SIMON GAGE RELIVES LA DOLCE VITA AS HE PREVIEWS A MAJOR EXHIBITION OF ITALIAN STYLE AND FASHION AT THE VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM
Living - and wearing - la dolce vita
“This is absolutely not a fetish thing,” laughs Enrico Quinto, an extremely attractive gay Italian – think George Clooney without any of the puffiness - from his lavish apartment just across the Tiber from all the proper good stuff in Rome.
Enrico is a collector of Italian fashion, mainly women’s, and his extensive, priceless collection, numbering more than 6,000 pieces and stored in a warehouse down the road, forms the backbone of the V&A’s sumptuous exhibition, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, which opens on 5 April.
Days before we chat, Enrico has hosted a reception at that lavish apartment just across the Tiber for journalists (including myself being very sensible with the champagne) and people very high up at the V&A where his enthusiasm for the subject is laid bare.
Apart from mannequins everywhere kitted out in Italian (and some French) fashion where most people would have artworks, he has a rail of priceless Italian couture spanning the last decades of the 20th century. Just seeing him holding the dresses, showing them, talking about them is the very definition of enthusiast.
“For me it’s about nostalgia,” he explains when I ask why a man would be so fixated on women’s fashion. “There’s nothing sexual but a lot of nostalgia. I get mesmerised by images of the past. It’s a work of art. That’s what I see when I look at a dress. I’m actually very masculine in liking dresses. I do like very structured coats or suits more than pink things and lace. I’m not drawn to that.”
The V&A exhibition, sponsored by jewellers Bulgari, whose incredible Elizabeth Taylor emerald necklace is one of the stars of the show, traces Italian fashion from a time when it was very much in the shadow of Paris, producing textiles more than finished clothes, to a period where it was famed for its sexiness and its wearability. Enrico has the whole story down.
“Italy really came into its own with ready-towear,” he says. “In Italy we have a more obvious understatement in our taste and our lifestyle so we need comfortable, easygoing clothes. It’s maybe not as sophisticated or imaginative as the French were doing, but for many years our success was that we had a more common sense approach to fashion: the idea of looking good but being comfortable.”
And being sexy. Which is what drew movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner, who would be filming in Rome’s answer to Hollywood, the Cinecittà studio, to the doors of local couturiers.
While in Rome, we drop in – like Elizabeth Taylor used to do, just knocking on the door – at the atelier of the Fontana sisters, or Sorelle Fontana. It’s now the Micol Fontana Foundation showcasing the work these three ordinary sisters from Traversetolo near Parma did for everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Ursula Andress back in the glory days of La Dolce Vita.
La Dolce Vita, that giddy time in the 60s that took its name from the Fellini film, which was shot on the streets of Rome and just up the road at Cinecittà, was an era of paparazzi (the term was invented by the film), Hollywood movie stars, sports cars, dark glasses, jumping into the Trevi Fountain, glamour, major jewellery and, of course, fashion.
Just a teeter across the cobbles from the Spanish Steps from the Sorelle Fontana atelier is DalCo’, the high-end female-owned shoe makers where the cobblers are still at work in a tiny, gluestinking atelier filled with the lasts of the rich and famous, a few doors down.
Still a thriving business making hand-made shoes at a fraction of the price you’d pay for an off-the-shelf number with red soles, DalCo’ whipped up exquisite footwear for the likes of Bridget Bardot, pictured in the tiny boutique holding up a dangerously high-heeled shoe. They had a contract with Valentino, making all his shoes, and have donated a pair of boots – Edwardian-looking in suede and patent leather – made for Princess Lee Radziwell, the society queen sister of Jackie O to the V&A exhibition.
La Dolce Vita was a giddy time in Rome, one that the city has never really moved on from. It can’t quite seem to get over the idea of Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner running around in sexy, figurehugging outfits designed by the Sorelle Fontana and Fernanda Gattinoni, who also designed the costumes for Audrey Hepburn in King Vidor’s War and Peace - one of which appears in the exhibition - single-handedly bringing back the empire line, and Albertina, whose knitted coats (so 60s and yet so now!) are still available in a funny old-fashioned boutique over on the Via Lazio.
Designers like Gattinoni, who made dresses for Princess Diana, still kits out the super-rich to this day: in the upstairs workrooms hand-made wedding dresses costing tens of thousands of Euros take shape where Elizabeth Taylor’s bum used to be padded and where Ingrid Bergman was brought for fittings by her lover Roberto Rosselini. And though these little artisans, most of them with samples of their work not only in the V&A exhibition but in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art, are still going concerns, the big, bad machine of Italian fashion is very much in Milan these days and has been for years.
Bulgari, however, which was acquired by that fashion behemoth LVMH a few years back, is still proudly Roman, with the impossibly glamorous Creative Director Lucia Silvestri working at a table laden with priceless jewels at Bulgari HQ right by the Tiber and workshops setting stones by hand on the outskirts of town.
So, where do gay men fit into this Italian fashion industry seemingly run by women?
“Versace brought his sexuality into his fashion but the others were very reserved,” says Enrico, who has a bit of a soft spot for Versace and for fellow gay designers Dolce & Gabbana. “Their clients were more straight than gay,” he goes on. “Which is interesting because their aesthetic is definitely more gay than straight.”
The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945- 2014, sponsored by Bulgari, runs from 5 April – 27 July at the V&A. Tickets now available at vam.ac.uk/italianfashion.
THIS PAGE FROM LEFT: ENRICO QUINTO; MISSONI 2003; MILA SCHöN EVENING DRESS 1966