One of Fashion’s Most Iconic Illustrators was a Puerto Rican Named Antonio Lopez

Antonio Lopez
Andy Warhol, Portrait of Antonio, 1986. Estate of Antonio Lopez & Juan Ramos. All images courtesy El Museo del Barrio

If the disco era were to be signed by one name in fashion it would read: Antonio. Hailing from a farm town in Puerto Rico, Antonio Lopez skyrocketed to international fame as one of the U.S.’s foremost fashion illustrators throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Until Antonio came along, a fashion drawing in a magazine was nothing more than an image of a stiff couture white model. Competing with the rising art of fashion photography, he single-handedly transformed fashion illustration, found in the pages of trade magazines like Women’s Wear Daily, and converted it into a fusion of fine art and psychedelia worthy of the cutting edge fashion pages of Vogue, Interview, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times. He also broke convention when it came to fashion illustrations by adding backgrounds into his drawings. Now there were models on motorcycles, catching cabs, hanging out at cafés, or lounging on the beach. They were living and breathing the fashion they wore — not bound by it.

Illustrator Antonio Lopez

The energetic lines of his drawings whooshed and danced and every model or member of the glitterati wanted to be either one of his “Antonio girls” or get swept up in the street-style movement around him. After his brilliant light burned out in 1987 at the age of 44 due to AIDS, three decades of his commercial and personal art were showcased at the Louvre fashion museum, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, in Paris.

Hard Working and Hard Playing

Like his vibrant drawings, his personal life also embodied the multicultural energy and hedonism of the emerging (and clashing) punk, bohemian, disco and hip-hop scenes. His playgrounds were New York and Paris and his entourage included best friends like Jessica Lange, Grace Jones, and Karl Lagerfeld; and pals like Andy Warhol, Isabella Rossellini, Paloma Picasso and Yves Saint Laurent. He was a catalyst to a renaissance of personal expression and helped both New York and Paris break through to the other side towards a freer urban chic mentality.

Jessica Lange Antonia Lopez Karl Lagerfeld
Jessica Lange Antonia Lopez Karl Lagerfeld Photo Courtesy of the Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Tamos

The disco-dancing illustrator was always impeccably dressed and coiffed and was a true believer of the power of self-imagery, even before the selfie exploded. Charismatic on and off the dance floor, both women and men immediately fell in love with his rapid ideas and good time vibrations. And although he favored men, he also dated his female muses, like the model Jerry Hall. The story goes that the two spotted each other while living in Paris in the early seventies and when they didn’t exchange phone numbers at first sight, he put posters up around town asking “the American girl” to call him. She called, they dated, and remained friends for life, even after Mick Jagger strutted into the picture.

Naturally self-empowered and very Piscean, Antonio was always in tune with the sublime magic he had over people and on the fashion and art scene itself. He once said in a 1983 documentary filmed at the Art Center College of Design: “I brought in a feeling of sensuality, a feeling of movement, a feeling of sex (to it). By being Latin and being outward this is what I contributed.”

Fashion, Art, Sex and Disco…and Antonio’s True Soul Mate

Thanks to the publication of the gorgeous coffee table book Antonio: Fashion, Art, Sex & Disco (Rizzoli, 2012), co-authored by Mao magazine’s co-editing brothers and influencers Roger and Mauricio Padilha, a resuscitation of Antonio’s legend has risen. In its introduction, Roger Padilha notes that the coveted signature at the bottom of every work of Antonio’s was by no means a one-man effort. In reality, many in the industry weren’t aware that it was “an intense collaboration  between Antonio Lopez, an enormously gifted and proficient illustrator who could capture every nuance a model presented him with unearthly ease, and Juan Ramos, the ingenious man behind the scenes who handle the art direction, invented scenarios, and provided the focus Lopez needed. Together they made the name ‘Antonio,’ the leading force behind the fashion industry.”

Antonio Lopez fashion disco

Like Antonio, Juan was born in Puerto Rico and enrolled at FIT as a fashion design major where the two met. Juan was described as a “stunningly beautiful man,” which was said to have contrasted with Antonio’s non-conventionally handsome looks. Despite all his popularity, Antonio was terribly insecure about his image, in part due to his acne. When they met, they instantly hit it off, they were devoted to creation and beauty and they both felt a mutual attraction and purpose in life. As a team they were the perfect yin to the other’s yang: Juan’s deep knowledge of art and culture, along with his eagle eye for spotting trends helped catapult Antonio’s already impeccable illustrations onto a whole new level. While their sexual relationship didn’t last, they were inseparable, having formed a bond that lasted almost twenty five years until Antonio’s death.

