His clothes are worshipped, yet he remains largely unknown. An intense, complex man, Massimo Osti was the designer behind Stone Island, a brand worn religiously by soccer fans since the ’80s and now embraced by basically everyone. Here is his story.
By Lucas Duvernet-Coppola, in Bologna.
Translation from French by Helene Tammik.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 3.
In 1999, Massimo Osti (then 55), was voted “most influential man in 1990s menswear” by Arena Homme+, a leading fashion magazine of the era. “Prada, Helmut Lang, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss and Diesel owe an incredible amount to him,” wrote the biannual publication, ranking Osti above both Giorgio Armani and Paul Smith. Why him? Because he “gave men this unprecedented nonchalance,” according to one pundit. “Because he was the first to make the T-shirt a garment in its own right and to turn puffer jackets into urban wear,” says a close friend. “He invented sportswear as we know it today,” sums up one designer. Despite earning respect from his industry peers – he was on their radar from his beginnings in the ’70s – and acclaim from fashion observers, Osti is completely unknown to the general public. An injustice? His son Lorenzo admits that “it’s only logical. He did his best to keep as far away from the fashion world as possible.”
Massimo Osti shunned the limelight, and didn’t like being called a “designer.” It took him a long time to find any meaning in the concept of “fashion” at all. In February 1993, he was interviewed by the communist daily L’Unità. “Fashion is what you want to wear. Being (or not being) fashionable is a state of mind; it’s very individual.” He continued later: “The only way to ensure quality is to think about clothes in terms of years, not seasons. That way, you can remedy the fashion overload some consumers feel.” Osti only put his name on a line of clothing for a period of two years, between 1995 and ’97.
He wanted his designs to be better known than he was himself, and he achieved that goal so well that even today, only a handful of insiders know that he’s the man behind 11 brands, including the cult C.P. Company and, of course, Stone Island.
BEACH T-SHIRTS AND POP-UPS
In 1963, Osti was taken on as a salesman by the tire manufacturer Pirelli. He needed the money. His father had died in the 1944 bombing of Bologna, a few months after Osti was born, so the boy had to leave school at 13 to help his mother provide for the family. They were sad moments in an otherwise buoyant era; Bologna was a party town in those days. “At that time, there was no violence, no drugs or neurosis,” reminisces Lucio Desti, Osti’s self-proclaimed “wingman and street companion.” But Desti was much more besides – he was Massimo’s partner in crime and staunch friend. The two became part of each other’s lives. “We loved to drink wine, go out, and talk late into the night,” Desti recalls. Out in the bars and city squares, young Osti wasn’t the most talkative. Like a sociologist, he observed and noticed everything: the hippies in their old military jackets; the emerging need for sustainability and solidarity; and Pop Art, about to take the world by storm. Times were changing before his very eyes. After work, Osti took an evening course in advertising and graphic design. Four years after starting at Pirelli, he earned his diploma and left the tire giant with a strong intuition that clothing is a means of communication like any other.
At that time there were only two ways for men to dress in Italy: suit and tie during the week, dress pants and sweater on the weekend. “Nobody wore T-shirts,” says Desti, “Only workers could wear them, in their company colors.” In 1968, Osti set up an advertising agency, CD2, with Desti and Giorgio Sgorbati. One of the trio’s first initiatives targeted all of Italy’s tourist offices.
Their idea was to print images of the regions on T-shirts to promote tourism. Sardinia was the first region to sign up. Osti hit on the idea of taking screen-printing – the technique used on paper by all the American artists in vogue at the time – and applying it to textiles. To sell their beautifully printed T-shirts, the three men approached the island’s prominent nightclubs with the idea of setting up pop-up stores. “We were open from 11 PM to 3 AM, and people would fight over our T-shirts. They’d never seen anything like them,” remembers Desti fondly.
After spending two summers in Sardinia, setting up the T-shirt company and selling tens of thousands of them, Osti was approached with the suggestion that he launch his own menswear line. Osti entered the fashion world as a novice, approaching it purely as a graphic designer and using overlays, ink and newspaper photos. His brand, Chester Perry, released its first collection in 1971.
Osti continued to innovate beyond screen-printing. “In his second collection, he introduced the first urban puffer jackets,” says Desti. The jackets had been invented in the late 1940s by American engineer Klaus Obermeyer and then popularized by Moncler. Down jackets had until then only been worn in the mountains. “People were really bowled over by them. You feel fresher, brighter, younger, in a puffer jacket. Osti made us all much freer in the way we dressed.” This success was reflected in his sales figures. But instead of saving or feathering his own nest, the designer invested all the profits in what turned out to be his life’s greatest battle: research.
