Antonio Lopez: The Iconic Nuyorican Fashion Illustrator Who Rewrote the Industry’s Rules

Antonio Lopez, Antonio Self Portrait, Italian Vanity, 1981, Marker 7 color overlay, 15” x 20”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos

It has been twenty-nine years since the passing of Antonio Lopez (1943-1987), the legendary Puerto Rican fashion illustrator and photographer who succumbed to AIDS. Yet his eroticized, singular, and grandiose approach to art still reverberates through the fashion landscape today. In recent years, a slew of high profile projects have revived his legacy, such as the 2012 monograph Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex, and Disco, and the companion exhibit, Antonio’s World presented by the Suzanne Geiss Company in the same year. In 2013, a limited edition MAC x Antonio Lopez cosmetics line and campaign featured his former muses Marisa Berenson, Jerry Hall, and Pat Cleveland. During the same year, Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, a great friend of Lopez’s, curated Antonio Lopez and World of Fashion Art at the SCAD Museum of Art. In early 2017, we can expect the upcoming documentary Antonio 70 by arthouse director James Crump.

Antonio Lopez, Maxime de la Falaise, NYC, 1967, Marker & oil pastel, 18” x 24”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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Lopez was a titan in the fashion industry, his prolific career spanned the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, fueled by his surrealist, futurist and hyper-sexual illustrations, which appeared in style bibles such as Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, Vanity, WWD, and The New York Times. He was also behind successful commercial campaigns for Versace, Missoni, Valentino, Charles James, Fiorucci, Bloomingdale’s, and others. Lopez’s peers took note, watched his every move, and were known to modify their collections based on his ground-breaking visuals. The late Dominican designer, Oscar De La Renta, often sent him fabric swatches during early design stages, which Lopez turned into entire collections, stunning De La Renta with his enormous talent.

Antonio Lopez, Grace Jones, 1982, Pencil & watercolor, 12” x 18”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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Lopez shared his success with Juan Ramos, his life partner, art director and business manager. Together, Lopez and Ramos became Latino creatives who held massive sway and had incredible visibility in the fashion world – a rarity for gay and bisexual Puerto Rican men in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Lopez also pushed against the norms of the time by regularly portraying subjects of color in his drawings, artistically shifting the conversation during a fashion climate in which elegant white women – in the style of Rene Gruau – represented the only standard of beauty.

Antonio Lopez, Dream Girls, American Vogue, 1977, Pencil & watercolor, 18” x 24”, Courtesy Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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Lopez subverted this notion by giving movement, sensuality, and fluidity to his illustrations of black and brown bodies. In 1971, Carol Labrie became the first black model to grace the cover of Italian Vogue in one of Lopez’s illustrated covers for the magazine. He was a proponent for promoting diverse beauty, particularly in the ‘70s when blonde models like Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs represented the ideal. In his Instamatic photographs, Lopez included Grace Jones, Tina Chow, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Toukie Smith, and funk songstress Betty Davis to purposefully broaden the limited beauty spectrum. This applied to men of color as well, as Lopez would frequently sketch Angelo Colon, a male doppelganger of Grace Jones. Lopez revered the male figure in his drawings, whether depicting flamboyant dandies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or the hyper-masculine male of the ‘80s, infused with homoerotic undertones.

Antonio Lopez, Silvano Malta, 1981, Pencil/watercolor on paper, 14” x 11”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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Born in the rural town of Utuado, Puerto Rico in 1943, Lopez arrived to New York City with his family as a young boy. Settling in East Harlem, he soaked up the streets of the city, and devoured pop culture, comic books, cinema, and theatre. Growing up in a house full of fashion-forward women, Lopez often assisted his seamstress mother and pored over the flashy accessories his aunts would bring back from Spain. He helped his father build mannequins, an impactful and small detail that piqued his interest in the human figure early on, as he drew mostly from live models later in his career. His artistic pursuits were encouraged by his parents, which led to him attend and graduate from the High School for Art and Design. He subsequently enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and it was during this time that he met Ramos, then just a young interior design student, and started interning at WWD. A short time later, he accepted a staff position at The New York Times, which laid the groundwork for his soon-to-be momentous career. Lopez flourished during the ‘60s, creating whimsical and carefree images of modern women while taking on commercial jobs with Bonwit Teller, Henri Bendel, and other fashion brands.

