Been there, done that
By Magda Pescariu
At the beginning of fall I was the lucky recipient of an invite to a coveted premiere. Eighty-one years after the French absolute début and fifty-nine years after the Romanian first showing of the Enescu’s Œdipe opera, a modern and unconventional vision was in hush-hush works for the Opening Gala of the Enescu International Classical Music Festival’s 2017 Edition in Bucharest. It proved to be the opera’s concert version, played by London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, staged with live multimedia projections – a majestic performance I have tremendously enjoyed. Still bubbling with enthusiasm the morning after, I called my dear friend in Westlake Village – a classical music lover and opera connoisseur – to share with her the remarkable experience and comment on the dramatic avant-garde details.
She was deeply touched by my call, as I brought up with my recount one of the most beautiful parts of her past. My friend has been a ballerina for the Romanian Opera until she defected from the communist dictatorship to the States, in the late 1970s. So when I told her about the endearing terms used in the press conference preceding the show to describe the original premiere, her voice teared up. “I was there, you know”, she said. “I was on stage at the Œdipe’s first Romanian performance in 1958 – a young ballerina aspiring to greatness and dreaming of success. I can’t believe that fifty-nine years have passed since then…Where does the time go?” That opened a whole new conversation, as we commiserated about another year circling the drain, a year with as many anniversaries as commemorations, in life and fashion alike.
We talked about Laura Biagiotti’s passing away at the end of May, and reminisced with nostalgia the years we’ve known her and worked with her, bringing the reputable Italian brand to Westlake Village, in our fashion store. A university literature student dreaming of becoming an archaeologist, Laura Biagiotti had in fact become one of the most famous Italian designers in the world, decidedly one of the female Italian designers who have changed fashion forever.
Devoted to elegant simplicity, soft tailoring and flattering, comfortable clothes, she was “The Queen of Cashmere” and a pioneer of styles bespoke for contemporary working women, too often limited to use only one item from morning till evening. Laura Biagiotti created and recreated “a dress for when you want to be yourself”. And if this credo may seem matter-of-course today, it was quite revolutionary four decades ago, particularly when it was stated worldwide, China and Russia included. She brought the Italian fashion industry to the other side of the world, being the first Italian designer to present a collection in China (1988) and to stage the first ever fashion show within the sacrosanct Kremlin halls (1995), both to a hungry and jubilant reception.
Laura Biagiotti has always regarded her designs as fit for a modern, self-confident and business-aware woman, being sensible toward simple, minimalist shape carried in luxury fabrics. This mainstream elegance defined the place in Biagiotti’s work where her European devotion for fine materials met the American flair for practicality, as in separates, sportswear, menswear influences, and standard prototypes for clothing. Faithful to the ‘ready-to-wear’ concept literally, she liked me for trying on the Biagiotti designs I considered (before ordering them for the fashion store I was running), for walking in them, standing, sitting, and making sure that each model was comfortable, practical, flattering for any shape and silhouette.
The simple fact that I had lunch with this woman a few times over the years, usually in a cozy restaurant near Biagiotti Show-Room in Milan or in their small apartment’s kitchenette upstairs, and chatted spiritedly with her and her daughter, Lavinia, about the runway show we’ve attended the day before, about the significance of wardrobe builders vs. dramatic outfits, about how to take good care of expensive garments under the dry-clean-only ultimatum, or about who served the best pasta con salmone fresco in Milan and Rome, seems to me a miracle in hindsight, sweet and surreal as miracles always are.
Staying close to the world of Italian fashion designers in remembering 2017, we can’t overlook the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace’s inexplicable assassination, this year in July. In the same vein of liberating the human spirit and body by fully embracing one’s personality and sexuality, of living the social contradictions with courage and a healthy dose of egotism, Gianni Versace has been one of the fashion giants of the 20th century. He merged vulgarity with style, and transformed the basic elements taken from the ordinary, the sleazy, the extreme, and the fearlessness, into culturally meaningful fashion, with unprecedented results.
Versace was the first one to understand that fashion must mingle with celebrity, vitality, sexuality, as well as with the media and performing arts. Flamboyant and larger-than-life, a designer of encyclopedic knowledge with an unconventional taste for self-promotion, Versace focused on extreme styling of sumptuous and radiant fabrics, for an invincible woman – Amazonian, beautifully sassy and free to dare, real and uncompromising, ready to aptly command a rich and baroque lifestyle.
