashion-scapes of the 70s pulse with the energy of his favourite Paris nightspot Club Sept, populated by Antonio’s girls (a phrase coined by Jean-Paul Goude). In Paris the gang included Pat Cleveland, Carol LaBrie, Grace Jones, Tina Chow, Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall. They were uninhibited, exotic, and above all erotic – they seem to dance right off the page.
“You can see it clearly in the way they move… and I find that very exciting,” says Lopez in a rare piece of archival interview footage. Crump has mainly relied on stills, Lopez’ art, and new interviews to tell his story. Some key characters (Hall, Jones, Karl Lagerfeld) are conspicuous in their absence, but Lange, Bill Cunningham in one of his last ever interviews, and the ebullient Cleveland make up for it. “Everyone was in love with Antonio,” giggles Cleveland in the film.
Crump makes much of Lopez’s supposed sex addiction. When he met a transfixing Texan beauty with Rapunzel hair and legs up to her chin he invited her into his bed as well as his studio, and Crump has unearthed footage of Lopez and Hall larking about on 1975 shoot in Jamaica, telling everyone they were engaged.
Lopez’s partner Juan Ramos eventually moved on – falling in love with an artist he’d met in Club Sept, Paul Caranicas – but the pair remained deeply entwined. “Juan is integral to Antonio’s output,” says Crump. “He is the art director, but he is also the intellectual component.”
Their drawing sessions were grand productions, involving full hair, make-up and styling, and either conducted in an electrified silence or to a thumping R&B beat. When supplied clothes didn’t please Lopez, he’d get his friends to make new ones and use those instead. They were making fashion happen in real time.
The old order was fragmenting, as youth, daring and talent became new currencies. Says Crump: “The early 1970s is when everything that had seemed possible in the late 1960s comes to fruition, before a darker end to that decade came with AIDs, serious drug use and self-destruction.”
Lopez died in 1987, Ramos in 1995, both from AIDS-related illness. It’s this grim finality that closes the film, but for the most part it rolls along joyously, never digging too deep, glistening, sweat-slicked but oddly innocent. “Looking back, it’s such a bygone, classic period,” says Crump, who fell under its spell from afar as a kid growing up in rural Indiana. “I never knew Antonio, but I was fascinated [by what I saw in] Interview magazine. Through those printed materials I got really turned on; emotionally, intellectually, physically, sexually, by the energy and Antonio and his whole crazy milieu.”
In the late 90s, Crump was introduced to Caranicas, who directs the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos. “We started editing over 10,000 Instamatics [prints], thousands of drawings and Super 8 films… I got sucked in,” he says. “I really regretted that I was born too late. At one point we were going to publish a book of the Instamatic collection.” It never happened. “[But] Antonio was always there, in the back of my mind.”
Like his subject, Crump has a canny knack for picking his moment. “I started this picture well before the election cycle, but I think this is a story that deserves to be told right now. It addresses aspects of culture that are being attacked or undermined by political forces. Antonio was enormously influential, but I think he is to some extent forgotten, and I hope this film will bring him back to life.”
Antonio Lopez 1970, Sex, Fashion & Disco premieres at the BFI London, October 12, 2017.