In the final section of Vanna Vinci's graphic novel La Casati, the author focuses on the last few years of the fabled Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957). Having dilapidated her fortune, Casati moved to London, where her daughter lived, and where she used to go around in a shabby fur coat, veiled hat, red hair, inseparable fake eyelashes and rings of black kohl around her eyes, looking like a haunting ghost of a glorious past that was no more.
Last Friday evening, rather than haunting the streets of the English capital, Casati appeared in her trademark London attire in a rather unlikely place, a room at the Grand Palais in Paris where Maison Margiela's A/W 2015 collection was showcased. The models impersonating Casati had an air of madness about them and at times they carried what looked like a paper bag under their arms.
The collection marked the return to Paris of Margiela's current Creative Director, John Galliano who showcased the house's Artisanal collection in January in London.
Despite the enthusiastic words of the fashion media, collectively engaged in praising Galliano as a reborn hero maybe to avoid losing Renzo Rosso's advertising money (Rosso is the president of Only the Brave, the company owning Margiela), the collection looked like a two-headed Janus, with one main difference. While the Roman god of beginnings and transitions looked to the past with one face and to the future with another, the collection was a mix of Galliano's romanticism and Margiela's conceptualism.
Chiffon slip dresses, pinstriped bustiers, lace frocks, taffeta skirts, patent finishes, ribbons on cropped trousers in the fashion of Galliano's beloved Incroyables, sequinned shirt dresses, velvet jackets, swimming caps in bright colours layered under wigs and neon make up and exaggerated eyelashes belonged to the former; long maxi coats and trenches, satin linings for pants, a pair of trousers with the seams left to fray, a dress worn back to front with Margiela's white label stitched on the outside, oversized bright orange leather gloves, Mary Janes with a thick architectural heel and "Cousin It"-like shoes covered in horsehair, pointed instead towards the latter. In a way it was a bit like a deconstructed vision of Galliano's romantic dreams, heroines and muses from his glorious '90s at Dior.
"An ephemeral muse returns…" said the show notes and, surely this was a reference to Casati who appeared in the past in Galliano's Spring/Summer 1998 and Autumn/Winter 2007-2008 Haute Couture collections for Dior.
What's interesting to note, though, is that, so far, Galliano always looked at the most extravagant and sensual aspects of Casati's life, at her passion for grandeur, bizarre fashion creations and expensive jewels or exotic pet animals. On the Margiela runway we saw instead the other side of the coin, the impoverished Casati after a life of excesses (a reference to Galliano's own life or to the fact that, like Casati, he is still an obnoxious kind of person?). That's understandable as Margiela's runway is more apt for dilapidated looks rather than Casati's trademark Venetian ensemble consisting of a fur coat, nothing underneath and a cheetah on a bejewelled leash. But somehow the story of Marchesa Casati as a muse makes you think: in her life Luisa Casati was indeed many things.
She was the lover of dandy, writer and poet Gabriele D'Annunzio; the muse of numerous artists - including Giovanni Boldini, Kees van Dongen, Augustus John, and the Futurists Giacomo Balla, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Fortunato Depero; she also organised magnificent balls and dinners populated at times by disturbing life-size wax replicas of herself and other guests (one nude catsuit that turned the body of a model into that of a mannequin rather than looking like a reference to Margiela's Stockman dummy bodices called to mind Casati's passion for these wax figures...); she was also a beautiful woman clad in creations by Mariano Fortuny, Paul Poiret and Léon Bakst. Apart from inspiring Galliano's collections for Dior, she also reappeared in Alexander McQueen (Spring/Summer 2007) and Karl Lagerfeld's (Chanel Cruise 2009-10) collections, turning from muse into trendsetter for many designers.
Scandalous Casati wanted to be a living work of art and not a role model and she managed to do so, living an eccentric life populated by the most extraordinary people (her path crossed with that of some of the most iconic figures from the 1900s including Serge Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Romain de Tirtoff (Erté), Man Ray and Cecil Beaton).
Quite often she blurred the boundaries between the masculine and the feminine; she lived in the name of absolute sexual freedom after she got legally separated from her husband in 1914; she was obnoxiously cruel, but also fiercely independent; she loved art and could be considered as a great collector, she therefore was not a passive but an active muse; and, last but not least, she firmly disrespected all kind of rules, following her heart rather than her head.
Luisa Casati was buried in Brompton Cemetery, the epitaph on her gravestone, taken from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, read "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety". If you want to know more about Casati's "infinite variety" and you happen to be in Venice, you have a final chance today to see the exhibition "La Divina Marchesa" (The Divine Marchesa) at Palazzo Fortuny. The event includes paintings by Giovanni Boldini, Alberto Martini, Augustus Edwin John, Ignacio Zuloaga, Romaine Brook and Beltran-Masses among the others; sculptures by Jacob Epstein, Paolo Troubetzkoy and Sarah Lipska; photographs by Adolph De Meyer, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton plus modern shoots by Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi, but also jewels and fashion designs by Galliano and Lagerfeld.
Sadly, despite being a living work of art, an extraordinarily extravagant woman and many other things as you may clearly understand if you see this exhibition, Casati left on the runways a legacy limited to two kinds of women: the sensual vamp (Dior's S/S 1998) or the decadent dark nutcase (Margiela's A/W 15), while Galliano - currently considered as the unlikely perfect candidate for the Margiela job - doesn't seem to have grown up or evolved, but looks like he is re-creating and re-contextualising his previous exotically decadent muses and mainly producing clothes that Kate Moss may want wear.
Galliano should maybe leave behind Casati & Co, and look for further inspiring women (he may start his research from the many interesting stories he will find in the news today, International Women's Day): if he did so, he would discover many new muses and strong modern heroines who would prompt him to design genuinely innovative looks and fewer useless clothes.
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