Fashion’s Unsung Designers; Giorgio Sant’ Angelo

Sometimes shocking, often game-changing, always visionary, certain designers become the name on everyone's lips for a millisecond. Then they're gone, no longer part of contemporary conversation, and barely even a footnote in the fashion history tomes that threaten the slender legs of the chicest coffee tables. If we stumble upon their names, we sit back and wonder, How can we not be talking about them anymore? In this series, Fashion's Unsung Designers, I will spotlight some of those who, I believe, deserve not only to be remembered, but perhaps name-dropped over cocktails.

Fashion's nomadic nobleman

Born in Florence in 1933, the son of a count, Giorgio di Sant' Angelo, or to give him his full title, Count Jorge Alberto Imperatrice de Sant' Angelo e Ratti di Desio, was raised on a vast Argentinean cattle ranch, obtained a degree in architecture, studied art at the Sorbonne, ceramics and sculpture in Spain under Picasso, and worked for Disney in California, all before ever even entertaining the idea of designing fashion––the pursuit that would bring him the most recognition. While many of us are familiar with his contemporary Halston, Sant' Angelo remains lesser-known, although Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière are reportedly fans, and Kate Moss collects vintage pieces.

Sant' Angelo's Argentinean grandmother, a religious taskmaster, had done much to boost the boy's creativity growing up, offering him passionate support but always encouraging him to push harder. Picasso picked up where she had left off, advising him to break boundaries and never look back. They provided him with the ideal foundation for his arrival in NYC in the mid-60s.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Giorgio Sant' Angelo

To sound more American, he dropped the "di" from his already-abbreviated name, and began working as a textile designer and stylist. While on a shoot with photographer Richard Avedon for Vogue, he proposed a novel makeup idea for model Twiggy that captured the Summer of Love atmosphere perfectly: he painted a folksy flower growing over one of her large, limpid eyes. At this time, he also became intrigued by the possibilities of Lucite and fashioned geometric jewelry pieces out of it that a Vogue editor brought to Diana Vreeland's attention. She loved them but urged him to focus his many talents on one area: fashion.

Paving the way for Yves Saint Laurent

He launched a ready-to-wear collection in 1968; it was brim full of trippy kaleidoscopic prints, feathers, tie-dye, folklore embellishment and suede fringe, taking inspiration from a variety of ethnic groups, reflecting the peace and love message of the times. He brought gypsy and peasant style to fashion before Yves Saint Laurent famously did so in 1969.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Giorgio Sant' Angelo

Rejecting the decade's Space Race influences, the vinyl mod shapes and stark, stiff fabrics, he looked to the Incas, Navajos and Eskimoes for modern beauty. Eschewing zippers and buttons, he favored wrapping and knotting as means of closure. Not for him the buckles, belts and grommets of Courrèges and Cardin. His clothes evoked the life of exotic and carefree lounge lizards basking in a desert sun, not tricked-out astronauts stepping foot on the moon.

After winning his first Coty Award in 1968, Sant' Angelo saw his business grow throughout the 70s, and he dressed celebrities and rock stars: Isabella Rossellini wore Sant' Angelo to the Oscars, and his designs appealed to both Bianca Jagger and husband, Mick. He pioneered the use of stretch fabric, especially in eveningwear, and introduced the idea of the "body" over which women could wrap skirts and add jackets. His innovations led where later Donna Karan and Jean Paul Gaultier would follow.

Changing fortunes

He began to license his name into categories like menswear, and furnishings, but as the 80s arrived, his vision of barefoot and bronzed bohemians didn't appeal to the new decade's Working Girl, as played by Melanie Griffith in the Hollywood movie of the same name, who preferred Nike with her Wall Street tailoring.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Giorgio Sant' Angelo

With his relevance on the descent, Sant' Angelo took action: he reinserted the "di" before Sant' Angelo, and bought back his name from the licensees. He made his business smaller, but more manageable. By the end of the decade, he was again dressing starlets for the red carpet and WWD pronounced "Giorgio di Sant' Angelo: Back on Top."

In 1989, after years of heavy smoking, the designer was diagnosed with lung cancer and hospitalized. Despite conducting fittings from his hospital bed, and just a few months after WWD's above declaration, Giorgio di Sant'Angelo was dead at the age of 56.

Fashion's Unsung Designers; Giorgio Sant' Angelo

Kate Moss appears in May's U.K. issue of Vogue wearing a selection of pieces from the Rolling Stones tour wardrobe and, in particular, a Giorgio Sant' Angelo jacket that Mick Jagger wore onstage in 1976. The designer's influence lives on: anyone planning a trip to London this summer can catch Giorgio Sant' Angelo pieces on show at the Saatchi Gallery's Exhibitionism, which runs until September 4.

All photos of Giorgio Sant' Angelo clothing from the website of purveyors of luxury vintage clothing, What Goes Around Comes Around. My photo of my copy of Vogue UK.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

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