Every consumer product is a cultural product

An Interview with Giannino Malossi from IdCast by Id-Lab Milano, September 19th 2006.

Q: Good morning, Giannino, how would you introduce yourself?

A: Giannino Malossi, writer and communication consultant, if you are looking for a standardized definition. Reality is more complex: I am interested in the intellectual life of companies both from a theoretical and a practical point of view. Meanwhile, I have curated a dozen books, most of which were published in the US and are still available available , and various research activities and exhibition centered on the relationship between culture, production and consumption.

Q: What is this intellectual life of companies?

A: I am convinced that companies have an intellectual life, although at first sight it may not be apparent, and usually the companies themselves are not aware of it. Among other things, companies are supposed to speak, write, design, remember and produce forms of meaning that, when embodied in their products and services increase value. Outside of the fashion and design companies, this applies for instance to banks (an area where I am working currently). The configuration of the meta-industrial market requires companies to develop their identity, their reputation, their brand and their knowledge capital. Did you notice that three websites out of four have History, Philosophy or Mission in their main menu?

This is my own history: I studied history and philosophy at Università Statale di Milano, but while still a student I tried to turn my studies into a profession. In 1975 I was hired by Fiorucci‘s graphic design office: in 1977 I transferred to a new department created on a proposal that I assembled with Guido Jannon and Veronica Levis. This new department was called Fiorucci DXing – DXing is a piece of radio amateur jargon that means roughly to find and listen very distant radio stations. Fiorucci DXing was the forerunner of the practice of what later became “cool hunting” with an a special attention to direct production of fashion culture research. At that moment in Italy nobody studied fashion phenomena; they were considered a superficial topic without academic interest. Of course there were exceptions, like Rosita Levi Pisetzky from the point of view of the history of dress, and Gillo Dorfles, in the light of art critic. As a matter of fact, the world of fashion is not so much about thinking, and when there is thinking it happens as a kind of widespread genius, intuition and sensitivity. It is rare to encounter fashion thought that is critical and project oriented. In the mid ’70s, at any rate, there was a broad gamut of experiences and research on fashion as a part of material culture: Californian counterculture phenomena like The Whole Earth Catalog, later to be recognized as the conceptual source of Internet and the new economy; then in France there were Debord, Baudrillard and Roland Barthes, the Centre de Création Industrielle in Centre Beaubourg and the Traverse magazine; in Great Britain, The Independent Group, Rayner Banham, Paul Barker, John Berger, the Arts in Society Magazine, Ted Pohlemus and his research on the anthropology of youth style, the punk movement and so much more…

Q: How did you intersect you researches with Fiorucci’s production?

A: Fiorucci DXing was not about changing fashion and peddling it as art, culture etc. – it was about applying the instruments of “cultural” investigation to fashion, with the idea to produce knowledge that could be poured back into fashion companies. Something like a “Cultural Studies” hypothesis applied to industrial reality. It was a fairly brave idea for an Italian company back then, and it would be still brave today – although there have been attempt to imitate it. Because of reasons that we do not have the time to discuss now, in Italy there has not been a great tradition of putting culture into industries. When this has happened, it has been a case of cultural mediation, usually limited to industrial designers working on products – one needs just to name the Olivetti legend, but also the first years of Rinascente, the department store that originates ADI (Associazione Design Industriale) and the Compasso d’Oro design prize, the ordest design price in the world. Unfortunately, in the ’90s a regrettable trend took hold: the relationship between companies and culture started being thought of only as ornament and glitz. This attitude leads unavoidably to kitsch. At Fiorucci DXing we studied fashion as part of pop culture, under the forms of music, literature, theatre, cinema, stereotypes and behaviors, to understand its languages and structures, and the way the culture beget its trends of fashion change. One of our tasks we had set up for ourselves was to identify and get in touch with the “sources”, that’s to say the people, the groups, the movements and the situations that could become interesting. This is how I met and collaborated with Terry Jones who had just published the first issue of i-D, Vivienne Westwood in Paris on the occasion of her first fashion show. During those years no interesting person or trend could avoid being reached, summoned, studied and circulated inside the Fiorucci creative system.