Juan Ramos, ANTONIO (Antonio Lopez + Juan Ramos) and Jerry Hall. Private collection.
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Lopez’s life was as captivating off the canvas as his creations on the canvas. Lopez and Ramos lived in decadence, as bon vivants and Boricua dandies, and they came to represent exquisite sartorial flair. In 1969, Lopez and Ramos decamped to Paris for several years, living in an apartment owned by Karl Lagerfeld, then a designer for Chloé, and soon fell into glittering, jet-set social circles. Days in the studio producing work were matched by glamorous nights dancing at the storied Parisian nightclub Club Sept with Lagerfeld and company. Lopez’s entourage, dubbed ‘The Americans,’ included Andy Warhol, Donna Jordan, Jane Forth, Corey Tippin, and Pat Cleveland.

Lopez and Lagerfeld also held salons, where he introduced American art and style to European audiences through US models, designers, hair stylists, and makeup artists. It was in the City of Light that Lopez met many of his muses and formed organic connections with them, such as Grace Jones, Tina Chow, Jerry Hall, Jessica Lange, and Paloma Picasso, who all went on to have bright careers. Through their close association with Lopez, they became known as ‘Antonio Girls,’ and inspired Lopez’s book of the same name in 1982.

Antonio Lopez, Carol Labrie, NYC, 1969, Marker and color overlay, 18” x 24”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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The exhibit Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion which recently opened on June 14 at El Museo Del Barrio, is a comprehensive overview featuring about 400 works from Lopez’s illustrious career, curated by both Amelia Malagamba-Ansotegui and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado. Comprised of illustrations, drawings, Instamatic photographs, archival video and images, as well as original clothing and shoe designs, the exhibit showcases the many layers of Lopez’s fabled career. In essence, the show drives home Lopez’s core fundamental values – his Nuyorican identity, his queerness, his East Harlem roots, his Caribbean heritage, his celebration of people of color, and his admiration for gritty street culture.

The show’s co-curator Aranda-Alvarado, shares with Remezcla, “It is clear to both me and Amelia that his ‘Puerto Ricanness’ was important to Antonio. He also has spoken publicly about how the culture of East Harlem was an important influence. We see it in photographs he took of people he found in the streets and made into his Instamatic artworks.” The exhibit comes at a bittersweet moment, fresh off the heels of the ever-gleeful National Puerto Rican Day Parade, yet in the wake of national tragedy in Orlando. But it also serves as a safe haven and a celebratory, inclusive space for LGBTQ individuals of Latino and African descent.

In 1974, Interview magazine brought Lopez and Ramos on to serve as guest editors for the ‘Puerto Rico’ issue, which was dedicated to artists and cultural influencers from the island of Borinquen, and included Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, Iris Chacon, Eddie Palmieri, Jose Feliciano, and other notable Puerto-Rican figures.

Antonio Lopez, Iris Chacon, 1976, Kodak Instamatic, 3.5” x 4.5”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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Shortly afterward, Lopez and Ramos became disillusioned with the Parisian creative scene, which had become increasingly bureaucratic, and decided to return to New York, excited for the new cultural shifts that were sweeping the city. Lopez was heavily shaped by his New York City upbringing, reveled in gay black and Latino subculture, and loved disco, funk, and soul music. These elements informed his work and translated into his signature, sexualized vision. His inherent love for art, fashion, and creativity kept him culturally fresh. New York painter and illustrator Alvaro, a former protege of Lopez’s during the ‘80s, tells Remezcla, “Antonio was always looking for new inspiration and if not looking for it he could just stumble upon it by just walking down the streets. Antonio was like a sponge. He absorbed everything.”

Antonio Lopez, Portrait: Bill “Blast” Cordero, 1985, Acrylic/gouache on paper, 30” x 22”, Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos
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Lopez enjoyed the new breed of designers that were now ruling the ‘80s: Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler, and Vivienne Westwood, etc. He was also heavily attracted to the pulsating hip-hop scene with its graffiti artists and breakdancers, and collaborated with its most visible members, including Bill Blast, Crazy Legs, Doze, Pop Master Fabel, and Mare 139 through portraits, performances and murals. Lopez connected with the new youth of the ‘80s, frequently lecturing at art universities throughout the US and performing live model drawing demos to packed classrooms. He longed for youthful energy and vitality to sustain him during his final years. Lopez lived a colorful, textured, and artful life, and consumed beauty until his last breath.

‘‘Antonio Lopez: Future Funk Fashion’ will be view through November 26, 2016 at El Museo Del Barrio in New York City.