Swapping Clothes with Massimo

By May 15, 2014Blog, Reflection

I recall reading this quote by Massimo Vignelli in an article entitled “Patterns” in the New York Times a few months prior to the AIGA Design Conference in Chicago in October, 1991. The story discussed Fall designer fashions, including a new line of men’s suits for Barneys by Massimo. I was fascinated by the notion of “designing what you need and can’t find,” and this concept inspires my work at Grant Design Collaborative to this day. Fast forward to the opening reception of the AIGA Conference, my first of many. This event was the defining moment in my design career. When Milton Glaser closed the conference by stating, “Never underestimate design’s ability to make the world a better place,” I enlisted for life. Like a kid in a candy store, I worked the reception and met as many design legends as possible, and they were all very gracious. Next thing you know, I am standing next to Massimo Vignelli in one of his custom designed Nehru-collared black suits, and I was dumbfounded. I intended to tell him how inspired I was by his comments in the New York Times and how I would apply his design philosophy to my own work. When he turned to acknowledge me, however, the only words I could muster were, “Nice threads, dude!” He chuckled, and said “Thank you, young man. I designed them myself.”

I returned from Chicago with a new perspective and, in essence, a new career. Comingling with the icons of design encouraged me to become more involved with the AIGA Atlanta chapter, so I joined the board of directors. Fast-forward to June 1994, and I find myself at the AIGA Leadership Retreat in Hilton Head, South Carolina. This annual gathering of design leaders from around the country was always one of my favorite events, and I made many life-long friends. One of them was the Chair of the Chapter Presidents’ Council at the time, Marc English. I had met Marc a year earlier at the AIGA Miami Conference when he burst into the sauna to get me to sign a card. He was competing to meet the most AIGA members at the conference, and I believe he may have won. Anyway, you never forget meeting a guy when you are only wearing a towel, especially someone with a personality as big as Marc. In Hilton Head, Marc quickly informed me that he was sharing a bungalow with Massimo, and as always, he was planning to host a big party the last night of the retreat. I shared the story about Massimo’s “nice threads,” and we laughed hysterically.

The next morning, Marc told me that he had snuck into Massimo’s closet to check out his wardrobe. He found three Nehru-like suits in black and gray, all hanging exactly six inches apart. Of course, I was mesmerized. As we gathered in their bungalow to set up the bar, Marc grabbed me and took me to Massimo’s closet, and it was exactly as he had described. As the party materialized, Massimo closet tours were par for the course. By this time, Massimo was back in the bungalow and loving every minute. At some point, one of us shouted, “let’s have a fashion show,” and Massimo thought that was a fabulous idea. Next thing you know, Massimo is dressing me, Marc and Jesse Doquilo in the three suits as we prepare for the makeshift runway. I recall he even tried to fluff my hair and straightened the collar on my “smock-like” jacket. So, there I was modeling Massimo’s suits that I had read about in 1991. Life was good.

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Later that year, I designed a T-shirt to raise funds for the AIGA Atlanta chapter. It was a typographic application of local “Atlantaisms,” such as: “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again,” and “Give me a naked dog, walking.” I wanted to do a mailer to promote sales of the shirts, so I decided to send one to Massimo with a note that read: “Dear Massimo, Since I had the honor of modeling your fashion designs in Hilton Head, I wondered if you would be so kind as to send me a photograph of yourself in our AIGA T-shirt for a promotion?” A couple of months went by, and I had forgotten about the request when a package arrived in the mail from Vignelli Associates. I opened it to find a triptych of Massimo modeling the T-shirt, complete with a set of devil horns in his signature red! I keep these photos and his note on the bulletin board in my office to this day, and they are one of my most-prized possessions.

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Almost a decade after the Massimo runway show, I was elected national President of AIGA, the first to be chosen from outside New York City or San Francisco. I served from 2005–2007 alongside a great board of directors. From my humble beginnings as a naïve designer at my first conference in Chicago, I had the honor and privilege to meet and learn from the Masters of Design, such as Massimo Vignelli and many, many others. Last month, I attended the AIGA Centennial Gala in New York City where we celebrated 100 years of design and our newest medalists. The room was filled with great talent and dear friends. Of course, we all missed Massimo who sent word that he was with us in spirit.

Last week, we received word from Massimo’s son, Luca, that the legendary designer is gravely ill and has returned home to spend his last days. He encouraged anyone who has been inspired by Massimo to send letters to his home, and I hear there have been hundreds. I sent mine a few days ago and included a copy of the triptych in the AIGA Atlanta T-shirt and red devil horns. Massimo Vignelli personifies the eloquonce, poise and humanity that make me proud to be a part of the design community. In addition to your immense talent and sense of humor, I will eternally admire your nice threads, dude!

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AIGA Hilton Head photos courtesy of Marc English