Osti was too rational to view fashion exclusively through the prism of beauty. He was fixated on functionalism. As his daughter Agata explains: “He lived by the adage of American architect Louis Sullivan, the father of sky-scrapers: ‘form follows function.’ Whenever he was making a garment, he’d ask himself how it was going to be used and what functions it needed to serve.” Osti sent emissaries to the four corners of the world to bring back items of clothing designed at different times in history. He wanted to study what people wore in the past to design the attire of the future. “When you look at a worker’s coveralls, you can see a structural distortion on the elbows from wear and tear, from the specific tension placed on the fabric there,” he said one day in June 1997. “Why not design a piece with this distortion built in from the outset?” Osti never threw anything away. He took over a huge hangar and filled it with thousands of pieces of clothing – his archives, which would one day number some 35,000 garments. He developed a particular interest in military attire during his quest. The way he saw it, every element of a soldier’s uniform had a purpose. And since those clothes were never intended for sale, they weren’t subject to any market imperatives, and the quality was exceptional. “He was a child of war and he turned them into clothes of peace,” says French designer François Girbaud, who was a friend. “Massimo didn’t want to invent anything,” adds Lucio Desti. “He wanted to take what was already there and optimize it.”
MILITARY TRUCK TARPS AND GOGGLE HOODS
Osti was a fashion outlier, and the way he did business ran counter to industry norms. “Massimo thought that every product family should have its own brand,” says Desti. In 1977, when Osti started to develop an interest in jackets and knitting, he launched Factory. “It was more important to him than consolidating Chester Perry,” explains his right-hand man. “The different names allowed him a certain flexibility regarding clients and distributors. Nowadays, anyone else would sooner use an existing brand name than start from scratch. But not Massimo.” A year later, following lawsuits from Chester Barry and Fred Perry for trademark infringement, Chester Perry became C.P. Company. Osti liked the new brand name, finding it “to the point and American without giving too much detail.”
He wanted the brand to be a trailblazer in experimenting with fabrics and shapes. To this end, he had already surrounded himself with the best in the business. Giuliano Balboni was his head of printing and dyeing, while fabric specialist Adriano Caccia was his counter-part in textile research. Osti carried over technical details to streetwear, creating completely waterproof, reversible, lined and multifunctional coats. People soon began to call him “the inventor of urban sportswear” or “high-tech casual wear.” One day, Osti asked Caccia to look into military truck tarps. “He wanted at all costs for the starting material to be raw unbleached canvas, to give a more natural color effect,” recalls Caccia, “but this posed problems for dyeing. I would often tell him, ‘It’s impossible,’ and he’d reply, ‘Try it and we’ll see.’” After dozens of fruitless attempts, Osti gave Caccia a piece of two-color canvas, red on one side and green on the other, and asked him to wash it even more vigorously than the times before.
Osti found the material produced in this way to be so aggressive and radical that he decided to set up a new brand to launch this novel product, which he dubbed “Tela Stella.” He asked his wife to find a name in a novel by Joseph Conrad. She wrote down the word “stone,” followed by “island.” The wind rose on the compass of the family’s sailboat inspired the brand’s logo, showing Osti’s spirit of travel. “I design clothes for those who travel to every part of the globe and encounter different environments, ranging from nature to traffic, pollution and urban adventure.”
Osti used Tela Stella for all the clothes in Stone Island’s first three collections. The price of these pieces – reflecting the research that went into them and the quality of the coating – might have deterred potential buyers. But the material had such an utterly unique rugged and worn look that within the first few weeks of its launch, in 1982, the brand was unable to fulfill all the orders that came in. While the industry wondered how a self-taught designer could achieve such results, Stone Island became the insignia of a small group of young Milanese people about to take the whole of Italy by storm: the Paninari (see L’Étiquette no. 2), a group of people obsessed with designer clothing and a luxury lifestyle. Rising from the ashes of the Years of Lead, they wanted to stand out from the crowd and would seek out the most modern and expensive clothing. Supporters of the far right, they saw a resemblance between the wind rose and the Celtic cross embraced by neo-fascists. The brand seemed a perfect fit for their lifestyle, which consisted of posing, chasing women, street fights hen they followed their favorite teams (Inter and AC Milan) around Europe, Italian extremists would be decked out in Stone Island jackets. English fans liked the look and started to emulate them. “At that time, Stone Island was a symbol of rebellion, strength, nonconformism, aggressiveness and success,” recalls a fan of the designer. “Back then, and even now, wearing Stone Island meant joining a tribe. We recognized each other in the street. We felt like we had this strong connection.” But Osti only realized this several years later. “My father had nothing to do with soccer,” Lorenzo says now. “He came from a family of basketball fans, Virtus supporters. Back then he didn’t know that young English guys were appropriating his gear and that supporters were even tearing the wind roses off of rival fans’ jackets like trophies. He was completely unaware that he was an icon for British fans and the working class there.”
