Rome wasn't built in a day, but the same can be said about Italian fashion. Yet what we do know very well about the latter is that a specific date - 12th February 1951 - marks the birth of "Made in Italy" fashion. On that very day, businessman Marchese Giovanni Battista "Bista" Giorgini called to his villa in Florence several Italian designers, among them Jole Veneziani, Simonetta, Fabiani, Emilio Pucci and the Fontana Sisters, and invited prominent buyers from American stores, and the foreign fashion press to see their work. France had until then reigned supreme in the fashion industry, and, while fear and tension must have been tangible presences among the new designers, the Italians showed they had worked hard to develop their own style and quality and managed to wow their audience.
That event brought Italy on the international fashion stage, but there had already been a beacon of light a couple of years earlier: in 1949 the Fontana Sisters had created the wedding gown for Linda Christian's wedding to Tyrone Power. The dress, with its impossibly long train, became a genuine symbol of hope and rebirth in Italy's post-war years.
Though working in Rome, the three sisters were all born in Traversetolo, a village located roughly 18 km from Parma. Zoe was born in 1911, Micol in 1913 and Giovanna in 1915. All the women in the family had been dressmakers for almost two centuries, and the girls soon joined the tradition working all together in their mother Amabile's shop.
Zoe was the first one to move to Rome after she married, followed a month later by her sisters. Together they opened their first studio in 1943, becoming popular among the ladies of the aristocracy who occasionally modelled for them grand and glamorous designs inspired by the monuments and fountains of Rome or by specific artists and artworks.
After the war, the Italian capital became "the Hollywood on the Tiber" the favourite shooting location of many American directors: when they weren't working in Cinecittà, divas would spend their time in the local ateliers to get their wardrobes revamped or visited them to find a special gown for prestigious events such as the Venice Film Festival. The Fontana Sisters soon started catering for this international clientele that included among the others Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Joan Fontaine and Kim Novak.
In 1952 Audrey Hepburn, in town to shoot Roman Holiday, stopped at the Fontana Sisters to have her trousseau and wedding dress made. In the end the wedding didn't take place and the dress was given to a young employee who wore it for her own wedding.
In the same year Luciano Emmer shot inside the Fontana atelier overlooking Piazza di Spagna the film Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna (Three Girls from Rome). After the film, Micol chose three models as ambassadresses and together their toured various cities in the States, including New York and San Francisco, to promote the Fontana style.
In the meantime the link between the atelier and cinema strengthened: the Fontanas created sketches for a movie with Marylin Monroe (that in the end was never made) and a few costumes for films, including the grand gowns donned by Ava Gardner in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the dresses for Ursula Andress in Elio Petri's La decima vittima.
Michelangelo Antonioni featured instead Fontana gowns in the catwalk show in his film Le amiche. One ballgown in black velvet and a deep flounce of white satin at the bottom with heavy contrasting embroidery in white (called "Nodi d'amore" - "Love Knots") was specifically created for this film.
For The Barefoot Contessa the atelier developed thirty designs and, from then on, Gardner ordered every year the same number of new dresses from the Fontana atelier for her own wardrobe.
This link between Gardner and the sisters developed into a very special friendship with Micol who turned into personal costume designer for four further films (including Henry King's The Sun Also Rises) and became the confidante of the actress: Gardner would often tell her about her private life with husband Frank Sinatra and her love stories like the one with Italian actor Walter Chiari that lasted just one year.
When she was invited to Grace Kelly's wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco, Gardner chose two dresses on Micol Fontana's advice, a grey and white damasked design for the church ceremony, and a dress in a mother-of-pearl nuance covered in delicate embrodieries of petals for the reception.
Gardner was also an exceptional model during some of the Fontana shows and a muse for the sisters. They created for her a tailored black redingote cassock dress with red piping modelled on the garb of a Roman Catholic priest (voluptuous Anita Ekberg donned a similar version of the dress in Fellini's film La Dolce Vita).
The design was dubbed "pretino" dress (literally "little priest" dress) and, a few years ago, Micol explained me in an email interview: "The little priest dress was created in 1956, it was the result of a sort of combination between creativity, friendship with Ava Gardner and respect for the religious institutions. My sisters and I - all faithful practicing Catholics - asked the authorities the permission to design the dress and the Vatican approved it. Their positive answer filled us with pride and gratitude."
Relations with the Vatican strengthened the following year: in July 1957 the sisters were received by Pope Pius XII to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their mother Amabile's dressmaking shop. It was the first time ever a fashion house with its artisans, dressmakers and storemen was admitted to an audience with the Pope.
The Fontanas entered history as they used all forms of lacework and embroidery for their dresses reintroducing the use of rare yarns, raffia (using it also for knitting) and other plant fibres, or calling artists such as Accardi, Scarpitta and Nuvolo to design fabrics for their models. Their elegant style was loved by many women all over the world and Neiman Marcus always managed to secure for its clients the latest Fontana designs.
During the heydays of the fashion house, Micol became known as "the travelling dressmaker" or "the American sister", since she was the keenest of the three to travel and often embarked with her models in tours that reached Russia, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Melbourne and Sydney.
Famous for their wedding dresses gowns including the ones donned by Harry S Truman's daughter Margaret and by Janet Jennings Auchincloss Rutherford, half-sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the house diversified moving from Haute Couture to ready-to-wear in the '60s, and producing also shoes, handbags and men's ties.
As the years passed, the Fontanas also supplied the first uniforms for Alitalia stewardesses, and produced designs for the UN hostesses, for several banks and for other airlines including Air Canada and Air Zaïre.
The house eventually closed down, Zoe died in 1979 and Giovanna in 2004. Vowing to preserve the history of the Fontana house and of Italian fashion, in 1994 Micol Fontana established a Foundation in her name that preserves designs, sketches, embroideries and accessories, plus a library and a photographic archive.
In 1996 Micol received the honorary title of "Cavaliere di Gran Croce" (Knight of the Grand Cross) by the then President of the Republic Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. In the last few years the Micol Fontana Foundation developed workshops about fashion, competitions for schools and special projects for fashion design students.
The Italian state TV channel Rai dedicated a fiction to the three sisters in 2011 and, in 2013, Rome Mayor Roberto Marino celebrated with Micol Fontana her 100th birthday in the Esedra del Marco Aurelio hall at the Capitoline Museums where a few of the most iconic Fontana designs were also exhibited for the occasion. Micol died last Friday at 101, she is survived by three nephews and three nieces.
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