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Q: Why did Fiorucci set up such a system?

A: The DXing project was possible because of the incredibly creative and free climate created by Elio Fiorucci inside his fashion company. In parallel to our group, there were other creative groups that worked with different methods and hypotheses. Cultural relativism and eclecticism before everything. Among other things, the Fiorucci DXing group produced the Come leggere la moda (how to read fashion) map, that has been turned into a multiple projection installation and basically made up the Fashion section of the XVI Triennale of 1979. The director of that edition was first Marco Zanuso, and then Giampaolo Fabris – a very good image return for Fiorucci. Today companies pay to have a show at Triennale, and Triennale itself is conceived more or less like a fancy advertisement venue. On the contrary, our project, while being industrial at first, was adopted by the Triennale team (Carlo Bertelli, Ampelio Bucci and Lina Sotis). It is worth it say something about Guido Jannon: he came from the Centro Design Montefibre, one of the great design research centers of Milan back then, and he had worked for many companies, among them Renault, Abet Laminati and Zanotta. Veronica – then a student of architecture, and an architect today-and I were very young. Our input was curiousity and existentialist attitude typical of the rebellious “spontaneista” student youth of that age, while Guido Jannon was a very charming Torinese gentleman, and he contributed experience and credibility to the group. But, he had also been a freedom fighter in the Brigate Garibaldi, and he had kept a quite anti-authoritarian and anti-paternalist attitude: the chemistry was perfect. Nowadays you would say that we were a winning team… After working in a contetext like the DXing, it was clear to me that I was never going to abandon that work and study style, but rather that I was going to shape my profession around that research idea and that specific business model.

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After that first experience I kept on more or less in the same direction, working on communication and design, and on how these kinds of knowledge can be put inside companies. I did not study history and philosophy to be a professor, but to understand the processes of everyday life, and work on them from the inside. Lastly, let me tell you that the Interaction Ivrea experience, where I kind of “visited” from 2001 to 2002 perfectly fits in my career, and it was the best thing I could do at that time.

Q: So you fluidly stepped from your studies to your profession.

A: I was studying history and philosophy at a time when Adorno and the Frankfurt School were very influential. They shaped my critical interest for the cultural industry. Adorno, for example, has written a fundamental Introduction to the Sociology of Music that I have used as a guide for an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 1980 on the typologies of fashion consumption. Concerning my education, I must also mention Gianni Emilio Simonetti, whose pure intellectual generosity has made him an incredibly valuable tutor, and that introduced me to the non-aligned critical culture of the ’70s – Gianni Sassi, Carlo Romano, Pasquale Alferj, the Multhipla gallery, the Alfa Beta magazine. I was very interested in what at that time was called industria culturale (the cultural industry), and it was very different from what it is today. Today, all industries have a cultural side, though it may not be what is commonly understood as culture. This is not exactly a mainstream concept, as I have found out. This has created some difficulties for me, but also some advantages, because I found out that I could work only in places that shared my ideas. Of course it is more difficult to find people that will listen, but when this happens the relationships are deeper and more stable.

Q: Did Fiorucci listen to you?

