Stepping into the world of fashion was a rather difficult task for Italian designer Ferdinando Sarmi. Discouraged to pursue a career into fashion from his father, Sarmi studied law. When he finished his studies he first worked in a bank, then entered a bureaucratic career. Unhappy with his life, Sarmi moved to Rome in the early ‘40s and, after the war, he decided to dedicate his life to his real passion.
Helped by a few friends who introduced him to the world of Alta Moda (Haute Couture), Sarmi started making dresses for various actresses who at the time were working at the Rome-based film studios, Cinecitta' . As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, Lucia Bosé wore Sarmi’s creations in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950). In one of her articles, journalist Irene Brin defined the dresses worn by the actress as “the best clothes ever to have appeared on our screens”.
Sarmi also had a small part in the film, but, soon after it, he moved to New York where he became head designer for Elizabeth Arden. Sarmi was well-known for his luxuriously lavish creations characterised by the most disparate silhouettes and materials: pyramid-shaped dresses, swansdown coats, evening gowns made with metres and metres of chiffon and elaborately embroidered dresses covered in glass beads. The designer also had a passion for colours: emerald, ruby, amethyst and topaz blue are just a few of the rich nuances he used for some of his creations. A champion of femininity, Sarmi could boast a star-studded clientele, including Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joan Crawford.
Sarmi’s creations came to my mind after looking at images from Josep Font’s catwalk at Paris Haute Couture Week. At the end of last year, Font was invited by the Fédération Française de la Couture to take part in the haute couture catwalks for the Spring/Summer 2008 season.
The invitation represented for the designer a dream come true, though for his home country it meant something even more important. The Spanish media indeed exulted at the prospect of injecting through Font new life into the world of Spain's "alta costura". Dubbing Font a “fashion genius”, the media compared him to illustrious countrymen such as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Manuel Pertegaz, Paco Rabanne and Antonio del Castillo.
Font’s first haute couture catwalk was rather successful and his Autumn/Winter 2008-09 collection confirmed the designer has definitely got talent. Like Sarmi, Font followed at first his family’s desires for a more conventional career and studied architecture. Then he moved onto design and pattern cutting at the Instituto Internacional Feli. As the years passed, Font launched his own label and worked on developing it for over 15 years.
The designer has got his own trademark style, feminine, romantic and ethereal. If you analyse carefully Font's designs, you discover that there are three keys to understand his creations: the volume of the silhouettes, the vivid colours and the embroidered details. Font seems to have the peculiar habit of taking an already embroidered fabric and of adding more details to it to make it more personal.
His creations from the A/W 08-09 collection are theatrical, sophisticated and full of poetry. See-through and opaque fabrics are juxtaposed in the same dress; tights sparkle with crystals beads; natural elements such as flowers and branches adorn many dresses and puff-ball skirts; voluminous sleeves amplify the silhouettes of dresses and chunky and intricate knits are paired with shorts to create even more contrasts.
Made with a spectacular array of luxurious fabrics, some dresses from the collection are rather baroque and display a passion for the exuberant; others are directly inspired by Spanish culture, but also by paintings. A long yellow chiffon dress seems for example to have stolen its colour from the lemons in Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose”.
Font's flower printed dresses that feature prominent shades of white, red and blue, call to mind the palette used by Zurbarán in his "St. Margaret". Besides, there are echoes of the traditional Spanish "mantillas" and “mantones” and of the veils of the Andalusian Madonnas in some of Font's shoulder pieces. All these references aren't casual: the designer doesn’t like passing trends, but sticks to the concept of timelessness, which is usually applied to paintings, sculptures and the arts in general.
The recent Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week sparked the usual debate about the costs of high fashion with journalists wondering if, in our times of constant financial crisis such an industry can be really viable. But Haute Couture is the highest incarnation of fashion, it's a spectacle that implies absolute creative freedom and that’s probably why it will keep on existing. Hopefully there will be more talents such as Josep Font keen on renewing the haute couture tradition in future.