MILAN, Italy — Suddenly, Franco Moschino is the darling of the international fashion scene. Everyone from novelist Jackie Collins to pop princess Madonna is singing his praises, in part because of his carefully cultivated image as the thorn in the side of high fashion.
Lately, to enhance his image, he has styled magazine ads that splash red paint across the face of a glamour model and proclaim, "Stop the Fashion System." (That also is the theme of the fall '90 collection he will show here today.)
In seasons past, he has chased his own models off the runway shouting, "Enough!" and his collections have featured garments that replace the designer logo with an equivalent embroidered message: "This is an expensive jacket."
All such antics are Moschino's way of questioning the very system that has made him a star and a comparatively wealthy man in less than eight years.
Privately, the joker is a serious sort who explains that what he really objects to most is the compulsive consumerism of the 1980s, where "too many women took a dive into a designer kit."
He would rather see women think, and dress, for themselves: "I've had people banging on my boutique door after my shop is closed, desperate for a pair of Moschino jeans because they felt their weekend would be a failure without them. That's when I say: 'Stop already!' "
To illustrate his designer-as-anarchist pose, he's appeared at times in his own ads as Popeye, or as Marilyn Monroe with a mustache. In his private life, he is sometimes coiffed a la Yul Brynner or dressed as a renegade body builder. But these days, his hair has grown out to an all-over fringe and he dresses simply but casually in a navy blazer, blue shirt and faded black jeans.
The facade of Moschino's Milanese headquarters is plastered with another of his slogans, "In Love We Trust." His third-floor office, overflowing with plush animals and life-size cow and donkey cutouts, looks like the nursery of an indulged child.
The designer, 40, started out to be a painter. As a young art student, he sold fashion sketches to various Milan firms.
"In the beginning," he says, "I was fairly conventional but I've always said I'm not a fashion designer. I don't feel powerful enough to impose my ideas on anyone."
But in the next breath he adds, "I want to save the clothing world."
This season, after years of showing outside Milan's official Feria building, where most major designers present their collections, Moschino will return to the "system" or, as he calls it, "to this temple of Italian fashion where all the strange, dangerous things go on."
Has he found another way to show a collection?
"Fashion should be like a ballet, a celebration, a Mass," he hints.
A Milanese journalist who has followed Moschino's career from the beginning--he used to design the Cadette line--says: "His fashion image is crazy, but he isn't. He plays games the way the kids do in the street but the clothes are top quality and normal."
Jean Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, defends Moschino, too, despite the comic touch he sometimes builds into his clothes.
"What's obvious is he's a terrific designer," she says. "You see a superb suit and the woman wearing it turns around, and there are eyes peering from her shoulder blades. It's not like he's doing jokes because he can't do anything else. These are clothes for the woman who's less involved in fashion, more in personal style. And he's had enormous success at retail."
Another American retailer says he sees Moschino as part of an international group of iconoclastic designers, including Thierry Mugler of Paris and Romeo Gigli, the Italian who now shows his collections in Paris.
London boutique owner Joseph Ettedgui met Moschino at a dinner party two seasons ago and, afterward, decided to buy the designer's clothes.
"It's the amusing things that sell," Ettedgui says. "I buy them for windows and they are gone before they ever make the windows. Moschino's is an arrogant fashion but an intelligent one. Buying it is fun, and the clothes are perfection."
While most Milanese designers have their cliques and their life styles that resemble those of Renaissance dukes, Moschino is a loner who lives in a small apartment and is rarely seen out socializing. This is a turnaround for him, however. Ten years ago, he'd jet off to New York for a weekend of dancing in the clubs.
Moschino now has 28 licenses bearing his name, among them "Cheap and Chip" for moderate-price styles, Moschino jeans and a men's wear line he designs at ever-narrowing intervals.
"In a way," he says, "I feel I'm against myself. I want more reality. Not this fashion machine. Sometimes, I feel like I'm in a food processor with the button on High."