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The designer who freed the female body

He was a visionary couturier who blazed a trail with his beautiful, daring dresses. Cath Pound explores the life and work of Fortuny, beloved by Marcel Proust and supermodels alike.

There are few fashion designers from the early decades of the 20th Century whose creations could be worn today without resembling fancy dress. The notable exception is Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. When the model Natalia Vodianova donned one of his Delphos gowns for the Met Gala, she looked effortlessly contemporary – yet the finely-pleated shift with its origins in ancient Greek sculpture had made its first appearance a century earlier.

His fashions, “faithfully antique but markedly original”, in the words of Marcel Proust – who immortalised them in Remembrance of Things Past – are undoubtedly his lasting legacy. Yet Fortuny was in fact an exceptional talent in late 19th-and-early-20th-Century design, whose skills extended into painting, etching, photography and ground-breaking stage design.

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Fortuny’s unique artistic vision derived in large part from an upbringing in which he was surrounded by the collections of his late father, the celebrated Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, who died when Fortuny was only three years old. Fortuny y Marsal was deeply enamoured of the cultures the Orient and the Middle East, cultures for whom the concept of change often did not exist until the arrival of European colonisers.

“The revolutions of the artistic avant-garde left him indifferent”, says Daniela Ferretti, director of the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, which is celebrating the designer on the 70th anniversary of his death. “It is in these fragments of the past that he searched for his ideal of beauty.”

But his desire to reinterpret the past was combined with a profoundly modern understanding of the function and possibilities of technology, which bore fruit both in his stunningly original textile designs and also in his work for the stage. In all his endeavours he blended art and technology with science and craftsmanship, giving him a unique ability to understand and control the entire creative process from raw material to finished product.

He was fascinated with electricity and the use of it, especially for his work as a stage designer. In an era when gas illumination was standard, his creation of an indirect electric lighting system – that could mimic the natural effects of daylight – revolutionised the experience of theatre goers, and was even installed in the legendary Milanese opera house La Scala.

Daringly body hugging, the gowns first gained approval from those in the artistic milieu

His move to Venice, a city in which a palpable sense of nostalgia and flavour of the Orient still lingered, had strengthened Fortuny’s appreciation of the past, and in the Palazzo degli Orfei, now the Palazzo Fortuny, he was able to put his ideals into practice. As he gradually took over the entire building and restored the architecture that had been altered by generations of previous tenants, “it became the labyrinthine machine in which Fortuny could construct the representation of his own ideal of beauty between art and life, reality and fiction”, says Ferretti.

Integral to this ideal was Henriette Nigrin, a young women who he had met in Paris, and who would become his life partner. She shared his aesthetic and “contributed with sensitivity and intelligence to the success of the textile atelier”, says Ferretti.

It was Nigrin who would print Fortuny’s Knossos scarves, his first foray into the world of fashion, which had been inspired by the excavations of the Palace of Knossos on Crete and the vast array of decorative motifs this brought to light.

She was also responsible for the design of the Delphos gown which debuted in 1909. Its name derived from the bronze statue of the Charioteer of Delphi whose tunic had a cut and mechanism for adjusting the sleeve very similar to the patent Fortuny filed, in which he took care to give Henriette her due credit. The distinctive fine pleats, whose method of creation remains a tantalising mystery, were possibly inspired by 6th-Century Greek statues known as Korai of which Fortuny had a large number of illustrations in his collection.

‘Inspired son of Venice’

The silk that Fortuny and Nigrin used was dipped in a dye bath multiple times, enriching the colour of the fabric, which fluctuated according to light and movement. The edges of the dress were then finished off with strings of small Venetian beads that served both as ornament and to weigh the dress down, giving it its distinctive drape.

Daringly body hugging, in an era when rigid corsetry was still very much the norm, the gowns first gained approval from those in the artistic milieu – including actress Sarah Bernhardt and dancer Isadora Duncan – who could afford to ignore convention. After a much talked-about exhibition of Fortuny’s work at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1911, fashionable upper-class Parisians, in thrall to his highly original vision, also threw caution to the wind and adapted his creations.

As he expanded his range, the paintings of Botticelli, Titian and Carpaccio provided inspiration for the shapes, colours and motifs which he then developed into luxurious velvet jackets, overcoats, mantels and cloaks. Although simple in design, the dyes and pigments he created in his laboratory gave the velvets a mysterious iridescent, transparent quality which turned them into wearable works of art.

In Remembrance of Things Past, the erotic nature of the gowns is associated with the narrator’s lover Albertine

It was the timeless beauty of such garments which drew the attention of Proust. “What fascinates him is the ability to transform fragments of the past into contemporary creations capable of linking, past, present and future,” says Ferretti.

Fortuny is the only real-life artist who appears in Remembrance of Things Past, and his robes and capes are used as a leitmotif throughout the novels. The erotic nature of the gowns is associated with the narrator’s lover Albertine – he has purchased several of the dresses for her, on the advice of the elegant Duchesse de Guermantes who also wears them.

Their designs and colours evoke the Venetian art that so often served Fortuny as inspiration, and in doing so remind the narrator of a city which for him represents liberation, art and the potential for creative rebirth.

In one extract Proust describes how “that inspired son of Venice” had taken the idea of a velvet cape from a Carpaccio painting “in order to drape it over the shoulders of so many Parisian women”.

As the century progressed, women in the US would also fall for the eternal elegance of his designs, with the Delphos gown adopted by Hollywood stars such as Lillian Gish in the 1920s. Their appeal was still strong in the 1940s when Rita Hayworth came to the Palazzo degli Orfei in search of her own, although it seems that the designer, who was unenamoured of the star, told his sales assistant to say that there were none available.

Production ceased in the 1950s but collectors such as Gloria Vanderbilt reinvigorated interest in the 1960s. Lauren Bacall looked stunning in a deep red Delphos gown at the 1979 Oscars, and Natalia Vodianova has shown that it can still be worn in the 21st Century.

Fortuny took the secrets of his ingenious pleating and dying processes to the grave, so there will be no more Delphos gowns. But for those lucky enough to own one, it is likely that at some point in the future their granddaughters will be wearing them too – creating their own remembrance of things past while radiating timeless elegance in the present.

Fortuny: A Family Story is at the Fortuny Palace, Venice, until 24 November 2019.

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