He has been crowned “The King of Models” by The New York Timesbut Piero Piazzi, president of the modeling agency Women Management (part of the global giant Elite World Group), has never really liked that label.
“It’s an expression that has always made me laugh,” he says, before jokingly adding, “I don’t believe in monarchy!”
Marpessa Hennink, Monica Bellucci, Carla Bruni, Eva Riccobono, Maria Carla Boscono and Lea T are just some of the names Piazzi discovered and represented in the 1980s, an era in which now well-known names such as Naomi Campbell, Eva Herzigova and Kate Moss ( all currently represented by Piazzi) became global superstars and helped usher in the era of the supermodel.
THR Rome met Piazzi, 60, at the European Parliament headquarters in Rome, where he was presented with the Fashion Dresses Peace award for The Children for Peace, the non-profit organization for which he is an ambassador and which provides assistance to orphans and HIV-positive children in Uganda and South Sudan.
Why do you shy away from the NYT‘s label of “The King of Models”?
Because I treated the models as women, as human beings… and always respected and protected them. This has always been a source of pride for me. It wasn’t easy because the fashion world, especially in the past, was a bit ambiguous. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but in some ways it was cutting edge. I think if people didn’t focus primarily on financial gain, but also looked out for humanity, everything would have been different and so much easier.
Were there predators in the fashion world who abused models, much like the scandals we’ve seen in the movie industry?
Naturally! They set my car on fire. It was the PR people who lured models into clubs, got them to do drugs and then traded them as offerings to Milan’s upper class playboys. I am someone who has consistently fought against all forms of violence, both physical and psychological. I fight against all forms of discrimination.
How did the photographers behave?
Some photographers faked lingerie casting to attract models. Some of these guys weren’t even photographers. I fought hard to protect my models from these situations. I’ve modeled myself for many years and whenever they made progress, I reacted very strongly to it. Abuse, violence and rape are very serious matters that can have lifelong consequences for men or women. It must be reported immediately, even at the cost of losing a job.
Has there been criticism that has hurt you?
I use social media a lot and I recently posted for same-sex parenting, advocating that having children should be possible for everyone (the Italian government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has banned gay couples from signing up). Some haters called me inhumane for not approving of same-sex couples applying for surrogacy. This is not democracy. In my work, since the 1980s, I have fought for the presence of black models on the catwalk. And I was the first to believe in and represent the transgender model Lea T.
Rights are rights. Shouldn’t they be questioned?
Love has no color, the world is really a rainbow. However, at this historic moment in Italy and in other parts of the world, some rights are still banned or even denied. They are important rights, the foundation of the world that my life revolves around — my motto is “it’s all about love”. You cannot deny the love a parent has for their child, nor the love a child has for their parents, just because of homosexuality.
Staying on the subject of rights, you fought to give all models equal professional dignity. What is the current situation?
Marpessa, the first model I hired, didn’t do fashion shows and limited herself to making lingerie catalogs because she had a beautiful body but dark circles under her eyes. At that time, American blondes were in demand, some even had freckles. But the dark circles under her eyes and the imperfection of her biracial complexion, which was neither light nor dark, was not tolerated. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally made it clear that even dark circles have the appeal of lived experiences, they have meaning. Fabrizio Ferri (one of the most famous fashion photographers) never used it. I went to Gianni Versace, whom I knew, and explained that Marpessa had class and a beauty of gestures, movements and imperfections. It was much easier with Naomi Campbell – she’s perfect, she’s beautiful, she’s amazing, but she also has an imposing personality, the personality of an icon.
Have aesthetic standards changed?
Many models on today’s catwalks are diverse: black, Chinese, genderless, plus-size. This colorful world was once unimaginable. This is important because fashion conveys important messages. Of course, real life is slightly different – unfortunately there is still so much inequality.
What influence will the market continue to have on the choices we see in society?
A lot. For example, China reopened its borders after the pandemic. This year, the demand for Asian models for catwalk shows increased due to an increase in Chinese buyers. I would also like to mention the wonderful example of 65-year-old Elisabetta Dessy, a former athlete and model who has returned to the runway. Fashion should be timeless, because fashion is also represented by buyers of a more mature age. Fashion needs to be democratic today more than ever.
You have often said that you hate perfection?
I have, because I am the least perfect person in this world.
I’ll show you some names and you can tell me what you’ve seen that isn’t perfect in these models you’ve launched, for example Carla Bruni?
