Interviewing Diego Salerno

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This Summer ASBO travelled to Italy to rendezvous with rising talents graduating from prestigious institutes: L'Accademia Del Costume in Rome and IED Moda, Milan. Diego Salerno graduated in 2016 from IED, and is currently teaching post-diploma courses in textile and fashion. Diego is one young talent whose work we felt closest to heart. Salerno's collection FEEL' ONOFF is a concrete example of fashion that goes beyond exterior aesthetics. Sitting down with Diego, we discussed personal struggles, passion, commitment, inspiration and, of course, clothes.

ASBO: Hi Diego! How would you describe your collection to someone not within Fashion World?

DIEGO: This is the most articulate and complete collection I have ever worked on, and it has definitely shaped my style and approach to fashion design. Feel’ Onoff, reflects my personality, work methods, and my creative process, so it’s the best business card I could have to begin my career as a fashion designer. I think one of its most important aspects is that it’s not commercial; it is not made to be sold. Its fruition must happen through observation and reflection. Feel’ Onoff is composed of six outfits; six tunics made of geometric shapes that have been built directly on models or mannequins, skipping the paper model stage. I felt this was very important, because I wanted the body to be central, not only regarding the way the dresses are to be worn, but in the way the dresses were created from scraps.

ASBOThe concept behind Feel’ Onoff is deeply related to your personal life. When and how did you realise that your struggle could become a source of inspiration?

DIEGO: Since 18, I have been collaborating with Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori di Milano, a national institute on cancer research, and with them I have been working on ‘Progetto Giovani’, a project dedicated to young people, aiming to divulgate medical protocols on paediatric cancer. Collaborating with associations and foundations, projects such as B.LIVE, came to life, and lead to the creation of music, art, a fashion brand and more. It took commitment, but it taught me that every experience in life can be turned into something positive. I have been struggling with an illness throughout my teens, so have spent a lot of time in hospitals. Feel’ Onoff is my suffering in that situation, turned into something that can be touched, something beautiful and reflective for other people to connect with. The whole aesthetic of the collection is inspired by the environment that I experienced, and that I am still interacting with both physically and psychologically.

ASBOTell us about your creative process. How did your experience transform into dresses and accessorises?

DIEGO: I thought, what is it that I was wearing in the hospital? What was everyone else wearing? I needed to recreate that atmosphere, and I realised that everything I remembered wearing had geometric shapes. But I still wanted to convey the strong presence of the body, so I built shapes on real flesh and bones; models or mannequins, making the fabric envelope the body and shape it.

ASBOI was impressed by your accessories disguising fundamental identity elements. What was the idea behind this?

DIEGO: It was how I felt when I was ill. When you have that kind of illness you start losing parts of your identity. You become faceless, and the only things you are sure of are your body and what you’re wearing on it.

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ASBOYou quoted ‘Il Corpo’, ‘the body’, by the writer Galimberti, when he says that “the discontinuity of clothes” is where “the body shows itself or hides”.  What is more important in Feel’ Onoff; what is covered or what is shown?

DIEGO: What matters is the fact that they are both there; in one single piece of garment I tried to utilise the tension between contrasts. Feel’ Onoffis is a collection of contrasts – right or wrong; covered or shown; good or bad; heavy or light; close or far. Every outfit is made in a way that allows the fabric to be far from the body, literally not touching it, or touching it barely; and at the same time, to be close to the body, like the cotton hoods and the skinny shirts underneath the tunic. I wanted this collection to say something about the way we wear clothes, more than the way the clothes look on us. We hide and we show ourselves through what we wear. Galimberti’s works, ‘Il Corpo’ in particular, played a fundamental role in the development of Feel’ Onoff. Galimberti’s words resonated with me; guided me.

ASBO: I liked how you took the word ‘abito’ (garment in Italian), and utilised its Latin root ‘habitus’ (‘to inhabit’). In this light, clothes are part of our identity, not only because they send a message about who we are to others, but also because we live in them. Do you think this is something that Fashion is working on today? 

DIEGO: I wish it would more. There is definitely something changing in the Fashion world, but this change is a double-faced coin. Through my work, I want to tell stories. I believe today there is less willingness to tell and to listen to stories, to engage in a deeper way with objects. This is more than evident in fashion, where high street brands take ideas and throw them away to the mass just for the sake of sales. Where is the emotion? I want to feel something when I see a fashion editorial, when I see a catwalk. The concept of ‘habitus’ is one of the pillars of my collection and at the basis of my take on fashion. In order to exist we need our body to inhabit a space, in the same way our body needs to inhabit clothes. Clothes become part of our body and we use them to express and exchange messages.

ASBO: Your story provides great inspiration to young, talented people seeking their way into fashion and other creative fields. What are the most important things they should know about pursuing their dreams?

DIEGO: As a teacher, there are a few things I tell my students. First of all, don’t enter fashion if it’s only a job. Creativity never sleeps and if you want to be in this industry, your mind needs to be constantly switched on. Walking down the street, watching a movie, travelling— you always need to observe people and things. In the same way, I think it’s very important to be never satisfied with what you know. Always dive deeper, always research and study and read. Fashion can easily be taken lightly, as if it merely concerns superficial appearance, but it’s not like that. You need a lot of studying and a good deal of spontaneous curiosity. Lastly I say, to always be humble, but don’t let others crush you. You need to believe in your ideas, otherwise no one else will.

ASBOYour career started after you won the American Vogue scholarship in 2013, which helped you go to University. What were the best, the worst, and the most curious things you took from this incredible opportunity?

DIEGO: I swear that when I received the letter I thought, ‘You must be wrong, I’m just a guy from a tiny town in Italy who has finished high school’, but they were not wrong— I'd made it. The best thing was the boost of confidence in my capabilities. The worst thing was the afterwards, I guess. When I was in my last year at university, I started to be asked insistently by Vogue’s team, what my plans were. I wasn’t in the place to answer at that stage– the collection was far from being finished, I didn’t know what was next. With time, the business relationship had ended. Nevertheless, I will be always grateful for the chance they gave me. The most curious thing was meeting Anna Wintour, for sure. Everyone was so curious about it and kept asking me if she was super strict and cold with me, but she wasn’t at all.

Marina Dora Martino