Giovanni Battista “Bista” Giorgini is known as the “father of Italian fashion” as he was the organiser of that first legendary catwalk show that featured new Italian designers and brands and took place in Florence in February 1951.
Bista Giorgini was instrumental in inviting the national and international press and buyers to the event, yet a few years before he managed to convince the American buyers to go to Florence, there were already a few Italian fashion designers who had reached the States with their products and were doing quite well.
One of them was Giuliana Coen Camerino who had launched in the aftermath of the Second World War her own label, Roberta di Camerino.
In the early 50s Roberta di Camerino was already considered an established brand in America where, believed it or not, it sold more scarves and bags than Hermès.
For many women a Roberta di Camerino bag was a sort of status symbol: in 1952 American journalist Elsa Maxwell and Italian actress Eleonora Rossi Drago were spotted in Venice carrying a red and green velvet “Bagonghi” bag, while Paola, Queen of Belgium, opted for a beige and black “Bagonghi”.
In a previous post I already mentioned something about the brand's founder, Giuliana. Born in Venice where she spent a happy childhood, to escape the Fascist race laws Giuliana fled with her husband – disguised as a nun and a priest – to Switzerland where she started designing her bags.
After WWII, Giuliana returned to Venice and soon her bags started appearing on fashion magazines, becoming the international high society's most coveted accessories.
The bags were produced following the highest craftsmanship standards, with Giuliana enlisting the help of brass artisans for the clasps and studs and of the Venetian masters of upholstery for the velvets.
Dubbed “la dogaressa”, Giuliana received the Neiman Marcus Award in 1956. As the years passed, the brand diversified its production starting a clothing line as well, characterised by three key points, high quality, simplicity and lightness.
Trompe l’oeil prints of buttons and belts became Roberta di Camerino’s signature designs, together with colourful knitwear pieces in luxurious blends of cashmere and silk or viscose, cotton and linen.
The label went through some ups and downs and was re-launched in 2000.
In 2007 rumours spread about the Sixty Group buying Roberta di Camerino, and in 2008 the sale was confirmed.
Renewing and re-launching the brand focusing only on bags were the main aims of Wichy Hassan, Sixty’s co-founder and creative director, and the first Roberta di Camerino bags were presented last year. The new creative director of the brand is Giorgia Scarpa (who also worked for Dior) and Alessandro Varisco (previous commercial manager at Gianfranco Ferrè) is the general manager.
The Roberta di Camerino designs you are able to find in shops at the moment - for example at the brand’s historical flagship store in Venice’s St Mark’s Square - are therefore the ones produced by the Sixty Group and are all characterised by brighter colours and designed with a younger audience in mind.
Yet there is one place in Venice where Roberta di Camerino addicts can spend some time indulging themselves surrounded by Giuliana's original creations, her atelier.
Located where the original family factory was established in the 60s, inside Palazzo Loredan Grifalconi in Calle della Testa, between Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo (not too far from St Mark’s Square, but get a map to avoid getting lost...), the atelier was conceived as a sort of art gallery where people could admire original drawings and prototypes and discover the secrets behind the velvets and textiles used for the bags.
Nowadays, though, the ample rooms of the atelier with their antique pieces of furniture have been turned into a sort of warehouse: here are stocked the last pieces of clothes and accessories by Roberta di Camerino.
Just buzz at the old wooden door of the palazzo and you will be admitted in a courtyard with a little garden and a veranda. Here you will be able to find a selection of clothes and accessories arranged around different rooms.
All the pieces are very rare and you will find a limited assortment of Bagonghi bags in red and green, trompe l’oeil tops, blouses and skirts, knitwear, coats, leather shoes, velvet boots, silk scarves and ties, belts and other small accessories.
Prices vary and you won’t obviously find all the sizes, but you will definitely be able to find extremely good bargains and unique pieces at a fraction of their original price. Cashmere and silk tops that were previously priced around €400 are now reduced to €50, shoes are at an average price of €35, bags are half a price and start from around €300 (depending from the size and model - a tad more expensive than the rest of the stock, but, if you can afford them, you will still find them a bargain). While you must be lucky to find what suits you, if you have good taste, a little bit of patience and vision, you will definitely manage to find something that fits you.
The added bonus is that all the stuff you buy here was made in Italy, following high quality standards, and all the pieces are now out of production, so there’s no way you will easily meet another person wearing the same top or carrying the same bag.
If you can’t find anything that satisfies you, and can afford it/have a shop I would actually suggest you to buy a few pieces and maybe resell them.
The atelier doesn’t have its own site, so it can be difficult to check out their stock if you don’t actually go and visit the place in Venice, but they accept credit and debit cards and are willing to post the stuff (see address at the bottom of this post).
I love Roberta di Camerino’s simplest stuff like the brand’s trompe l'oeil designs and I was lucky enough to find a cream cashmere and silk top with trompe l'oeil buttons (but they also had some beautiful linen mini-skirts with trompe l’oeil pockets and a sort of 60s look...) and a cotton and linen bra (€10) that was originally sold with a low cut top that eventually went lost. Everything you buy will be neatly packaged by the staff in Roberta di Camerino paper and put in a cardboard bag with a trompe l'oeil drawing of a satchel.
If you’re skint, but you’re into fashion, don’t despair: the visit will also allow you to admire Giuliana’s awards, diplomas and certificates – they cover an entire wall of the atelier and there's also the legendary Neiman Marcus Award among the others – and study three of her original designs painted on canvas rather than on paper.
There are three models displayed at the atelier, “Sbiego” (Sideways), “Gallo Frecciato” (Arrowed Cockerel) and “Turbine” (Vortex). Each canvas showing the original design by Giuliana is exhibited next to the final model. “Sbiego” is a white long dress crisscrossed by black lines that form an irregular geometric motif; “Gallo Frecciato” is a black dress with a trompe l'oeil print of a cockerel feather flapper-like dress.
"Turbine" is a long dress with short sleeves in the traditional Roberta colours - black, red, green and blue - forming three coloured ribbons that seem to create a vortex around the body.
The three canvases are very interesting since they allow you to understand better how Giuliana worked and designed and the unconventional way in which she studied the body volumes.
My visit at the atelier was fun, but it was also very sad to see so much stuff lying around and thinking that once this stock will be gone, the original brand as we used to know it won't exist anymore. It made me think once again about what happens once a brand or a fashion house ceases to exist and is bought by new investors.
The woman who showed me around the atelier said they still don’t know what will happen to the place once the stock finishes, but I hope it will be turned into a museum or a little art gallery.
Before going, I took a Bagonghi-shaped card with a map that showed how to reach the atelier from St. Mark’s Square and featured the atelier's contact details. I told the woman working at the atelier it looked cute and she explained me they have finished the original cards by now and are using photocopies for the time being.
As I stared at the little card, she nodded and told me in a rather pensive mood, “Yes, a little Bagonghi bag in Roberta's colours, red and green," adding in an apologetic and slightly sad tone, "now they're using bright pink as the maison's colour, which isn't really a very Roberta shade, is it?"
Roberta di Camerino, L'atelier di Palazzo Loredan Grifalconi, Cannaregio, Calle della Testa 6359, 30131 Venice, Italy, Tel. 0039 041 5237543 and 0039 041 2410091; Fax 0039 041 2419494, open from Monday till Friday.
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