In 1962, Roberto Capucci was touted by Life magazine as one of the “rising stars of Paris haute couture” along with Yves Saint Laurent. That same year, the choosy French fashion press nicknamed him “Le petit Balenciaga de L’Italie.“ If Capucci was such as big deal, why had I never heard of him? (Roberto Cavailli, Fiorucci, Ca-Pucci?) I blamed my own ignorance, but I couldn’t help but wonder why such a seemingly revered designer was absent in my fashion lexicon. With the help of the Fondazione Roberto Capucci and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s parallel Roberto Capucci Exhibition, Dilys E. Blum thoroughly introduced me. Picking up this picture-heavy book, I also didn’t realize its apparently monographical purpose would be coupled with a more covert, even subversive task. The title should have given me a hint, specifically the second part: Art Into Fashion, perhaps better titled Fashion into Art.
Blum relays the story of Roberto Capucci (b. 1930), an 18-year-old Italian couture designer who blossomed out of the burgeoning post-WW2 Italian fashion scene and matured into the comparatively remote and revered couture sculpture artist he is today. Three-quarters of this book’s colour-soaked pages offer a photographic retrospective of Capucci’s garments—pictured are all the naturalistic motifs, painter’s palette colours, exaggerated folds, and proportion distortion that characterize Capucci’s thoroughly clean and modern oeuvre.
L’Italien’s influence spread to the other side of the pond. American Vogue described his work in 1953: “not just sketchbook dreams tacked together…[his]…[f]abrics have been studied, anatomy learned, cutting mastered.” In the 1960s, US department stores bought his technically astounding pieces to adapt for their sportswear-inclined customers. Indeed, looking at Capucci’s purposefully unwearable “sculpture dresses” of pleated silk taffeta today makes me think of Marchesa’s repeated use of this technique in its collections, such as in its accessible Notte line. (Though far from the complexity of a Capucci design, the Marchesa does give its wearer the option of sitting down.)
The most controversial part of this book is tucked in at the end. A section entitled “Beyond Fashion: 1980-2007” lays out the status of Italian couture in 1980. Opulent houses went into commercial survival mode as fresh, American ready-to-wear became popular with their clients. Capucci, at the helm of his own house, was confronted with a choice: do as the other Italian couturiers and produce logoed scarves and other supplementary products to keep his business afloat, or follow his vision of fashion. He chose the latter sending his work further into obscurity. The designer resigned from the traditional couture calendar and produced and showed his collections whenever he wanted. Capucci remarked “I show when I want to, where I want to. If a painter or a sculptor hasn’t finished, he doesn’t show.”
By the end of the book, the title is completely substantiated. One of the more recent Capucci accolades mentioned is his appearance at the world art fair, the Venice Biennale in 1995 (which is actually only one of several times his work has been exhibited in a space reserved for more traditional forms of art). Capucci comes out on the artist’s side of the fashion design spectrum.
And in this way, a beautiful museum publication quietly asserts fashion can be art, evidencing a designer who acted as (some) artists do. Is Capucci more “successful” for not bending and commodifying his art? Perhaps this book proves why fashion history needs to be studied carefully, if it isn’t, those designers who leaned toward the philosophy of creating art for art’s sake rather than saleable fashion might not be enjoyed but by an obscure few. In any case, don’t let the pretty face of this coffee table real estate fool you; beneath the folds is a fashion designer daring to be an artist in a world where sometimes that just doesn’t make cents.
Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2010
Reviewed by Stephanie Herold