Antonio’s Girls and the Drawing of the Female Body

Drawing men’s bodies was easy for Antonio. Hell, it takes one to know one. But when it came to women’s bodies, well, that apparently was a whole different world. He is credited for discovering the era’s top models and socialites and helping them create their stage personas. With Jerry Hall for example, it is said that after working with Antonio she slowly began physically morphing into Antonio’s depictions of her. More feline, more angular, more eyebrow arches, and less Texan good-girl.  

In a 1983 Art Center College of Design documentary he said: “Drawing women is harder but I like drawing women better, because it is harder. There is more subtlety, more mystery. In Paris I started discovering girls; I found Jessica Lange, Grace Jones, Jerry Hall. I found many. And what I do with these girls…it isn’t just telling them what to do. You set an example. You become what they want to be. Because when you dance with a girl you can tell if they will listen to you or not, how well they follow…By dancing with these girls I was able to lead them and they trust me. And it was also a friendship…My interest was to develop these girls, draw them. It was for my work and for friendship. It was thrilling for me to see people change.”

Coming of Age Into the Emerging Disco Age

Antonio liked to refer to himself as a hillbilly, born on a farm in Utuado, Puerto Rico in 1943. He came to America at age eight, and used to say, “it was always his dream.” In a Video Fashion interview for television he said: “Ever since I can remember I’ve loved fashion. My mother was a dressmaker so I was surrounded with fabric and with women all the time coming in and out of the house, aunts, crazy aunts who did a lot of traveling, who went to Spain and came back with alligator shoes. There was all this craziness going on around me. I was infected very early.”

His father was also into fashion as a store mannequin sculptor who would have little Antonio help him make mannequins in the summer. Seeking better job opportunities in the fashion world, his parents packed up to New York and settled in Spanish Harlem where he’d spend his days in the movies houses absorbing exotic images. The child prodigy earned a scholarship to Traphagen School of Fashion, then to the High School of Art and Design and ultimately to FIT. There he was plucked by John Fairchild at the age of 17 for an internship at Women’s Wear Daily where he began collaborating with the industry’s top players. Then The New York Times robbed him to illustrate their pages and the rest is fashion history.

His Notion of Beauty Opened the World’s Eyes

He was not into depicting classic, wasp-y beauties and this created a gradual change to a more multicultural and rebellious fashion sense; whatever he fervently drew became the new trend for not only other illustrations, but for designers, stylists, and hair and make-up artists. Most importantly, his notions of beauty were groundbreaking, ignoring conventional images of beauty, ethnicity and sexuality. To be a person of color, a woman or gay during the time of Antonio meant that the images he was creating at breakneck speed from the morning until dance-floor time, depicted liberated and provocative beauties, confident in their sexuality. And while the original Antonio girls were white and drawn in stagnant poses, they eventually turned into moving, jumping, stretching women with Native American features like Cathee Dahmen.

Fashion Antonio Lopez

Bidding farewell to the healthy looking blonde blue eyed girl-next-door ideal, Lopez made friends with quirky downtown New York socialites like Jane Forth, stunners with gap-toothed grins and pencil thin eyebrows. His muses extended to women of color like Pat Cleveland, one of the first African-American models within the fashion industry to achieve prominence as a runway model and print model thanks to Antonio’s help. In her heyday she was considered “the Josephine Baker of the international runways.” Antonio also worked with the jewelry designer Tina Chow and the unstoppable presence of the singer and model Grace Jones.  

In fact, the U.S. fashion world’s conservative attitudes of the late sixties and early seventies are said to have prompted Antonio and his entourage to move to Paris. James Crump, the director of the 2017 film Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion and Disco told The Guardian that Antonio’s story feels particularly relevant today: “It felt like the right time to do a film, with the political climate as it is at the moment. The fashion world is embracing inclusivity and diversity, and Antonio and Juan were advocating that as early as the mid-60s.”

Antonio moved to Paris in 1969, moved in with Karl Lagerfeld, frequented the legendary Club Sept and quickly generated buzz. He brought the American models to Paris and the French were mesmerized. The talk of the town, Andy Warhol made the film L’Amour about their decadent and ethnic party scene. Seeing what the future would be like when race wouldn’t matter as much, Antonio and Juan never tired of pushing the envelope, using the models and images they wanted, until the world not only got used to it, but drank it right up like the sweetest of wines.