December 7, 2012 6:00 pm

Still making dress sense

A new exhibition celebrates the enduring legacy of the Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny
Various kimono designs and fabrics used by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo©Mick Riad

Various kimono designs and fabrics used by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

When it comes to iconic party dresses, there are few silhouettes to rival the one created by Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871–1949). His 1907 one-piece, silk-pleated long dress, inspired by Greek statuary and dubbed the Delphos, still looks modern more than a century after its creation.

A new show at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York, Fortuny y Madrazo: An Artistic Legacy (until March 30 2013), demonstrates how Fortuny not only expanded the fashion lexicon with his gowns but launched a technical revolution in cloth.

Detail on the Peplos dress©Museo del Traje, Madrid

Detail on the Peplos dress

The exhibit focuses on the Delphos dress, which was based on the pleated skirt and draped top worn by the standing Charioteer of Delphi, the 5th-century BC bronze statue excavated in 1896 at Delphi’s Sanctuary of Apollo, and its sister the Peplos (with an added pleated over-blouse). To produce this Hellenic effect in a columnar dress, Fortuny invented a process for permanent pleats by moistening the fabric, pleating by hand, and fixing them permanently through heated ceramic cylinders – though the secret intricacies of the procedure died with him.

After several dips in the dye vat, the dresses, no two colours alike, were edged with silk cords to make the styles adjustable, and weighted with Murano glass beads. In the exhibition, more than 30 pleated garments, ranging in shades from pastels to jewel tones, flow down to the floor like fanned-out petals. Each is paired with a sumptuous jacket or light cloak, many in velvet printed with metallic pigments and inspired by Fortuny’s study of historic costumes, like the Islamic abaya or tunics from Coptic culture with decorative designs.

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To contextualise Fortuny’s cultural heritage, the exhibit traces his Spanish roots back through three generations of artists, the two oldest of which were directors of the Museo del Prado; Fortuny’s father was the Catalan artist Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, who died at just 36. Fortuny’s mother moved her family to Venice, where, as a Spaniard in a foreign city, her son emerged as one of the leading innovators of 20th-century art and design. Venice, then the crossroads of ancient and ornate European and Moorish civilisations, provided the perfect setting.

While Fortuny is renowned for his clothes and textiles, the directors of the exhibition, Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park, have carefully integrated references to his theatrical and lighting designs, another passion. “He created the quarter-spherical Fortuny Dome, a system of indirect stage lighting,’’ they explain, “that suffused the stage with both light and colour, and this modulation of light was also important in his photography, particularly when relating to his fashions.”

Mrs William Wetmore modelling a Delphos gown in front of Fortuny fabric in 1935©Condé Nast Publications

Mrs William Wetmore modelling a Delphos gown in front of Fortuny fabric in 1935

In addition to the designer’s artworks the exhibition includes numerous photographs, for which Fortuny patented his own carbon-based paper. One shot, a rear view of a model in a clinging Delphos, juxtaposed against another of a curvaceous nude seen from the back, shows how little the look left to the imagination. Indeed, the photography works with the fashion to demonstrate just how revolutionary Fortuny’s style was for the time.

Thus Fortuny’s 1920 photograph of his wife and collaborator, Henriette Negrín, posing en plein air next to a Florentine fountain wearing her Delphos under a decorated kimono-style wrap, chronicles the moment when the dresses, originally accepted only as tea gowns to be worn at home, emerged in public, ultimately evolving into such popular evening gowns that Marcel Proust used them to clothe his characters.

It’s easy to understand why: from the splendour of a rust silk tunic over a cerise Peplos or an aqua cloak over an apricot Delphos, the clothes recall a palazzo drawing room at the height of an elegant soirée, a swirl of luminous colours and silky textures that can only be described as the most gorgeous gala in town.

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Bringing Vionnet back

Surprisingly, given the power of the name, Fortuny is one of the few famous early 20th-century brands not to have been revived in recent years as a fully-fledged fashion house, writes David Hayes.

A demi-couture Vionnet dress, s/s 2013©Catwalking

A demi-couture Vionnet dress, s/s 2013

Such fashion renaissances are often a complicated proposition. Vionnet, the house originally founded by one of Fortuny’s contemporaries, is set for yet another reinvention under a new owner: Kazakh businesswoman Goga Ashkenazi.

Madeleine Vionnet set up her own fashion house in 1912. Like Fortuny, she was influenced by ancient Greece, creating gowns cut on the bias. Vionnet closed at the start of the second world war, but her work has been a major influence on designers ever since.

In 2006 Arnaud de Lummen revived the house with Sophia Kokosalaki at the helm. Matteo Marzotto, former chief executive of Valentino and Gianni Castiglioni, and chief executive of Marni, bought the brand in early 2009 and installed former Prada designer Rudy Paglialunga – only for him to be replaced by Barbara and Lucia Croce in October 2011. They left last August and Ashkenazi took over. Keeping up? Despite having no formal fashion training, she has an in-house team and big plans.

“I’m pouring money, heart and soul into Vionnet. It’s my passion,” says Ashkenazi. “Madeleine Vionnet remains an inspiration for the fashion industry today and is a huge inspiration for me.”

To add to the existing store in Milan, a Paris opening is planned for 2013 with further boutiques in Asia to follow. The label will continue to show at Paris Fashion Week as well as showcasing a “demi-couture” line at the couture shows in January.

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