I have a very special love for Carla, who is the antithesis of a snob compared to her looks. Carla doesn’t act snobbish. She is an amazing person, with an incredible world inside.
Monica as a model was very imperfect. In fact, when I first saw her, I thought she was perfect for movies. When I close my eyes I see an image of Monica in a turtleneck, white coat, white boots. She was buttery and voluptuous at a time when these qualities were not yet in demand. I remember telling her, “You have a pretty face to be an actress.”
The wide-set eyes. This kind of ET face, in a time when fashion was dictated by perfection. Mariacarla has a unique gift—that transcends everything and makes you a top model—and that is personality.
Eva is one of the funniest women I know, with that little mouth that sometimes grimaced, which made her suffer in the beginning, but also those dreamy teary eyes, a vague look. I’m sorry she didn’t have a more prominent acting career, she would have been a great actress, in the style of Monica Vitti.
Some of the models you’ve discovered have changed paths, like Monica Bellucci. How do you rate her as an actress?
I haven’t seen enough of her movies to rate her. However, if she has done so many, there must be a good reason.
Don’t you think she’d be hurt if she found out you haven’t seen her movies?
Let’s say I saw a few of her movies in the beginning and visited her on set as well. She was so beautiful. I love Bond movies and she was great playing Lucia Sciarra in Ghost.
Carla Bruni, on the other hand, chose to sing. How do you rate her as a singer?
Beautiful. She has her own style, some people say she almost whispers. I like her singing because of her unique style.
Was she someone who sang in the shower or during the casting?
No. Carla suffered a lot, but not out of insecurity. She went off the runway worried. Let’s not forget – before they became models, they are young women, many with huge insecurities and insecurities.
How do you feel about Giorgio Armani sticking to the artistic reins of the empire he created, while others, like Valentino, decided to step down while still alive for the younger generation?
Giorgio Armani is someone I admire, he likes to be in control and have the last word, while doing so with great dignity and class.
Valentino wanted to enjoy life with Giancarlo Giammetti. I have enormous respect for both. They are very special people who decided to live their dream life of luxury surrounded by beautiful things. Giancarlo is very active and fights against all kinds of discrimination, he is someone who even on social media violently attacks political parties that he does not agree with.
Not all designers have the courage to expose themselves to issues that still discriminate against the LGBTQI+ world.
Courage to me is being yourself. It’s very hard to be yourself without a mask. Donatella Versace and Pierpaolo Piccioli are two people on the frontline, in the first trench to defend the LGBTQI+ cause.
Miuccia Prada, maybe she’s much more reserved, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce might not express it in their work, but they do great things socially for a good cause. I think each of these brands has their own identity. Some may be more reserved and choose not to raise the issue through their brands.
Is there a designer you want to thank?
Gianfranco Ferre. I’ve loved him since my days as a model. Working with him was always pleasant. He was an architect and a very humble person. To me he was one of the greatest designers in the world. The first Italian to become a designer for a major French fashion house like Dior.
Do the models you’ve worked with owe anyone? Is there a designer who also launched them with you? Who believed in your ideas?
There are many. Marpessa should thank Dolce Gabbana, with the first campaign from the great photographer Ferdinando Scianna. Naomi certainly had that support from Azzedine Alaïa. Each of them has its own connection.
Where models reached unimaginable heights in the past, companies now prefer to use influencers for their brands. Does Chiara Ferragni or a Kardashian make more than a supermodel these days?
It depends on the influencers. I notice that Chiara Ferragni is not anymore. She is an entrepreneur with her own brand and although I criticized her early in her career, I now respect all the work she has done. These are business choices for a fashion label that depend on the product they are advertising. For example, Fendi usually chooses both influencers and models.
Does a model need to work a lot today, also have a lot of online followers?
It depends on the target audience you want to reach. It used to be much more important. There was an obsession with how many followers a model had. Much less now. Since then, other phenomena have entered the fashion world. Fashion today is a mix of everything, but there are icons like Naomi and others, who are still very much present.
What was a professional encounter that touched you emotionally?
Lea T. I met her on the beach in Bali with Riccardo Tisci. I followed her transition. She is now a friend of mine who really taught me a lot. At first, I was very skeptical about whether it was right for me to represent a transgender model. I could have made a lot more money booking her on trash TV shows. Instead, she became a successful model.