Much of what we take for granted today when it comes to fashion scene – the media omnipresence; the obscenely expensive ad campaigns; the star-studded front rows and the headline-generating celebrity happenings; the use of music, media, and the spectacle of contemporary urban life – are his absolute innovations. Versace’s circle of friends included Elton John, Madonna, Sting, Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon, to name just a few. And I mean close, true friends, not today’s A-listers exceedingly paid just to attend and mingle. He saw fashion as another contemporary art and all-embracing, and it was his sheer genius that linked fashion and culture inextricably.
With a prophetic sense of history, Versace crystallized the Supermodel concept at the finale of his Fall-Winter 1991 show. Following the advice of Liz Tilberis, the then editor of British Vogue, he decided, for the first time, to employ for the runway the same models he featured in his powerful advertising campaigns (usually shot by Richard Avedon), all together, to bring maximum star quality and power to the fashion show. In what is known today as “a Fashion moment of biblical proportions”, the Versace show’s climactic finale brought in step Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, wearing red, black and yellow baby-doll cocktail dresses and lip-synching along to George Michael’s Freedom! ’90, to a frenzied crowd reduced to absolute silence. Never before and, unfortunately, never since have we witnessed runway models expressing such level of emotion, such aliveness, such happiness.
Looking back to this explosion of vitality, glamour and passion, we find it to be not only Versace-brand defining, but absolutely era defining, which helps us understand Gianni Versace as the outstanding visionary in fashion history he truly was. Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, concluded it best: “Nobody murders a dressmaker. Envious fools kill culture-makers – those who make the brilliant, incisive gestures for society”.
On the bright side of 2017 fashion sphere, Calvin Klein, another forerunner of innovative garments in the 20th century, celebrated his 75th anniversary. One of the America’s most loved designers for his minimalist all-American style and widely known for launching countless glorious careers, Calvin Klein changed for all time the way we relate to our undies, through his controversial early-90s underwear ads featuring models, actors and rock-stars.
Who doesn’t remember the (in)famous series of print ads, shot by legendary Herb Ritts in 1992, that introduced Mark Wahlberg (of Marky Mark fame) and newcomer Kate Moss presenting with teenage spite the boxer briefs and matching couple lingerie? The hybrid of boxer shorts and briefs created by John Varvatos during his stint as CK’s head of menswear design have been called “one of the greatest apparel revolutions of the century” and earned Calvin Klein ‘America’s Best Designer’ title in 1993.
We’ve never thought the same about our lingerie ever since. As we’ve never thought the same about our jeans either. The lasting power of CK jeans ad shot by Richard Avedon, with a minor Brooke Shields asking us Lolita-style, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing”, cautioned us about how the 1990s and the next century were going to be.
I cannot end my browsing the 2017 anniversaries without a respectful nod to Vogue, who celebrated its 125th anniversary in September – two lifetimes of imparting wisdom, giving sound fashion advice, setting trends, making anonymous people famous, and validating celebrities. With the magazine’s qualified help we’ve come to be today powerful and liberated women, completely at peace with our personality, resilient and involved. We forget it hasn’t always been like that. The onset of this change was surprised by Peter Lindberg in a candid photo-shooting for the American Vogue, on a Malibu beach, in 1988. The hottest models of the day, dressed only in white shirts, were captured in black and white while giggling playfully together, all serene, alive and kicking. The photo signaled the birth of the Supermodels, those who – two years later – will be photographed by the same Peter Lindberg for the iconic Vogue cover that changed forever the idea of what a woman was.
Oftentimes when we talk about our past, we tend to say “been there, done that” with uncouthly veiled superiority, regardless of the subject. Always in a rush and on the go, we do not ponder on the past, rarely weigh in its merits, and take for granted the heritage passed onto us in any area of expertise. What we forget to say (or don’t even think about) is that in finding our place in the world, only because they’ve been there, we’ve done that. Only by standing on the shoulders of those who paved our way to greatness, we can see further, be better, inhabit grace. What’s past is prologue, they say. I can only hope for the year that is getting ready to become your past, to set in motion for you a truly blessed and inspired New Year 2018!