A: The environment around Elio Fiorucci has always been very favourable to the free exchange of ideas. This was a characteristic of Milan. The first person that more or less created the Milan environment, even before Fiorucci, was Mario Bellini, that at the time was doing a lot of work for Olivetti. He had a fantastic studio in Corso Venezia and, what is more important, he had set up a research study on design, media and environmental communication in Cassina’s show room space. You have to remember that Bellini had been the assistant of Marco Zanuso in Olivetti. There was a certain cosmopolitan and metropolitan vitality in the social environment that had coalesced around the big architect and designers studios. I think that this can be dated back to the after war years; but in the ’70s this environment already quite excitable mixed with the revolutionary and pop youth. Instead of resisting, holding fast and refusing new things, as most Italian entrepreneurs were doing (and they were even doing far worse things), Elio Fiorucci intercepted all this stream of new stuff and channeled it inside his company. For example, Mizio Turchet, an excellent illustrator and graphic designer, was Bellini’s assistant. But, just like me, Mizio was orbiting around Gianni Emilio Simonetti, Carlo D’Amario, Emina Cevro Vukovic and Gianni Sassi, doing alternative culture things, undergound magazines and alternative books. At a certain point Mizio started working at Fiorucci. Mizio, while working with Bellini, had acquired a method of collecting and archiving all sorts of materials, establishing contacts, making the network denser, supporting exchanges, the kind of work that you guys know very well, because you are doing it every day. A style of work typical of designers and architects, of people doing intellectual work, but quite unknown inside companies. Fiorucci had set up an informal system that valued this type of activity. “Normal” companies do not had such a system, and they still don’t have it. And they are wrong.

Q: But still this creates work for outside consultants.

A: Well, relatively speaking… the errors of the companies are the basis for the work of the consultant, but still this is one of the reasons for the current crisis. 99% of the companies don’t want to have anything to do with design, research, active culture, because they believe them to be useless, if not harmful activities. The methodologies of design are foreign to their process of value creating, that is of a more basic type: saving on labor costs, saving procuction process, on materials etc. The idea of creating value through the quality of the project is not really taken into account, and it is outside the mindset of companies. You cannot chase competition on labor and material costs: new sources of added value should be sought. They are to be found in knowledge, creativity, intelligence – if we want to say it with just one word: in design. But this idea of design clashes with the organization, the mindset and the culture of companies that are shaped to get added value from mostly from “material” rather than “immaterial” manipulation.

Q: Still, one has the impression that in Milan what you describe exists, and that it has been around for quite a while.

A: People talk a lot about design, they show it off, but the corporate universe is still very far from a systematic practice that integrates design in the company structures. For a classical company it is not so easy to go to a consultant, they have no drive, they don’t know what to ask, they don’t know how to behave, and they risk spending money without getting what they had set out to obtain, and this is exactly because there is no culture of relationship between the two worlds. In Milan this has been tried. In the ’70s Olivetti was still very strong and fully active. In fact, all that is being said today about Olivetti in ’50s is a narration that has been set up basically in the ’70s and ’80s. But anyway, in Milan this relationship existed: Montefibre had a design centre where Mendini, Branzi, Sottsass himself worked, then there was Memphis, Alchimia… there were many very active centers of design, besides the already well established offices of Castiglioni, Mangiarotti, Zanuso, Mari etc.

Q: What is happening today? Companies stopped being supportive? Or they stopped being interested? Or their models are already smooth enough that they don’t need this kind of research? The model of Dolce & Gabbana comes to our mind as an example of a contemporary Fiorucci.

A: The social context is completely different. The designers of the Olivetti generation frequently were architects, they had a very well defined status, very prestigious. Today design is fashionable, but designers are like djs, you use one for an event, then you dump him and you get the next one. Some companies have understood very well that design creates value, and this is why they frequently rotate the designers that work for them. This way the company increases its value, but it does not create nor recognize the next Sottsass.

Q: What you mean is not so different from the viewpoint of neo-Marxist theoreticians on immaterial work. A respected and prestigious job slowly slips into the sphere of classic proletariat.

A: Sure. They also say that classical work meanwhile has become immaterial work.

Q: You say that the designer creates added value, but at the same time designers are paid less and less.

