Robert Rabensteiner: All Power To The Imagination
Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
by Angelo Flaccavento
Photography by Pierpaolo Ferrari
Wrapped in a paint-splattered coat in his painterly portrait, Robert Rabensteiner is, nevertheless, not a painter. A famously literate, literary fashion editor, he chose to be photographed in no ordinary clothing. The coat belonged to his hero, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, better known as Balthus, and is tied with a rope in the style of the late Polish artist. (In Irving Penn’s raffish 1948 portrait, Balthus’s own none-too-clean overcoat is belted with a fiercely knotted piece of near-identical twine.) The brocade-upholstered armchair, too, was Balthus’; the photograph was taken in his vast, mythical chalet in Switzerland. Rabensteiner cultivates an aura in which it is difficult to tell where truth ends and myth-making begins. His wardrobes are poems where others’ are scribbles.
Still, Rabensteiner is a stylist—and an exceedingly sought-after one—as well as the fashion director at L’Uomo Vogue and consultant to count- less brands. Dreamy elegance is his trademark. He styles stories as much as he styles outfits; models become characters, all lavish adventure and elegant abandon. He marries the skills of the legendary costumier Piero Tosi with the eye of his frequent collaborator, the director Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice, The Leopard). “I would love to work in cinema,” Rabensteiner says over coffee at the Principe Di Savoia hotel in Milan, his mellifluous Italian coloured with a touch of his native Tyrolean, almost Germanic hardness. “But I don’t. I could never limit myself to being the costume designer. I’d love to be the director.
“I stumbled into fashion completely by chance,” he continues. “Both of my parents are deaf, unbelievably elegant and extremely demanding. I studied art history, then taught art history to deaf children for a long while. I was surrounded by silence and developed a love for art and reading early on, feeding my own imaginary world with fantasies and romance. It was all very magical and strange. Can you imagine? We lived in this small mountain village and I was going to school with a sledge.”
This aristocratic upbringing, far from the big city, forged in Rabensteiner a profound love of grand situations and grander sets, as well as a deep affinity with nature. He travels extensively for work and has a pied-à-terre in Milan, but escapes to his retreat in the mountains as often as he can. “It’s great to live immersed in nature,” he enthuses. “While technology keeps me connected, I can walk in the woods with my dogs, wearing my kaftans.”
Rabensteiner prefers gentle blur to sharp definition: he is a narrator of the hazy, impressionistic school. His best shoots—rustic Renaissance elegance with the legendary Deborah Turbeville, sumptuous excess with the youthful Pierpaolo Ferrari—coalesce into soft focus as though the tale is being told, the strands falling into place, before your very eyes.
As in his work, so in his words: Rabensteiner has a habit of smoothing the edges of his own biography. Endless digressions pepper his narration; fables and allegories add nuance and charm. The more we converse, the more reality and fantasy meld into one. Despite his elegantly old-fashioned persona, like a Boldini portrait come to life, he is an utterly contemporary bundle of contradictions. He drives his car fast, Italian-style, and wears running shoes with his bespoke suit. He never looks pristine or precious, but always crumpled and boho, even in black tie. His life appears to be lived in the service of a single ideal. “Beauty: that is my only obsession,” he agrees, as we part.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 04, October 2011