If Osti didn’t realize he had started a movement, it was because he never stopped working. Says his daughter Agata, “When one thing was done, he moved on. He always had a project underway that consumed him even more than the last one. He was never satisfied.” Success brought acclaim, and this in turn drove his ambition. In 1983, he launched JJ23 – cotton coated in a thin layer of PVC – and the iconic Raso Gommato hooded jacket, which paired the elegance of satin with the practicality of rubber. In 1985, he put out the first issue of C.P. Company Magazine. In 1986, C.P. Company produced 1.2 million garments, 25 percent of which were branded Stone Island and 35 percent of which were sold overseas. In 1987, he designed the Ice Jacket, which changed color according to the temperature thanks to liquid crystals inside the fabric. “I’m always exploring the same territory,” said Osti one day. “I adapt materials made for one use to another use. That’s the only way I can think of explaining my work.” By the late ’80s, Osti was universally considered to be among the greatest. “His clothes are the cleverest and most sophisticated made in Italy,” wrote the magazine Mondo Uomo. Despite being wooed by Milan, which was about to become the global capital of designers, Osti refused to leave his home city of Bologna. He was only interested in playing by his own rules. Even the idea of putting on runway shows was intolerable to him: “It’s not a fitting way to present clothes that have taken so much research.” He only made one exception to this cardinal rule, on September 19, 1987, at West Berlin’s Spandau Citadel. That day was arguably the high point of his career. Berlin was celebrating its 750th anniversary and also wanted to mark the textile industry’s 150th birthday.
The mayor of West Berlin and the senator for economy and labor organized a retrospective of the Italian designer’s work, modestly titled “15 Years of Activity of Massimo Osti for C.P. Company.” The exhibition brought together 75 pieces designed by Osti between 1979 and ’87. It was a fashion parade unlike any other. Osti staged a musical theatrical performance, and mimes portrayed the adventures of metropolitan heroes, changing outfits in response to a shifting soundscape that included cars, industrial machinery, wind, the city and the sea.
Outwardly, Massimo Osti seemed happy.His family home in the hills of Bologna was always open and full of life. “Every evening of the week, as soon as the clock struck seven, his friends would start to arrive,” recalls Lorenzo. There was Lucio Dalla, one of the era’s most prominent singer-songwriters; successful musicians like Pino Daniele and Gianni Morandi, known for their profundity; and actors, intellectuals and childhood friends. Osti was always receiving visitors but never went out. “He didn’t like to travel and hated society events,” says Lorenzo. “When he wasn’t at home, he was in his studio. He was always working, all the time.” In 1988, still basking in the success of the Berlin show, Osti came up with one of his most famous designs, the Goggle Jacket, a.k.a. the Mille Miglia. He drew inspiration from Japanese police jackets and gave it a hood fitted with protective goggles. His jacket immediately became an accessory of choice for all kinds of troublemakers, and for good reason – the protective goggles blocked tear gas and hid their faces, making it much more difficult to identify the wearer.
But in reality, Osti was overwhelmed. “In the end, work became something he sacrificed everything to; it was the only place where he felt he could find existential fulfillment,” says Lucio Desti sadly. “It simply kept him from living. As time went on, his complete refusal to compromise became more and more of a burden. He became a victim of his own making.” It wasn’t the only thing weighing on his mind. Osti’s often prohibitively expensive clothing wasn’t very compatible with his worldview – as well as being a designer, he was first and foremost a staunch supporter of the political left.
