Valentina Ilardi Martin, portrait courtesy of Citizen Couture
Valentina Ilardi Martin is the Editor in Chief of GREY Magazine, a sumptuous compendium of fashion photography, fiction and poetry that has been published in a hardcover periodical every spring and every fall since 2009 featuring photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki, William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Sarah Moon, Martin Parr, Robert Polidori, and Ellen von Unwerth among many more.
The photograph comes first for Ms. Ilardi Martin, whose native Roman passion for the grandeur of everyday beauty belies each story produced in the book. She is nothing if not a womanist by nature, honoring the power and influence of the female mind, body, and heart.
GREY maintains a structural integrity to the construction of the photographs, collaborating in the creation of a shared reality that integrates the clothing into the photograph as though it were not so much a matter of fashion as it were the architecture of the life of the body. How we sheath and clothe, hide and seek, play dress up, how we dress to express, to impress, to pretend, to reveal who we see ourselves as.
Ms. Ilardi Martin recalls, “When I was young, I was illustrating, then I decided to become a painter. My parents were both more structured people; they woke up every morning at 7 a.m. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be an artist because I thought they could do whatever they want, whenever they want.
“Then I moved forward. (Laughs). I followed my parents’ advice and went to business school. Then I had a really big accident with a motorbike. I was in a coma for two days. When I came out of it, I said to my father, ‘I’m leaving business school and I am going to art school instead.’ They said yes.”
“I have always had a visual life. I feed myself with my eyes. When I am in places where I cannot feed my eyes, I feel really sick. I would not be able to work in an office which does not have a view,” Ms. Ilardi Martin mentions as the breeze wafts through the window of her ninth-floor home.
“School wasn’t my thing. I didn’t like the people who excelled in it and I didn’t want to be like them. People who make too much effort and show it are not chic. Chic is when you see a woman walking in the street who looks fabulous and you do not know why. Even if she is wearing fashion from the latest collections, you don’t notice that. You notice her. The brands go in the background. The look belongs to them and it is effortless. I won’t buy something that doesn’t look like me.
“I went to art school to study graphic design and art direction. I spent two years working in a photo studio and teaching photography while finishing school. I started going to London every summer to take courses at St. Martin’s and took those skills with me back to Rome.
“One day, a friend told me she wanted to be a stylist and I asked her what that was. She explained that you style the models for fashion photographs. I thought that sounded good but I didn’t know where to get the clothes, so I started going to the most popular store in Rome and made friends with the owner. He started taking me to Paris and London to buy men’s clothes, and brought me to ask about the women’s collections. He took me to shows and eventually I began to apply myself.
“I remember sitting next to a girl, and she asked me what I did. I told her I was a stylist and she asked me who I worked for. I told her I just started; then I asked her how to get the clothes. She told me to write to the press office asking if I could borrow them and send them back when I was done. That’s how I learned to be a stylist. That changed my life. I no longer had to borrow clothes from the store.
“I started self-producing editorial shoots and I began to write to the magazines. When they wouldn’t reply, I would take a flight and knock on their door in person. I showed them my portfolio in person and I was hired for a few jobs. That made things easier with the press offices.
“I left Rome and went to London. London is the best place to be when you’re young. I went through the punk East End scene. Then I went into pop for a moment—but it was very intense. Then I renounced all of it, and everything was all black. I felt safe. After that I started to develop my own style. I threw out three whole portfolios. It was a learning process.
“I found my identity there. I was finally old enough to have the life experience needed to have style. It was constructed around all the travels, all the flights I was taking, all the weather I was under. I had to have everything in a small suitcase. I had limited wardrobe for myself because I was carrying all these clothes for jobs.
“One time I was flying seven hours to an appointment with Balenciaga. I was to go from New York to Paris with a layover in Germany. When I got to Germany, I was stuck in the airport because of the snow. I was wearing a long skirt and high-heeled boots and I was online for three hours to get a train ticket because there were no flights. I sat on the floor of the train station for five hours dressed in a gown, and everyone was asking if they could help because I looked so glamorous. My suitcase did not get delivered and I had to go to the appointment one day later in the same exact outfit. Nothing came from the appointment but I was fabulous.
“I came to New York and met my husband and together we started GREY. Instead of selling a dress in a store, we are selling it in a photograph. But the dress is the last thing that goes into the photograph. It must be like it was already there somehow. The photographs are of real families, realistic situations. It is not the fabulous, perfect, rich, pretty, successful—this is not contemporary. That is 90s, 80s, for the galloping economy. GREY makes sense today. It is younger, fresher, up to date.
“I wish to educate people on how to improve their dressing habits, what to choose to buy for the next season, how to style it with their own wardrobe and how to wear it for the best result. Every styling seen in GREY magazine is meant to be analyzed from the viewer and eventually reworked on an individual base. It’s meant to be an example that can be modified or adapted as a realistic suggestion for the upcoming season. I am not interested in a bizarre appearance. GREY is a magazine for a real, contemporary woman.
”When I plan a fashion shoot I start with the choice of the photographer. The idea will be constructed around his style, which at GREY is very precise and recognizable. I tend to keep the same contributors when possible to strengthen our visual direction. I choose photographers who are already GREY. Deborah Turbeville, Erwin Olaf, Todd Hido—they all have different styles while keeping a very defined identity and a very correct approach towards the woman. I like photographers who can understand emotions and portray the subject in front of them for what it really is. We show a great woman as an inspiration, we know them as human beings, not just as subjects for photographs. In accordance with the photographer we develop the story, the location, the casting. Sometimes the subject comes first, sometimes the place.It depends on many factors, mainly inspiration. When everything is in place, then, we think about the ideal clothes, the appearance, hair, makeup, mood. Only then. My aim and focus is now to bring to the reader something they can relate to, accept, love and be driven to, something they’ll try to emulate, because that is a selection of real, amazing, nowadays situations.”
Indeed GREY is not about the image of perfection but about the creation of our higher selves, to be the change we want to see in the world, to find beauty in the extraordinary energy of our everyday world, to live into it as an expression of life, a love for the photograph, the printed page, for the woman as a complete beauty, powerful and passionate in her many ways, fashion as the expression of her charms, a modern glamour that is accessible yet delectable. GREY is about nuance, possibility, shadows and shades in an ever-changing world.
Ms. Ilardi Martin observes, “I am really grateful. I work for myself. I work more because it is my own business but I can work when I want and that is luxury. So I ended up being an artist after all.”