Andrea Semeghini doesn’t like to be called a fashion designer; “maybe because I still don’t know who I am exactly”, he confesses. Merging his passion for illustration, fashion and art, he’s founded Vanadio23, a brand focusing on craftsmanship made in Italy, his intricate watercolour paintings (which he later prints digitally), and avoiding the coldness of digital ‘perfection’.
Greatly inspired by the natural world, flowers, sexuality, the human body and storytelling – and, as ‘any good Italian’ as he puts it, Christianity –, his latest collection’s starting point is the Garden of Eden. From orgies to coiled-up snakes and richly baroque floral prints, Andrea has translated the story and emotions of the Biblical chapter into eco-friendly leather and denim jackets, trousers, long coats, hoods, jumpers and t-shirts. During the last edition of Altaroma, we get to sit with him to discuss everything from drawing as a creative outlet to escape rural life, religion, and the future of fashion.
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Andrea, let’s start by getting to know you better. How was your upbringing like? Were you surrounded by fashion, art and other creative forms since you were a kid, or did these interests develop later?
It was the absence of art, fashion and culture in my childhood that made me grow with an enormous curiosity for any form of art, from drawing to acting. I had a very traditional, simple education – an education with no frills. Since the beginning, my biggest passion was painting, drawing and colouring. It was the easiest way to escape from an Italian provincial life: to use my imagination and creativity to do something different.
You’re currently a fashion designer, but you also do a lot of illustration and painting, especially with watercolours. And as you say, drawing was one of your first creative interests. Did you ever think of becoming an artist rather than a fashion designer? How do you balance these two facets of yours (painting and fashion design)?
Being called fashion designer, painter or artist makes me deeply uncomfortable and it causes me a little embarrassment, maybe because I still don’t know who I am exactly. In my work, there is no distinction between these disciplines. I was born a painter, and painting mixes with fashion. I want to create something unique, something pictorial that can be worn. Fashion was a direct consequence of painting, a natural development of my work. For years, I have been collaborating with important fashion brands, painting directly on leather and fur, until I had the urge to create something more personal, something that was just mine, something unique.
Vanadium (‘vanadio’ in Italian) is a chemical element with the atomic number 23, hence your brand’s name – Vanadio23. In what ways do chemistry and science inform and inspire your work? What is it about this particular element that you find so appealing to name your brand after it?
I don't know anything about chemistry! When four years ago I decided to call my brand Vanadio23, I only knew that vanadium was the element with which screwdrivers and wrenches were made. I chose this name to underline the strong bond behind each collection with the workwear apparel. Now, I know everything about vanadium and I discovered very interesting literature on the subject: it’s a chemical element listed in the periodic table by the symbol V23 whose name derives from the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and fertility, Vanadis.
It is an extremely fascinating complex material because it’s a metal and a non-metal at the same time, it’s both acid and basic. The contrasts that revolve around this material are also those of my collections, which are both feminine and masculine, with severe and very simple shapes in construction but incredibly complex and flamboyant in the paintings. My collections play with contrasts.
As you explain, your collections focus on “a series of soft forms drawn from the botanical, floral, human and animal worlds.” So it’s clear that nature is one of your main pillars. Why is that? The brand is still very young, but do you see yourself shifting to other sources of inspiration in the future?
You are right! So far, nature and the human body have been my favourite subjects. However, my desire is obviously to always explore and create something new, something different. Until I get to work on the collection, I never know what kind of themes I will approach and I am the first one curious to find out what I will paint for the next season. The only limit is my imagination. And for now, I do not see the limits.
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Your Fall/Winter 2020 collection is inspired by the Garden of Eden, which is mainly reflected on the prints: from rich and exuberant flowers to hand-painted illustrations of orgies, to one of a hand with a coiled up snake. Could you tell me more about how did you end up with a Biblical reference as a starting point?
