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Fashion 88 : Crowd Turns Out and On for Fortuny Art

December 09, 1988|PADDY CALISTRO

Lauren Hutton collects Fortuny gowns, so when the Costume Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art saluted the late Italian fashion designer, the model-turned-actress made a surprise appearance on the runway. Clowning on stage amid other models who approached the presentation all too seriously, Hutton brought life to gowns that were designed as early as 1906.

A standing-room-only crowd in the Bing Theater viewed a slide presentation of Mariano Fortuny's designs--the first 20th-Century dresses to be classified as works of art, said Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles. In addition, there was a show of contemporary re-creations of Fortuny's work.

Known for Pleating

Known for his unique heat-set, hand-pleating technique that creates tiny, accordian-like folds in silk fabric, Fortuny's gowns have not been sold since 1952, when a plain white version retailed for $125. Today, the Venetian Studio of Venice, Italy, pleats fabric and makes dresses to the late Fortuny's specifications, but the prices reflect a 36-year inflation factor. The new gowns sell for $1,300 to $3,200.

The pleated dresses look virtually shapeless until they are worn, when the fabric expands to conform to the shape of the body. Rather than being hung in a closet, Fortuny gowns are designed to be stored twisted and loosely knotted in small hat boxes. While on stage, Hutton turned the twisting and knotting of one of her favorite gowns into a minor modern dance.

Twisting instructions accompanied the originals, as did a note suggesting that the dresses be returned to the manufacturer for dry cleaning, a luxury only the very rich could afford.

Fortuny's original pleated silks were too fragile for a sit-down, drive-around world. In fact, Maeder refers to them as "standing" dresses. "They didn't work well sitting," he explained, noting that the pleat would flatten.

But the advent of synthetic fibers allowed the Italian master's art form to become a ready-to-wear classic that has been adapted to suit almost every budget.

Adapting the Style

American designer Mary McFadden became a favorite of society women when she adapted Fortuny's pleated style in polyester fabric in the early 1970s. The synthetics, although lacking the fluidity and gossamer quality of the Fortuny silks, would stay pleated through sitting, dry cleaning, even the occasional cocktail-party spill.

But 10 years of research by the Venetian Studio has culminated in silk Fortunyesque gowns that are finally durable for modern times.

The styles, colors and details of the gowns are reproductions of originals worn in the 1920s by such legendary women as Isadora Duncan, Lillian Gish and Natacha Rambova, the wife of Rudolf Valentino. The Venetian Studio collection is available at I. Magnin.

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