Italian fashion through the ages, PART 1
Simon Gage relives La Dolce Vita as he previews a major exhibition of Italian style and fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum
â€œThis is absolutely not a fetish thing,â€ laughs Enrico Quinto, an extremely attractive gay man from Italy â€“ 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 womenâ€™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&Aâ€™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.
â€œFor me itâ€™s about nostalgia,â€ he explains when I ask why a man would be so fixated on womenâ€™s fashion. â€œThereâ€™s nothing sexual but a lot of nostalgia. I get mesmerised by images of the past. Itâ€™s a work of art. Thatâ€™s what I see when I look at a dress. Iâ€™m actually very masculine in liking dresses. I do like very structured coats or suits more than pink things and lace. Iâ€™m not drawn to that.â€
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.
â€œItaly really came into its own with ready-to-wear,â€ he says. â€œIn Italy we have a more obvious understatement in our taste and our lifestyle so we need comfortable, easygoing clothes. Itâ€™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.â€
And being sexy. Which is what drew movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner, who would be filming in Romeâ€™s answer to Hollywood, the CinecittÃ studio, to the doors of local couturiers.
While in Rome, we drop in â€“ like Elizabeth Taylor used to do, just knocking on the door â€“ at the atelier of the Fontana sisters, or Sorelle Fontana. Itâ€™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 CinecittÃ , 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.