Obituary: Anna Piaggi / Italian fashion editor known for unique style

Died Aug. 7, 2012

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Anna Piaggi, an oracular Italian fashion editor known for an endless array of eye-popping, wildly colorful outfits of the most peculiar combinations, ranging from vintage Patou to thermal mountain rescue coats to a uniform vest from late-period McDonald's, died Tuesday at her home in Milan. She was 81.

Her death was confirmed by Italian Vogue, where Ms. Piaggi had created some of her most visually arresting and influential work.

Owing to her vast knowledge of fashion history, as well as a personal wardrobe that included clothes spanning more than 200 years, Ms. Piaggi was often described as "the walking museum." Manolo Blahnik, who designed many of her shoes, once described her as "the only authority on frocks left in the world."

She was an eccentric editor in the mode of Diana Vreeland. ("My pets are my hats," she would say.) But she was more often compared to the Marchesa Luisa Casati for her unbridled, theatrical awe-inspiring sense of dress. During a career that spanned more than five decades, Ms. Piaggi became as much a symbol of the embrace of high-fashion exuberance as the young and wild designers that she championed. She was a muse to many of them, most famously to Karl Lagerfeld during a particularly glamorous period of his success in Paris, in the 1960s and 1970s.

As captured in Alicia Drake's book "The Beautiful Fall," Ms. Piaggi "was outstanding in her devotion to creating style." Traveling with Mr. Lagerfeld and his entourage, she would bring several trunks of clothing for a weekend: "vintage haute couture, antique jodhpurs from Chelsea Market, Edwardian bloomers that she had dyed jet black and a canvas cape that had begun life as a costume in Les Ballets Russes' first production of Stravinsky's 'Firebird.' "

Editors and photographers routinely waited for Ms. Piaggi to make an entrance at fashion shows, where she could be relied upon to create a spectacle, unless she was wearing an especially large hat. Then, she would watch the show from backstage, so as not to obstruct anyone else's view.

Nevertheless, her appearance was unmistakable: the white-powdered face highlighted by a dollop of bright rouge painted on each cheek, eyes ringed in blue or black shadow, lips painted with an exaggerated cupid's bow and, often, a miniature clown's hat (usually by Stephen Jones) perched askew on her wave of blue hair. Ms. Piaggi claimed that she had not left home without a hat since the early 1980s.

"I feel better if I have a good hat on," she said.

A 2006 exhibition dedicated to her style, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, drew 4,000 visitors a week. The show opened with an accounting of her wardrobe: 265 pairs of shoes, 29 fans, 932 hats, 2,865 dresses, 24 aprons and 31 feather boas.

Ms. Piaggi was born in 1931 in Milan, according to Italian Vogue. In a 2004 profile in The Observer in London, she said her father, who was a manager and buyer for the department store la Rinascente, died when she was 7. Her upbringing, she said, was a bit conventional, "but it didn't last very long."

While working as an interpreter at a press agency in the 1950s, she met the photographer Alfa Castaldi, who was a major contributor to Italian Vogue and who introduced her to the profession of fashion magazines. They were married in 1962 and worked together until Castaldi's death in 1995.

Scouting stores in London, Ms. Piaggi became acquainted with Vern Lambert, a fashion historian and a major dealer of vintage clothes, whom she credited with sparking her interest in collecting. When she met Mr. Lagerfeld, who was designing for Chloe, at his home in Paris, she happened to be wearing an important dress by Ossie Clark, which Mr. Lagerfeld immediately recognized. He began sketching her outfits over many years, and published a book of them.

From 1981 to 1983, Ms. Piaggi was the editor in chief of Vanity, a magazine that developed a cultlike following. Many covers were illustrated by Antonio Lopez.

When Franca Sozzani became the editor of Italian Vogue in 1988, she said she wanted to create a magazine that was very quick at spotting trends, and hired Ms. Piaggi as a creative consultant. There she created free-form collages that often connected the unseen dots between fashion and cultural trends. The regular feature, called Doppie Pagine (or "double pages," or just "DP"), established a template for modern trend reporting by juxtaposing images of classical references with the current season's runway designs.

As Ms. Piaggi described them in "Anna Piaggi's Fashion Algebra," a collection of her columns published in 1998, her double pages "have been for me like a dress taking shape." For her style, Ms. Piaggi was named to the International Best Dressed List numerous times and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2007.

"She dresses the way one plays a role," Mr. Lagerfeld once said. "She's a great performer, but she is also the author of the play."

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