A perennial fashion question is whether male designers really like women. Some clearly do. In Wim Wenders’s splendid 1989 documentary about Yohji Yamamoto, Notebook on cities and clothes, the Japanese designer speaks direct to camera about how, through his design, he is asking women “How can I help you?”. Yves Saint Laurent made similar comments in interviews and is remembered now as the designer who made trousers for women widely acceptable as a glamourous option, not just workwear.
It is a strong theme in Peacock and Vine, A.S. Byatt’s eloquent and beautiful book about the work of William Morris and Mario Fortuny: both designers were powerfully inspired by the women in their lives. The two make an interesting contrast. Morris, a left-leaning Brit, was inspired to create stunningly beautiful applied arts by a childhood of forest-exploration that led to a lifelong love of nature. Fortuny, an aristocratic Spaniard, whose family moved to Venice because of his childhood asthma, derived his natural inspiration from light and its reflection and refraction.
Any fashion fan will associate Fortuny with the Delphos gown – the sublimation into apparel of light itself through a still-undiscovered silk pleating technique that caresses the female curve, flattering and highlighting as the light hits it. The gowns still occasionally come up for auction and are as wearable today as they were when they were first patented in 1909. What is really fascinating in this book is the insight into the scope of Fortuny’s amazingly inventive mind: textiles and clothing were just one aspect of a range of art, craft and technological skill focused almost obsessively on capturing and transmitting light.
There were other influences too. Greek mythology and archaeology influenced the classical and sculptural style of the Delphos gown. Fortuny’s travel in Greece and North Africa inspired painted and etched patterns in velvet and silk featuring lush forests of leaves, fruits and flowers. These are the exotic counterparts to Morris’s very British honeysuckles, thrushes and willows.
The women? Morris’s story was a sad one. He is said to have commented of his beloved wife, Jane, “I cannot paint you, but I love you”. Jane loved Morris’s contemporary and sometime collaborator, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the two conducted an open affair, causing Morris great pain. Fortuny’s marriage to Henriette came later in his life (due to family disapproval) but seems to have been happier and more stable, Henriette working alongside him in the workshop. His mother, Cecilia de Madrazo came from a family of artists and architects and amassed an enviable collection of antique textiles. One can easily imagine a young Fortuny marvelling at medieval embellished velvets and silks, storing away memories for later use.
This lovely book will give you a new perspective on two profoundly influential designers but it is also an exceptionally beautiful read in itself. I’m already re-reading it and it has gone straight into my list of the greatest fashion books ever written (see it here).
Shortly after reading this, I came face-to-face with a Delphos gown at Paris’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs during their recent exhibition, Fashion Forward, 3 siècles de mode (1715-2016). It shimmered as if it was its own light source, so tactile that it was almost impossible to resist reaching out to stroke it. With the light that shone from its curves, it was also transmitting an air of relaxation, comfort and quiet but powerful confidence. What greater help could a designer offer to a woman?