A: Basically, the designer is not perceived as knowledgeable and valuable. But the real point is not how much designers should be paid. The point is that companies lack interest for the most meaningful part of a designer skills, that’s to say building the plug-in points for design knowledge that is not immediately related to a specific project. I think that the virtuous cycle that should be primed features companies that are able to understand designers: and designers that are able to understand the invisible values of a productive system. Every consumer product is cultural product and it has cultural connotations: but companies are not able to analyze a product in terms of semantics and aesthetics, because they did not develop the appropriate cultural tools. This would be the designer’s job: acting as a filter, as an interface between cultural knowledge, organization and practice, and on the other side the logistic and administrative abilities typical of a company. The problem is that, in companies, the interest for logistic and administration and the degree of specialization of administrative and accounting personnel is crushing.

Q: You started your professional life with Fiorucci and now, thirty years later, you are a communication consultant for banks. This is a fascinating evolution. Can you tell something about it?

A: After Fiorucci, I kept working in the field of fashion. I worked with Vivienne Westwood when she was still quite unknown. Together with Carlo D’Amario, who know is the CEO of the maison (this I find very funny), we had set up a company called Casanova. Peter Drucker, the guru -in the worst possible sense of the word- of management books had just published a book titled “Managing in Turbulent Times”. This is why we called our company “Casanova, creatività italiana in tempi turbolenti°. The year was 1981. The idea was to put in touch the Italian fashion industries with young designers like Vivienne Westwood and others, that at that moment were punk kids with some bright ideas (just like us).

England had the talents and the media, but the Thatcherite de-industrialization policy was very much in action. Thanks to the experience with Fiorucci, we had contacts on both sides, in Italy and in England and we set ourselves the mission to act as interface between the two systems. This is an intuition that other people also had, and it actually worked. The distretti di produzione (industrial districts), those areas where, in a thirty kilometer radius, you can find everything you need to make a complete fashion collection at a manageable cost and with a quality that was difficult to replicate were a perfect system to be put in touch with the needs of the fashion designer. This relationship has sustained the Italian textile industry until some years ago. Today the Italian districts are in a bit of a pinch because of Asiatic competition. But it is more than that: italian fashion companies were supported by the Italians’ passion for consuming fashion. Our province, as shown in Italian movies after Neorealismo (but you could already see it very clearly in Antonioni and in Visconti after Ossessione) is the earthly paradise of the fashion culture. Westwood and company became what they are because in Italy there were ten shops that set the trends for the ten richest areas in the country. Everybody else would follow. Luisa in via Roma in Florence, Papete in Riccione, Marisa in via Sant’Andrea here in Milan. These are the shops that actually created the great legends of world fashion. No other country in the world like Italy hosts a mass cultural obsession for fashion, supported by an average to high standard income. Fashion in Italy is a kind of Basilica di San Pietro in liquid form. Vogue Italia is still the most authoritative magazine in the fashion world, more than British Vogue, because it is the mirror of the Italian provincia fashion, and of its cult for clothes. This mechanism has been deeply understood by now using the instruments we have mentioned before, like anthropology, sociology and socio-cultural tools, by companies like Nike and Adidas. These companies have been able to blend a cultural analysis of markets going beyond quantitative analysis, with impressive logistics based on the massive use of ICT, and exploitation of the low cost of labor in certain countries. They have built crushing, massive dreadnoughts that allow them to cruise freely in the Italian provincia. Treviso, Parma and Lodi, the great capitals of the Italian hyperprovince are falling one by one…

Q: This was done through enormous investment in communication, more precisely in a research on communication, quite experimental, that innovated the very language of advertisement.

A: It is a matter of critical mass. If you can sustain enormous spending, and additionally you can radically reduce production costs, you are left with a lot of money in communication research. In 2000 I left the world of fashion with little regret. I find much more exciting to face directly, as a designer, the communication/finance system. Nowadays the world of banks is the place that needs intelligence most.

Q: How do you define the type of communication you work on?

