Marcelo Burlon Is Chasing the Contemporary
Visiting the Designer at His Studio in Milan
- Interview: Jack Self
- Photography: Lukas Gansterer
Marcelo Burlon’s County of Milan has rapidly grown to become one of the most dynamic contemporary brands in Italian fashion. Its trademark mix of South American tribal symbolism with laptop aesthetics skews the boundaries between the cultures of mysticism and raving.
It is a hybrid that resembles Burlon himself: a creative multitasker with a club kid background. His brand’s international following speaks to the amorphous nature of contemporary subculture. Architecture critic Jack Self met Burlon in his Milan studio, surrounded by a world of strange and fantastic objects, to discuss his origins and interests.
You were born in Argentina—how did you end up working in Milan?
My father is Italian; my mother is Lebanese. They decided to move to Italy in 1990 when there was a big financial crisis in Argentina. So we left to start again. The family started a shoe factory on the Adriatic coast, where we would all work. By the time I reached my late teens I had started going out to clubs on Sunday afternoon and then I became a club kid. In fact, that quickly became my main job. Suddenly, in 1998, after working in clubs for a number of years, a group of club kids traveling around Italy all together came to the village where I lived, and said “What are you doing, you should come to Milan!” They were all models, or fashion designers for big companies like Prada, and they were all young like me. And they had amazing jobs so I thought “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Your background was as a party organizer, promoter, then as a DJ. Today you’re also a creative director, photographer, and fashion designer. How you keep track of all these activities, and how to do they relate to each other?
I didn’t go to university. Everything I have done in my life, and everything that I’m doing now, is self-taught. My work comes from my passion for life and pursuing the things I like. From working as an event promoter for so long, I became embedded in a party scene in Milan. You know, I hosted Prince for Versace, and Grace Jones’ concerts, and this led me into the world of doing music for fashion shows. Somehow this mix of musical creative direction and design allowed for a natural move into working for independent magazines as a stylist. I would style for publications like GQ or Style Germany, and I realized this was an important creative outlet for me.
How did you get into actually producing collections?
It was really on the brink of the social media revolution. From my work I had built up an interesting international network of musicians, designers, stylists, DJs, etc. And every time I would fly to a different country or city people would come to see me. These were not drifters; I realized these people didn’t want to have just a one-night stand with my music, they wanted to somehow be part of my life. We shared the same tastes and beliefs, and that’s how I realized I should launch my own brand. My idea was to tell my story through graphics, and the t-shirt was the easiest way to communicate. Everyone buys a t-shirt once a month, so it became a medium that facilitated this expression between others and myself. I’m not a designer… well, I’m not a fashion designer. In every interview that’s what I say, I’m not a fashion designer.
One of the things I find most amazing about social media is how it makes invisible communities into tangible groups. Before social media you could sometimes feel a cultural movement, you could somehow sense it, but you couldn’t ever really see it. And as someone trying to influence it, you could never see your audience. It’s like being involved in magazine or print, you can never see the person that’s reading the magazine. So this ability to receive instant feedback from your supporters must also have completely changed your perspective on your work and your place in the world?
Yes, certainly. But what made everything kind of unique was that my work used to require a physical proximity to lots of people. Because I used to work in clubs a lot, I didn’t have such a sense of a movement, but I did have direct contact with my audience. Now I can’t hope to meet everyone, so they become less tangible, even as I am more involved with others.
I was very intrigued by your description of yourself as “metaphorically liquid…”
Being liquid means to be everywhere and permeate everything—liquid can go through the smallest cracks. It is a form of life that is a kind of flow that encompasses many cultural fields. That’s what I have been doing my entire life. It was really hard for me in Milan at first to make people understand what I was doing, because they weren’t used to someone doing many different things at the same time. It was only when a video from the New York Times came out discussing my story—even before I began the brand—the Milanese grasped that I was multitasking in this city. It was really tricky, yeah.
What’s the origin of your symbolism and your symbology? It’s a very unique aesthetic, and seems to draw on a lot of natural and animalistic imagery, but also on ancient mysticism.
