BY ALEX STEWART
In spring 1990, Alexander McQueen, newly graduated from a Masters programme at Central Saint Martins, moved to Milan to work for the fashion house owned and run by Romeo Gigli. Florence had always been a centre for luxury leather goods and Rome the centre of Italian high fashion. From the 1960s onwards, though, Milan’s expertise in manufacturing and tailoring, combined with an emerging generation of Milan-based designers such as Armani and Versace, saw the city become a nexus for a synthesis of design and doing. Ideas are nothing without the skills to enact them or without some concrete meaning to tie them to. For a designer like McQueen, Milan’s ability to marry imagination and production, to realise that utility and rationale in design are as important as beauty, was key to his progress in fashion. McQueen had a fierce visual imagination, but his work was always rooted in craftsmanship and sought to address contemporary or historic reality, to mean something beyond just being beautiful.
Milan, like much of Italy, has always had a strong cultural and artistic hinterland, but there is a grounded quality to Lombardy’s capital that reflects its industrial heritage and means that Milanese design is never without reason or purpose. Of course, good design should never be divorced from practicality; on the contrary, good design should live and breathe reality if it is to have any importance. As the Italian designer (himself a Milanese) Bruno Munari wrote in 1966, “It must be understood that as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s shop (if he knows how to do it).” Munari is, indeed, going further than saying that design should be rooted in the realities of life; he is saying design should reflect and serve them for it to have any meaning to anyone.
This may seem like a curious introduction to an article on a football site. But the creative heritage of Milan, and its continued importance as a place where design and reality merge, is absolutely crucial when thinking about Milan’s newest football club, A.S. Velasca. Establishing a new football club anywhere is difficult, but to do so in the imposing shadow of A.C. Milan and Internazionale, two of the most decorated, stylish teams in world football suggests either crazy levels of commitment or hubris. The stated aim of A.S. Velasca is, according to its president Wolfgang Natlacen, to become, “independent of results or divisions…the third club of Milan.” And how they plan to do this, and what makes them probably the most interesting football club I’ve ever looked at, is that they are, as Natlacen says, “an oversized club with two dimensions: a classic one, with a staff and players participating in a championship, and an artistic one where everything else around the field is created by artists.” Art and design married to everyday life through sport: what could be more Milanese?
Or, indeed, more Italian? Set up by Natlacen and four friends, all rossoneri who met playing an Italian version of fantasy football, in May 2015, A.S. Velasca grew as much from a sense of disillusionment as from a desire to create something new: “I think that we share a kind of disappointment with the modern football. We want to create an alternative, a new way of thinking football, more genuine. We think that football is an art form (as Cantona said).” He continues: “We concluded that Italy was the best place for this project. Art and football are permanently present in Italians’ lives. When we talk about the project, Italians understand the project very quickly…indeed, as Mélanie Gentil, author of Art & Football, noted in his interview for our newsletter, calcio was born in Italy during the Renaissance. The aristocrats were playing what would become football and giving rise to a real competition of elegance between them. So there was already a strong link between football and aesthetics.”
Art and design inform everything about the club, though only one of the (amateur) players in an artist (as Natlacen jokes, “We didn’t want to have 100% artistic football team: that’s maybe why we “split” our club in two parts, two dimensions. The project is ambitious. I prefer not imagine artists on the field…I mean artists are too egoistical for playing football. I know it, I’m an artist)”). He continues, “Everything around the field is created by artists all around the world. For instance, Patricia Waller made our captain’s armband, Patrizia Novello our substitution board. Besides the artistic participations we have during the year, we ask one artist every season to be our main sponsor by giving us, or financing, our seasonal clothing.” This season, the French artist Régis Sénèque has been given the reins, designing everything from the club’s jersey to the bollettino (monthly newsletters) and supporters’ cards.
For a small, new club like A.S. Velasca, having such a strong visual identity, embedded in the club’s ideology and origins, helps set it apart, as Natlacen acknowledges: “The smaller you are, the more you need a strong visual identity to emerge in this modern football world. It’s very important but not it’s sufficient, unless it’s to support the identity of the club as it is in our case. For Velasca, the artistic dimension is at the same level as the athletic one: it is part of our identity.” Natlacen recognizes that bigger clubs are paying more attention to their visual identity, though as he points out, “We think that it is for commercial purpose rather than an artistic approach. Of course, nothing ‘sells’ better than a beautiful shirt or a good visual identity!” He contrasts A.S. Velasca’s approach as being altogether different: “Since our creation, we decided to deal with the different football aspects in an artistic way. It is only for an aesthetic reason that we wanted an embroidered badge, a serigraphy (of a cinder block, the artwork by Régis Sénèque) on our shirt. At our level, we are participating at the renaissance of a kind of aestheticism in football.” He continues, “In our point of view, the approach of these bigger clubs is not necessarily a global artistic approach in the sense that they use art and graphics as a support to the sporting aspect but art is not an integral part of this aspect. This is where A.S. Velasca differs: from its inception, the club has advanced the arts and sports dimensions together.”
