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When It Wants to Go Top Drawer, High Fashion Gives the Brush to Antonio

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When I came into fashion illustration,” Antonio Lopez recalls, “it was a dead art, real boring, catalogy, very WASPy. I gave it a transfusion.” Indeed, after putting the first drawings of black models into Harper’s Bazaar in 1963, he shocked the French fashion journal Elle by submitting photo collages of Alabama race riots as background for his racy swimsuit sketches. Following Antonio’s dashing, erotic lead, a new, liberated illustration bandwagon got rolling. As an admirer put it, “You made ’em hot.”

Lopez himself has stayed molten. Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld, Norma Kamali and Bloomingdale’s flock to him for renderings. He has done album covers for Rita Coolidge and the J. Geils Band, splashed punky silhouettes across the walls of Giorgio Armani’s new Fifth Avenue showroom, and painted a bedroom mural for Mick Jagger’s 10-year-old daughter, Jade.

From his drawing board not just sketches but stars have sprung. The 39-year-old’s lavish new book, Antonio’s Girls (Congreve, $29.95; paper, $17.95), enshrines them. Actress Jessica Lange, disco diva Grace Jones and top models Pat Cleveland, Tina Chow and Jerry Hall got big boosts or were launched when they fell into the artist’s Paris circle and posed for his pen. (“I like being a Pygmalion figure,” he admits.) Leaving New York in 1969, Antonio spent seven years in Paris. Living “way beyond” his means, he made the Club Sept a campground for his flamboyant crowd, first laying eyes on Hall there in a skintight gold satin suit and blue feather boa. “When we walked in, they’d clear an area for us,” he smiles. “We brought in the excitement.”

Lopez and Jerry once got engaged on a lark; it lasted a few months. “Being from an ethnic background,” he explains, “I was always idolizing blondes.” Growing up in Puerto Rico, though, his readily admitted first crush was on his dark-haired mother, a dressmaker. “To please her, I would draw little dresses and say, ‘How do you like them?’ ” The family moved to Spanish Harlem when Antonio was 8, and Antonio’s artwork was singled out for praise. After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962, he became one of the youngest illustrators ever at Women’s Wear Daily, quitting when publisher John Fairchild wouldn’t let him free-lance. Lopez earned $300,000 last year working out of a studio three blocks from his one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment. He claims to love nothing in life so much as “a good cry and a good ending.” As far as his career is concerned, neither tears nor terminations seem imminent.