"She was enveloped in one of those long, Oriental gauze scarves that the alchemist dyer Mariano Fortuny submerges in the mysterious potions of his caldrons, stirring them with a wooden stick, first like a sylph, then like a gnome, where he obtains colours from strange dreams and later prints them with his thousands of new generations of stars, plants and animals." Gabriele D'Annunzio, Forse che si, forse che no (1910)
Up until seven or eight years ago Mariano Fortuny was mainly a beloved presence in the hearts and minds of researchers, historians, curators who fought to organise exhibitions about him, and selected art and fashion fans.
Though still open to visitors, his studio and workshop located in Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, in Venice, weren't visited by huge crowds of tourists, yet a considerable number of connoisseurs went there to learn more about the work and experimental techniques of this painter, inventor, photographer, and couturier, best known for his dress and textile designs.
Fashion is made of cycles, though, and Mariano Fortuny's gowns - mentioned in works by Marcel Proust and Gabriele D'Annunzio, and favoured by Eleonora Duse, Isadora Duncan, the Marchesa Casati, Lyda Borelli, Madame Conde Nast and later on also Peggy Guggenheim - first reappeared on Gloria Vanderbilt in a 1969 photo shoot by Richard Avedon for Vogue.
In 1997 they inspired Sandy Powell's costumes for the film The Wings of a Dove, while in 2009 Natalia Vodianova made the gowns fashionable again by opting for vintage Fortuny dresses at the British Fashion Awards and at the Met Costume Gala.
Margiela's Artisanal Line Spring/Summer 2014 collection featured shirts with panels made with Mariano Fortuny's fabric, while those who want to admire an original piece can currently do so at the exhibition "La Robe Retrouvée: Les Robes-Trésors de la Comtesse Greffulhe" (Fashion Regained: The Treasured Dresses of Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe") at Palais Galliera in Paris, that features a Fortuny bronze green silk jacket with gold prints.
The members of the wealthy elite who want to channel Mariano Fortuny's style shouldn't instead look further than Valentino's Haute Couture S/S 2016 collection. Creative Directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli conjured up indeed the ghost of Fortuny on the Valentino runway.
Models looked like solemn vestals in their floor-length hand-dyed velvet gowns (there were a couple of shorter and wide skirts that looked out of place and utterly unconvincing...) with metallic stencils in Fortuny's style inspired by birds or floral elements, or in their light and impalpable pleated dresses.
At times the design duo patchworked together strips of coloured fabrics and integrated them into kimono coats and dresses that recreated intricate tapestries.
The fascination with velvet - pleated, painted, and printed, washed and aged or knotted into a soft web that seemed to have been patiently built around the body of the model in just one piece - was directly inspired by Marcel Proust, who often mentioned Fortuny and the power of his gowns in his book Remembrance of Things Past.
Densely embroidered floor-sweeping coats and Oriental elements such as dragons on long kimono coats gave a touch of theatricality to the designs and echoed pieces originally donned by Fortuny's clients like the divine actress Eleonora Duse.
Despite the embroideries and the clever three-dimensional effects such as the cut out and reappliquéd brocade elements on a green velvet brocade gown, the collection wasn't about embellishments and decorative details, but about complex fabric treatments and luxurious imperfections like the velvet pieces almost crudely stitched onto a nude tulle dress.
The collection was therefore dedicated to all those wealthy customers who want to effortlessly combine elegance with simplicity to stunning effect.
The pieces weren't just inspired by Fortuny, though: the Venice-based company actually worked with Valentino to recreate some of their most iconic pieces and surfaces in their classic palette comprising mossy green, deep yellow, burnt orange, rich reds and subtle golds (though one section of the show was dedicated to pure white gowns), colours that Fortuny lifted from masters such as Titian and Tintoretto and from exotic places including China, Japan, Persia, Turkey, Northern Africa and Spain.
All the looks where accessorised with jewellery designs by Alessandro Gaggio and Harumi Klossowska (Balthus' daughter), who also made the gold snake headpieces coiling around the models' heads.
The keyword to unlock the collection was very simple though – freedom. Though a pseudo-Delphos gown matched with a mink-lined kimono should be filed under the "Marchesa Casati style" label, the designers were actually paying homage in their gowns to dancing muses liberated by Fortuny's light and liquid garments that emphasised body shape and movement, such as Isadora Duncan (see also the bare, bejewelled feet of the models decorated with a gold chain, walking on a runway on which leaves and petals were scattered).
The way the garments moved on the body pointed towards Loïe Fuller's choreographies in which she inflated and deflated the fabric manipulating air currents as if she were a butterfly, and towards Martha Graham's "Lamentation", with its choreography based on contractions and relaxations performed through a tube of fabric.
Dance was actually more literally referenced in the tutu-like tulle dresses at the very end of the catwalk show, some of them slightly reminiscent also of Margaret Morris' ethereal gowns.
So, what is it that still fascinates us about Fortuny's artistic legacy? To put it very simply, he was a modern man with an incredibly vivid mind.
Born in Granada, Spain, he grew up in Paris developing an interest for the world of theatres, and in particular for the theatrical applications of electricity, and for stage sets and decoration.
In the late 1880s, his family moved to Venice, where he continued his painting studies while developing further interests in photography and stage sets.
At the end of the 1890s he started exhibiting his paintings publicly, while designing scenes and costumes for operas, and working on stage lighting experiments with the help of the "Fortuny Dome", a concave device he had created that could be used to enhance the depth effect of the stage set.
In 1907 Fortuny produced his first item of clothing, the Knossos scarf that featured prints applied to it by means of wooden plates. Researches into fabrics continued and soon he developed a technique for printing on silk and velvet.
A few years later, in 1909, Fortuny registered a pleated silk fabric made with a machine he had invented; in the same year he patented a process for polychromatic printing on fabric and paper and, in November, he launched the Delphos Gown, a garment inspired by ancient Greek sculpture.
Fortuny's legacy (that continues to this day in the Giudecca factory and in his house in Venice) is vitally important for all these reasons, besides his gowns have proved the test of time: the aged effects in Valentino's S/S 16 designs were a way to add a patina of timelessness and memory (in honour of Proust...) to the collection.
There is one point to consider about these Haute Couture designs: while they do not add anything new to Valentino's current vocabulary, they reconfirm an interest from Chiuri and Piccioli's part in vestal (see the A/W 2015 Haute Couture collection) and priestesses' looks (remember the Medea inspired collection?), that may be a genuine interest or may be partially dictated by a commercial need to shift towards longer garments to appeal to Valentino's current owners (the Qatari royal family...).
Will the designers move on? Time will tell, but, for now, if you like the style but don't have enough money to afford it, you can still copy the looks and replicate them using Fortuny fabrics you will find in Venice (remember though that one metre may cost several hundreds euros, so you can maybe just opt for a notebook covered in sumptuous Fortuny fabrics that you can buy from the factory showroom on the Giudecca island).
One last question remains: Fortuny was born in 1871 and died in 1949, but the designs he's produced in the early decades of the 1900s are still fashionable in 2016, how can we even hope that what we are currently producing is so groundbreaking that will still be fashionable in 60 years' time?
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos