Elena Borghi

I studied at the Brera Academy
Photo © Elena Datrino

Photo © Elena Datrino

Beauty in Wonderland: Onirica for VOGUE and P&G Prestige

At the age of 15 I understood what stage designing meant, I did not even know the expression “stage designing” until my teacher of architecture at the Liceo, who was a stage designer, asked the whole class if anybody wanted to go to work at the theatre (now they call it a stage) and a friend of mine and I accepted. We went there after school and remained at the theatre until 11 pm. We worked as director’s assistants for Rossini’s opera Il Turco. It was the very first opera I had ever seen. I soon realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do.
That summer I started working in a theatre workshop. I  have always worked. And I have always been paid. I have gained a lot of experience as a stage designer. Today we aren’t in the habit of being paid, but I keep on fighting my social battle. I used to weep a lot, in the 1990s. I used to feel really alone as a temporary worker, at a time when the word precariat did not even exist. I was lucky because I started in a period when people used to get paid for their work and now I have self-evident professional skills but, when this thing of working for free exploded, sometimes people asked me to work for free, claiming that they were giving me an opportunity. I think that if you consider your work worthless, it means you consider yourself worthless. If you offer me a job, it means that you recognize my talent, and this talent is worth something. Once I used to be puzzled by all this and wavered, especially when important people contacted me. But I was lucky enough to become an experienced blogger and spread my name all over the web at the same time as I developed my professional skills, so I became my own shop window. I have always been very resolute, it was natural for me, as if I was told not to drink anymore, not to breathe anymore.
I moved to Milan with a little money, in order to study at the Brera Academy. Although I was a teen and did not know many things, I immediately found a job because I had heard that in Brianza there was a workshop that created scenic designs for amusement parks. So I seized this opportunity and went there. The place was a run-down, deserted, extremely dirty warehouse and there was a life-size resin dinosaur that still needed to be painted. I stepped in and told the owner that I was looking for a job, and he answered - don’t you see there is no work to be done, there is nobody in here - and I answered - I do, but I have also seen a big mess - and he told me - do what you want -. And I started to clean, tidy, arrange colours… and continued for the whole day, and the day after at 8 a.m. I showed up once again and he asked me again: - what do you want? - and I replied - I have to finish my job... -. The following Friday, he asked me to paint the big dinosaur. I had never done anything like that, but he told me a very important thing: - don’t worry because if you make a mistake, there is always a solution - so I started to paint it, and I worked in this workshop for all the years I spent at the academy. At the age of twenty I had 15 employees to manage. I was the production manager. After obtaining a diploma in stage designing, I changed to planning. I started working for communication agencies and doing mock-ups, we used to build fake things before the coming of 3D, I had to build strange things that couldn’t be found anywhere. I gained experience in a theatrical costume shop at the Verona Arena where I learnt to create objects that could be detected from a distance of twenty metres. And I was asked by Moschino to create Spanish paper dresses: it was the beginning of a collaboration that led me to decorate Moschino’s shop windows for twelve years.
Then came the mystical crisis and I moved to Australia to work as a waitress. This was a crucial experience because my work had induced me to be always reserved towards people, I did not know humankind so well, and to work as a waitress allowed me to fill a gap, because when you deal with one/two hundreds people a day you learn to understand what people want as soon as they cross the door. So I developed a commercial side I didn’t know I had. 96 percent of the people that entered the door didn’t know why they were there, they didn’t know what they wanted to eat and it was me who told them! And I wondered: if I can sell a Brunello di Montalcino at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, why have I never managed to sell myself? And little by little, after a phone call from Moschino, I went back to Italy, went back to my job.
Now that I am well-centred, well-balanced, I have understood that all that has happened to me and that I have lived through has been useful. Failure, it doesn’t exist. What you call a failure, I call experience. Failure is a word that should be banished. Whoever meets me seems to know me already, because I am the one who has a different approach, and this is what people see. I have refined my analytic capabilities, this is important to me, I turn my face and look inside myself. If you know yourself better, you understand other people better, and this is really important to me because I only work on commission. My goal is not to do things for myself, I do things for other people, I am not attached to them, when I assemble and settle them they are no longer mine. I like caducity. The purpose of what I do is to communicate things, messages, which are more or less clear. Some people ask me to write down these messages, to clarify them, but I don’t want to, because communication takes place all the same, they are archetypes. We are so accustomed to be told what we should think... - Elena - people tell me - I want to know what you meant, because this is what should be thought -. It’s the result of years of indoctrination, they feel wrong if they do not think exactly the same things as the author. To cut paper is like a mantra to me. I cultivate patience because I have understood that it leads you to see things from a different point of view, so I choose to cut 2000 dragonflies by hand. When I look at my past works, I precisely remember which period I was going through. The slowness of a process, like the one of an embroidery, a mosaic, doing repetitive things makes you stop thinking about what you are doing, like yoga...