The study of the naked body, sexuality and the floral world have always been my subjects of reference. They obviously derive from my academic training and artistic studies. I framed the inspirations of the collection within a Biblical theme because the Christian Catholic culture is deeply rooted in me – as any good Italian. I trained between Rome and Milan, and I am surrounded by those who are the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, Tiziano, etc. I think this collection is a bit of a tribute to them.
The prints are actually very clever and perfectly encapsulate the idea of the Garden of Eden and their phases – paradise, humans corrupted by the snake, and the ‘sinful’ orgy. Do you always look for strong storytelling for your clothes? How important is it for you to tell a story with your collections?
Every single garment is designed to be strong and aesthetically effective if you remove it from the rest of the collection, but at the same time, it is able to dialogue perfectly with the rest of the pieces. Each print has its own character, reference colour, and a character that inspired me while I painted it. Different prints for different characters, and hypothetically, for different customers. Telling a story is the basis of my creative thinking. I don’t see my paintings as mere decoration, I want them to convey something more. I want to drag those who wear one of my garments into my world, into the story, into the word that I created.
In an increasingly digital world, your hand-made prints give a very human, artisanal touch to your clothes – even though you print them digitally, the print itself isn’t made by computer, it’s your illustration. What’s your take on this dichotomy between digital and tangible, especially in the fashion industry?
When you wear one of my clothes, you realize that it is an accurate reproduction of a painting; the print is in very high quality and deceives you for a moment on the possibility that they are truly hand-painted. I want all the mistakes and imperfections to remain in the printing phase. In high school, my drawing teacher prevented me from using the rubber to erase. I still don’t delete anything I do today, I change the error by intervening directly on it, overlapping layers of colour. Construction lines made by pen, spots of colour, dirty fingerprints – all these imperfections I think that give a more real and raw touch to my paintings, to my clothes. They are not perfect, they are dirty and true. We live in a digital world where everything is correct and perfect, my paintings are anything but cold and perfect. And for now, I like them like that.
You showcased the Fall/Winter 2020 in the latest edition of Altaroma, a platform for brands based and producing in Italy. Craftsmanship and artisanal work are core to Vanadio23, could you tell us more about the artisans, factories and people you work with in Italy
The collection is all made in Italy, including the materials’ provenance and, obviously, the manufacture; it couldn’t be otherwise. The bio leather that I use is the patent of a 100% eco-sustainable Italian company made from corn fibre. Printing and production are also done by leading companies in the sector: St’One and Confezioni Tomè. I was lucky to meet people who support the project and who make even a few garments, not to mention the minimum production, because obviously, Vanadio23 is not a big company like the ones they usually deal with.
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For a young brand like yours, initiatives like Altaroma are important so buyers, press and other ‘fashion people’ get to know your work. How do you see the future as an emerging designer? What are some of the toughest challenges you have to face?
Altaroma was a really nice surprise because the audience is not just a group of buyers – as it happens in many other fairs –, but it also includes press members, influencers and fashion students. Seeing so many people interested in my project was a huge pleasure. The feedback was very positive and it made me more convinced and confident about my work despite the saturated and extremely competitive fashion system, where it’s difficult to emerge.
The system certainly rewards those who have talent and bright ideas as long as they already have investors backing them up. In short, I find it difficult to make room for myself in this field without a solid economic foundation. In addition to these mere practical issues, I think my biggest obstacle right now is related to the discomfort that overwhelms you when you see that the results you aspire to don’t come with the speed you would like to. Seeing the progress made and the satisfactions achieved so far could be the starting point.
From here, you can only grow more. What are your dreams for the brand and for yourself?
The question already has the answer: growing more. I really hope so. I hope to continue to grow, I hope that the efforts made over the years will pay off. It’s a complex journey. My hope depends on the possibility and the freedom to create, I want to continue to paint, draw, invent new shapes and volumes, new objects, not necessarily related to the fashion world. I see Vanadio23 as a concept that I would like to apply on a larger scale: interior design, home, sculpture, furniture. A Vanadio23 world.
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