REVOLUTIONARY IDEAS AND POLITICAL STRUGGLES
“It’s easy to sell rare and exquisite things to the rich,” Osti once said. “But the real challenge is to make attractive, functional clothes at the lowest cost.” This inner conflict tormented the designer throughout his life. “Massimo wanted to break away from a hyper-consumerist society at a time when that was still unheard of,” says the Italian philosopher Stefano Bonaga, a friend of Osti’s. “He didn’t want fashion to be reserved for the elite or to mark a gap between social classes.” François Girbaud goes further, saying: “He made clothing to protect people and to protect humanity.
In 1981, when C.P. Company was being widely imitated by competitors, Osti launched Boneville, “as if to copy himself,” says Bonaga. “It was the same as C.P. but at much more affordable prices.” Bonaga is undoubtedly the best placed to describe Osti’s dilemmas: feeling that he needed a platform beyond fashion to express himself, Osti went into politics alongside Bonaga in 1989. What was the catalyst? “Our party, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), had an annoying tendency to cozy up to the Socialist Party,” says Bonaga. “This was unthinkable to us, so, while we remained members of the PCI, we set up a small independent group that was more left-wing than the official party line.” The breakaway group, Democratic Constituent, had three founders: Osti, Bonaga and Omar Calabrese, a semiologist renowned for studying under Umberto Eco. The three men went on to write a booklet entitled A Few Concrete Ideas for a Concise Program. Wanting to stem the emerging crisis of representation, they demanded that the Internet – whose significance no one had really grasped yet – should be free for everyone. They also saw the environment as a key concern. Osti was elected as municipal councilor for Bologna in 1991. His campaign consisted of a feature-length film called Voices and Faces of Ideas, in which he gave his city’s residents a chance to air their views. But public life didn’t relieve his frustrations. While he agreed that the PCI should distance itself from Moscow and modernize its image with a shift toward European progressivism, Osti didn’t feel that the way the party communicated with people was hitting the mark. He offered his services, but they didn’t take him up on it. “The party thought that his ideas were ahead of their time,” says Bonaga with regret. That same year, Osti fought tooth and nail for a futuristic project called Progetto Toro: an underground ring road within Bologna’s historic center that would run beneath public gardens, interspersed with stores, libraries and parking lots. The scheme aimed to alleviate pollution and traffic congestion, with completion set for the year 2000. It was rejected by the city council, however, which deemed the project “too utopian.” Osti carried on in politics for a while longer, running a campaign for the PDS (the post-communist Partito Democratico della Sinistra, the Democratic Party of the Left) to help his comrades revamp the hammer and sickle. As his clothing brand left him little time or energy for his political duties, he resigned his office in 1992.
If we take the Berlin exhibition as the peak of Osti’s career, then 1992 could, according to Lorenzo, be considered “the beginning of the end.” In January, Osti bowed out of C.P. Company to spend more time with family and friends. In May, Carlo Rivetti, an Italian industrialist who held licenses for many Italian brands, took a stake in Stone Island and became its new chairman. “He threw my father out,” says Lorenzo. “Their egos were too big to work together. At the height of his success, my father was driven out of the company he founded. It was very traumatic for him.”
The launch of Massimo Osti Production in 1995 could have been his moment of glory after so many years of hiding behind assumed names, but unfortunately, the designer had to cease production in 1997 because the manager he’d partnered with turned out to be a crook. “He was a professional con man who cooked the books and was only there to swindle my father,” Lorenzo recalls with outrage. Osti, oblivious to the con, was guilty of signing off on the accounts and had to pay up. Half of the fortune he’d amassed over nearly 30 years went toward clearing arrears and paying off outstanding debts. He got back in the saddle, setting up a new collaboration with Levi’s that he was very confident about, but it didn’t catch on. “He wanted to stop everything then and went into a depression in the early 2000s,” says Lorenzo.
To take his mind off his sorrows, Osti resumed his political activities. He did his best to combat Berlusconism and campaigned on behalf of underprivileged neighborhoods in his city. But he couldn’t climb out of his melancholy. “His depression turned into a tumor,” says Lorenzo. In 2005, Massimo Osti passed away from lung cancer. The way Bonaga tells it, “Massimo suffered greatly, deep down. But it was his intolerance that made him so innovative. He wasn’t happy with how things were, either in terms of aesthetics (in fashion), in human relations, or in politics or society.” Fifteen years after his death, people still worship Massimo Osti’s clothing designs, while his obsessions are stored away in the archives reconstituted by his children – somewhere south of Bologna in a vast hangar next to a military barracks.