CARLO BRANDELLI has a way with real estate. The newly reinstated Kilgour creative director moved into his quiet East London home and studio on September 11, 2001, though because the space – once stables, then an architectural atelier – is so unusually isolated that it didn’t have television reception until SKY was installed, he nearly missed the events of that day. Brandelli’s main studio is even more remote, however: Located about an hour south of Milan, close to his family’s village, it may be the only modernist structure in an area dominated by medieval villages and a strong sense of regional identity. “Being Italian,” he says, “I like places that are more natural, more earthy” – a statement that may come as a surprise from a man whose creative identity is so instinctively and reciprocally linked to the golden age of Cool Britannia. Still, even in the days of Squire – London’s first multi-disciplinary concept space and Brandelli’s first project, launched in 1991 – his workspace held a certain geographical in-betweenness: Squire’s blend of Pop Art and fashion dropped anchor in a former brothel flanked by Savile Row on one side, and Cork Street on the other, a then rarely-tread creative fault line between London’s tailors and its galleries. Dazed & Confused had offices in the same building; Nick Knight and Peter Saville were regulars; works by Bridget Riley and Allan Jones lined the shelves. One day, a young Alexander McQueen stepped into Squire and walked out with a pair of camel moleskin trousers and a covert coat for his first interview with Givenchy, leaving some of his own work with Brandelli in exchange.
“We weren’t accepted by the art community, and we weren’t accepted by the fashion community,” Brandelli remembers, though it was only a matter of time before the Mayfair interloper was recruited by Savile Row mainstay Kilgour, where he wouldn’t tailor, but direct – in image campaigns, visuals, collaborations – a contemporary brand identity for a too established institution. Brandelli resigned from Kilgour last summer after the company changed hands; in doing so, he left his neighborhood of nearly two decades. But instead of packing up and heading predictably East, Brandelli headed south, to his pre-Squire roots in Italy – “‘Contemporary’ isn’t a word there; ‘modern’ isn’t a word,” he says of his native hamlet – and started photographing church interiors.
“I was born on Christmas day to an Italian, strict, Roman Catholic family in a small, strict, Roman Catholic village, where life was church and church was life. Today, it’s become a subject matter for ideas.” It’s a source of inspiration that would seem fundamentally and historically at odds with his London-grown menswear – more provincial baroque than cosmopolitan minimal, at least at first glance – but leave it to Brandelli to seamlessly connect even the most disparate dots. “It’s all about man,” he says of the study, for which he visited nearly two hundred off-the-radar churches in Northern Italy – Christ being the most represented manifestation of manhood in the Western world. And Brandelli’s images trace a particular aesthetic DNA – an austere, minimal divine, a modern setting extracted from a surprising heritage. “The church where I’m from looks like a John Pawson building, but of course it dates back to 900 A.D. – the structure was entirely about getting powerful natural light into specific areas, where they could then put religious iconography.”That is precisely what Brandelli has photographed: altars, confession boxes, and crucifixes in morning, pre-Mass light; life-sized bodies of Christ carved in wood, lying horizontally in church alcoves and swathed in ethereal silk or hessian – the primeval fabrics of spiritual menswear, perhaps, of a New Gothic suit best seen in natural cascading light.
“I’ve always treated whatever I’m doing as an artistic project,”says Brandelli, who is now mixing media in ever more raw-material terms. He is quite literally carving out new possibilities in form, not only in black-and-white renderings of medieval wood figures, but in his “Permanence 2010” series of travertine marble sculptures, architectural monoliths ribbed in liquid gold. Brandelli’s recent aesthetic investigations certainly provide an interesting counterpoint – intentional or not – to the fleeting focuses of most fashion-industry veterans. But it’s not about contradiction; it’s about developing continuity in the unexpected: “The word, I think, is purity. What I try to find in everything is purity, and that theme can be found in any religion or discipline in the world.” The result is a multivalent, investigative research as formally compelling as it is productive in mapping out a spirit of timelessness, of old-meets-new – of the past and future of the Carlo Brandelli brand.