This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Thursday 24 June 2021 4:00 pm Milan time
Giulia Parenti: Can you tell me a little bit about your journey within the industry?
Sabrina Ciofi: I’ve worked freelance for nearly my whole career. I’ve never been on the payroll of any brand, and I worked without contracts for all of my professional life. I worked for ten years as a street culture consultant for one of the most influential fashion exhibition companies based in Florence, here in Italy. Then I worked five years for one of the biggest corporate sports companies worldwide, and travelled a lot between Florence, Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin. At a certain point I became the editor-in-chief of one of the first magazines that focused on streetwear, which was based in Modena, and I started to follow all the fashion weeks across the world for several years. This is when I became part of a bigger community, at a time before there were smartphones, and it was when fashion started to become a ‘business’, around 2000. You felt a lot of creativity around and so working in those different cities really made me grow and gave me experience. Then in 2007, I decided to stay in Italy. I worked for several years at a school as director of the fashion styling, communication, and marketing department. This is where I felt I needed to create something for young talents, and I made a magazine that I funded from my own money. I’m not rich but I chose to do that with the money that I earned from my job. I started that in 2010 and it stopped in 2016; so that is my experience trying to do something small to create a platform in Italy for Italian talents.
“Why should a creative director be paid so much compared to the people working for them? I don’t think that we can continue to keep working in the industry in the same way as we’ve been doing since the 1900’s.” – Sabrina Ciofi
Giulia: What are your thoughts on the ‘emerging’ Italian fashion scene and the business around it? There’s a lot of big brands here and I was wondering how one builds a brand in an international way without being too commercial and remaining loyal to your creativity, like in London, for example. Do you think that in the near future it is possible for Italy to create a platform that really pushes young Italian talent on a larger scale and shows it to the world?
Sabrina: Big change comes from big utopias, so it’s good to dream about things that don’t exist yet. Because if you’re able to imagine and see them, then you can build the future. I think that one of the biggest struggles in fashion became clear to me around 2000 with the realisation that fashion is a big business, and being Italian, about 60% of our country’s income is from activities that are related to the production of textiles and the creation of fashion. So it’s really a big thing. The fact that Milan became such an international place too with the financial sector created a bit of a conflictive relationship with creativity, which is why there’s a tension between these two worlds. But I believe that you can make business with creativity, to be free, to not follow any rules. Fashion is about how we keep this sort of creativity and expression whilst also rationalising it. But it’s not easy. That’s the reason why we are crazy, living life psychologically like we’re walking on a thread. It’s because of recognition. If you’re not one of the 1000 people that everyone talks about in the fashion industry, then you are struggling. Even if your income is okay, you go crazy. This brings me back to the struggle between business and creativity and the changes that are needed within the industry. We are all very focused on the one creator, and everything is centered around this person. The question is: why should a creative director be paid so much compared to the people working for them? I don’t think that we can continue to keep working in the industry in the same way as we’ve been doing since the 1900’s. I think that focusing on a ‘collective’ and teamwork is the solution, and we need platforms that represent diversity. Strength is found in being different, and by having teams instead of only creative directors, you bring in that difference. But making money means being recognisable, and being recognisable means having one aesthetic, and that’s why you can’t speak too many languages.
“When you work in fashion, you can do anything else because you’re a problem solver. You could apply a lot of that creative thinking to other jobs but, of course, I want to stay in fashion because of that ‘magic’ element. ” – Sabrina Ciofi
Giulia: Yes, it feels like there’s often a compromise between the creative voice and the business. Speaking as a stylist, I know that you have to do some commercial work because it pays the bills and enables you to do creative things. But it feels like there’s so much pressure to sell a product and I’m not sure how creatives manage it. I think that a lot of creatives struggle mentally with the idea of being ‘commercial’.
Sabrina: I haven’t found a balance yet. Like you, I struggle every day – nothing changes. Of course, I have experience, I’m older, I have more money than you, but the feeling is the same. We’re all involved in the creation of magic, which is an intangible thing, but this magic should sell. And that’s the reason why it’s impossible to feel at home or at ease within this system, because of the contradictions. I assure you that even well-known creatives who are at the top of their game struggle somewhat in this way. It’s all about how you manage to find a balance for yourself. For me, fashion is still the only place where I want to be. And I feel that when you work in fashion, you can do anything else because you’re a problem solver. You could apply a lot of that creative thinking to other jobs but, of course, I want to stay in fashion because of that ‘magic’ element. Even if you are ironing clothes in a room for three days or you’re cleaning things on set, when you see the picture or video that you’ve worked so hard to produce, you get this real feeling of amazement, and it’s that magic that repays all of the suffering.
“We need time to understand that we are not as fast as the tools and machines we have created. Yet at the end of the day, change comes from making, thinking, imagining, and trying to create a different world. ” – Sabrina Ciofi
Giulia: I think that’s completely true. What would be your advice for a new generation of creatives coming out into this field and hoping to create magic?
Sabrina: I think it’s about accepting the reality that being different is a value. And that being different means being recognised as you are, not like somebody else. But if you don’t feel different, that’s okay, everything is okay. What I also believe is important is looking at things from different points of view, and not just from a phone screen, because we are still made of flesh and bones. We might be in the year 2021, but as humans we haven’t fundamentally evolved a lot from our ancestors. We have created tools that are better than us because we dream about better versions of ourselves. And yet, we are all mostly still the same as two millennia ago. We need time to understand that we are not as fast as the tools and machines we have created. Yet at the end of the day, change comes from making, thinking, imagining, and trying to create a different world. I think the biggest tool we have is imagination, so don’t stop dreaming about a different future, because today we live in a world that was dreamed of by the people who lived before us. Don’t stop fighting for what you imagine. You couldn’t fly an airplane until somebody imagined how to fly and tried to make it work. And yet here we are.
Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.