It is based in the symbols from the natives of Patagonia. Each symbol represents something highly specific, like a language. It might be death, life, the sky, the earth, nature, Pachamama [mother nature]. I always like to play with those types of symbols, and we have also invented our own symbolism to capture the spirit of clubs and the energy of a rave.
You often work with very simple, classic streetwear and apply symbolism as a print. How important has street culture been as an influence for you?
I grew up in the clubbing scene of the Costa Adriatica, and then when I moved to Milan I became part of this group of graffiti artists that were very influential at the time and who were deeply rooted in street culture. Even when I was a kid in Argentina, since we didn’t have television there, my influences were pieced together from a rare magazine, or a movie that you see at the cinema. These would then evolve in the street by themselves.
Even if I love electro music the most, I did have a moment of hip-hop DJing so I used to hang out with all these rappers—which is crazy because I also work with them on collaborations now. So, streetwear culture is super important to me. I mean, today it’s weird that people kind of separate fashion and streetwear, because they have become the same thing. You know, we now stand right next to the big names; our competitors are the people at the top that I used to work for.
But in a way there’s a flip side of that. Because street culture used to be a distinct subculture—it was really not mainstream—there was a possibility for being “alternative.” Now, the advantage today is that subcultures sell exactly the same as high culture, high fashion. But the disadvantage is that it becomes very difficult to have a true alternative culture.
Yes, but today with the Internet, everything is more globalized anyway. People say that the underground doesn’t exist anymore, which is kind of true. You hear from time to time that the only place in the world where the underground still exists is Berlin. But, it’s not true. It’s gone, lost in the wake of globalization.
Yet this seems like a relatively recent phenomenon? Even in the last five years a lot of things have changed. Particularly since Instagram, Airbnb and Uber—these have changed everything.
Yes, it’s quite interesting to see. I lecture at universities and I supervise thesis students, which is amazing. But I have come across, a couple of times, people writing texts about me. They have compiled whole books cataloging my work, and yet I only launched my brand on Instagram three years ago.
I didn’t know that. How did you begin on Instagram?
The first time I published a photo it was of my t-shirt in Miami. Pusha T was wearing one with wings, so he posted a picture and I reposted, and everything started from there. We went from, I don’t know, 5,000 followers, to hundreds of thousands. This is made possible by globalization, and it can be good or really bad. The struggle is to make sure that you don’t get lost in the hype, that’s when quality gets very low.
There are very few people at the center of most hype, and I sometimes wonder whether these ultra-famous personalities really care about the people they’re talking to.
To be influential is a big responsibility, you know? Every day I receive messages from so many kids, and they see you as an example of a human being, as an entrepreneur, as a model. You have an obligation to your audience, and it is really important to foster and nurture relationships. I like the quality of things, rather than the quantity. I’ve always worked with independent magazines, independent designers, and independent artists. When a commercial brand would approach me, asking me to fit into their vision, I would tell them that I have to bring my own music and aesthetic. Because otherwise there would be no point.
This sounds like a simple question, but: What does it mean to live today?
You know, I turned 40 years three days ago.
Thank you! Increasingly, I’m looking for quality of life—the best quality of everything. Of relationships, of people, of experiences. I try to focus on having a beautiful life. I have always fought for everything that I have, nobody gave me anything. But for me, what it means to live today is to share. Everything that I own, I share it with my people, kind of like what the rappers do—they just bring their crew. I’m building my house, my farm in Argentina, and I’m designing it with 10 bedrooms so I can bring all my friends. When I celebrated my birthday I turned the party into a declaration of love to my friends. For me, this is life today, hugging the people that are close to you and really building something good.
I think you really see that positivity in your brand as well. It’s quite core to how it is presented as well.
Even the casting we do, we bring in friends from all over the world to be part of the catwalk. Last show we brought Mykki Blanco and he was a complete statement, but I also invited people that simply arrived in my life by accident. I think we are living in a very special moment, that I hope that we will stay in for a long time, because it’s a super positive moment.
Final question: If you had to describe your work in one word?
- Interview: Jack Self
- Photography: Lukas Gansterer