A; Designing, building and managing the corporate identity of large and small companies. As I was saying before, this is an activity that revolves around the intellectual life of companies. A good corporate identity is founded on the real cultural qualities of a company. So, the ideas is to get into companies the skills that allow them to metabolize contemporary culture, not as spectacle but as reality. Companies are the antimatter of the reality show.

Q: In a system where, as you were saying before, accountants and finance people rule, how can you measure success in the mutation of a corporate identity?

A: The results of a corporate identity project are perpetually under discussion. This is why I am interested in working with bands. I have finally landed in the “enemy” territory, where one has to face strictly economic reasoning. For example, there is no scientific way to assess the value of advertisement spending. Of course, if revenue increases some of it is attributed to the communication strategies. When things go well, praise is divided without much trouble. When things go wrong, power and closeness to the power center decide who gets the blame. Often, it is the communication offices. And of course, at times this is proper, there is a lot of bad design and failed communication strategies. At the same time, I am convinced that companies must understand that consumption has turned into cultural consumption, and it has stopped being strictly functional. Attention to issues of communication and design is a strategic key element for the success of a company. Market processes are determined by cultural reasons, which is why it is necessary to know and understand the cultural processes – this is very far from idolizing culture as the barren projection of status.

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Q: Talking of banks, what kind of communication do you work on?

A: Banks too are companies exposed to a competitive market where cultural phenomena take place. The traditional organization of the banking customer market has changed recently all over Europe. There are some very large global players, and there small niche banks. This is the result of a Big Bang like explosion that happened about ten years ago. The result is that banks compete also in terms of the relationship they have with their customers, which implicates also the system of relationships that people have with their money, their wellness and their wealth.

Q: This sounds interesting, can you elaborate?

A: Going to the bank is like dealing with your lawyer or your dentist. It is one of the most unpleasant things in life, and for banks this is a problem. Banks should be a place where people are happy to go, a place where they customers feel good, where communication is transparent, clear, where you understand where you are going, what you are doing and what risks you are running. In particular, I am working now with a private bank; it is a bank dedicated to very rich customers, and its main activities are not the traditional banking services based on savings accounts. A private bank also does investment on behalf of its wealthy customers. One of the peculiarities of this type of investment, and of this type of wealth, is that it is frequently layered in time and interlinked with complex family histories. This is money with a strong character. The relationship that people have with their assets is a part of the issues that the bank as to deal with. The bank cannot solve those issues, but it must be able to face them and to manage them. Again, this is a cultural context, the cultural value of wealth. And this is just an example, there are some very complex matters like ethical issues, governance, tax efficiency… if you want, these are tax consultant topics, if you want, but they can be faced much better if you broaden your scope.

Q: Is there a theoretical cultural tradition of studying communication in the finance area?

A; No, not much. The topic of culture as applied to companies dates back to the ’20s and the ’30s, and it was shaped in the US, frequently through the contribution of European immigrants (like Peter Drucker himself). Magazines like Business Week and The Economist are still based on that model, but the reality that is the topic of their investigation is much more complex. In the US there are schools of thought that work on the intersection between design and economy, and attempt to innovate corporate culture. I am thinking, for example, of Fast Company and Wired. I think that there is enormous potential for transposing this cultural and business model into the Italian experience. Italy and Europe have a very different history about embedding culture in companies, but the United States have the big advantage of being the worldwide economic key player. I am convinced that the relationship between culture and economy is one of the most promising topics for change and innovation. There can be many points of contact with design culture, provided the right interfaces are found.

Interview by SimoneMuscolino and FabrizioGallanti. Edited by WalterApril


‘The Style Engine’ and ‘Volare’ book cover taken from amazon.

‘Il motore della moda’ and ‘Volare’ exhibition pictures by Giannino Malossi.

Fiorucci’s images taken from Fiorucci website.

‘Come leggere la moda’ map and ‘This was tomorrow’ map by Giannino Malossi.

Vivienne Westwood’s images taken from Vivienne Westwood website.

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