The result, in terms of art and design, is nothing short of spectacular. I asked Ella Egidy, a graphic designer and typographer, to look at A.S. Velasca’s site and throw a professional eye over it. Egidy, who has no interest in sport generally or football specifically, was impressed. “If the visual narrative is posing a question, the answer seems to be ‘disgustingly beautiful’”, she enthused. “There’s a strong art direction that leads one to believe that Velasca is just as much a performance art piece as it is the usual physical spectacle provided by football clubs.” This is, of course, a crucial point: football is already a visual spectacle, but A.S. Velasca have elevated it into an art form away from the pitch, but feeding directly back into the sporting side of the club. Egidy was also very taken with the consideration shown by the club in all aspects of its visual communications strategy: “Attention to detail has been considered on many more levels than one would expect from a club, with the specifics of the paper stock on which the monthly bollettino is printed (iceblink ivory 120gsm) provided to you, alongside the information sharing the frequency of the ephemera, something that is clearly important to those making the decisions.” The overall result, according to Egidy, are “visuals adhering (and appealing) to indie aesthetics, and a clear decision to not play by the rules. All of these considerations bring home the clear fact that this is a club for designers and those looking for a deeper visual narrative in the team they support than is provided by majority in existence.”
But what of the football side? Natlacen says, “Our football directors are two of our founding members. They want to improve the game of our players and create a solid group. They want a group before results; they want that players have fun by playing football. It seems easy but I assure you that’s maybe the hardest thing to do.” Results so far have been less than spectacular on the pitch, where the team plays in the Church-run Open B category of the CSI Championship (effectively the twelfth tier of Italy’s convoluted football pyramid) on a pitch in the shadow of the San Siro; Natlacen describes the overall team performance as “Catastrophic! But it’s not important. Players have to understand that we are a newly born club. They weren’t playing together before this season.” It’s a challenge that every new club faces”, to create a group with a lot of different personalities. Each head is a world, and we put together approximately forty of them.” Natlacen recalls the team’s first official match as “unbelievable. We were losing 3-0 but finally scored five minutes before the end! We were so happy, singing and screaming so much that our opponents thought they had lost.” Despite (at the time of writing), having lost nine games and drawn once, the team have a confidence born of knowing they have nothing to lose. (A.S. Velasca have since recorded their first league victory, a 2–0 win against Canagrate Calcio and have a league record of W1 D1 L11 – Ed)
The overlap of football and art can cause problems, though. Natlacen recounts the following story from the team’s early days: “We had an important friendly game and our unique – at that time – goalkeeper was absent. One hour before the beginning of the game we discovered that he was arrested because he did some graffiti…two hours before the match! Finally, the police released him. He played well, then came to another training session but disappeared with the rainy season. Since then we have two goalkeepers.” Not the sort of squad management issues that a club would normally have to contend with, but then it’s clear that nothing about A.S. Velasca is normal, from its direction to its ebullient stance in the face of disastrous performances.
The team is, despite its record, well supported, with tifosi and those to whom football might not normally appeal drawn in almost equal measure. The people of Milan are “in love with the project”, says Natlacen. “We are making their dream come true and they want to dream with us.” The extra-football dimension to the club is certainly part of the appeal: “We count almost 50 regular supporters. It seems nothing but, for instance, even older clubs in higher divisions have fewer supporters than us. Every month we organize a kind of event: the match plus a small choreography, a kind of vernissage around a match. We involve many non-football fans.” Have A.S. Velasca poached any fans from Milan’s big two? Natlacen isn’t sure, but hopes the ideology of the club, as well as its undoubted and novel creativity, will draw people in the future: “We know that Milan and Inter are not attractive anymore and people are looking for new sensations, new vibrations, new football tales. They want to dream. We are a good alternative but it’s hard to break a “football” faith. Italians are firm believers.” But with fans in France, Turkey, Russia, and a regularly visited (and incredible) website already in four languages with versions planned in Japanese and Chinese, it’s hard not to admire A.S. Velasca’s ambition. As Natlacen says, the hardest challenge off the field “is to explain how our micro club is serious and ambitious”, but their reach is growing.
The last word must go to Milan’s own Bruno Munari, who said, prophetically, in the 1960s that “The artists of today are busily looking for something that will once again interest the people of today, distracted as they are by a multitude of visual stimuli all clamouring for their attention.” A.S. Velasca’s unique, and distinctly Milanese, combination of art, design, and football deserves to be heard (or seen) above the clamour.
With thanks to Ella Egidy and Wolfgang Natlacen and the board of A.S. Velasca