Alberta Ferretti's design for "Carmen" is on display… (Philipp Scholz Rittermann )
The extraordinary workmanship on display in "Il Teatro alla Moda — Theater in Fashion" in Beverly Hills makes it easy to understand why Italy's haute couture fashion scene was once as revered as that of France.
The exhibition, which runs through Nov. 13, features more than 50 original costumes made for theater, opera and ballet since 1980. Eleven Italian designers are represented, including Missoni, Giorgio Armani, Alberta Ferretti and Valentino. These special pieces exemplify the kind of craftsmanship that continues to make the "Made in Italy" stamp so prestigious, even if that stamp is more often found on leather goods today.
For me, the biggest treats are the costumes designed by Gianni Versace, who was killed in 1997.
PHOTOS: 'Il Teatro alla Moda' exhibition
I was reminded of how immensely creative Versace was when I saw a ballerina costume with a hand-painted bodysuit and wire-molded tutu and a liquidy gown in a modernist geometric pattern that took three months to hand-bead in the style of one of his favorite visual artists, Sonia Delaunay. Both pieces were designed for the 1990 production of the opera "Capriccio" in San Francisco.
When it came to costumes, Versace was quite prolific. He designed them for 29 operas and ballets, as well as for pop culture entertainments such as the 1996 film "The Birdcage" and the 1980s TV series "Miami Vice."
Another Versace piece in the exhibition is a black velvet gown wrapped in a huge bow swept to one side of the hips, as if blown by a gust. It would look as stunning on the red carpet as it did on stage in the Robert Wilson-directed production of "Salome" at Milan's La Scala in 1997.
Roberto Capucci's designs are equally stunning, including the one that opens the exhibition. It is an ethereal vision with seemingly endless yardage of weightless white and silver taffeta, one of 12 gowns made for the virgin chorus in the 1986 production of the opera "Norma."
A crimson gown from the 2002 production of "Capriccio" showcases Capucci's signature hand-pleating technique. It is so sculptural that it really does resemble an ancient Doric column.
In contrast, a short black denim dress trimmed in tiny, multicolored fur rosettes, made by Karl Lagerfeld for a 1986 production of "Carmen," could have walked off the runway yesterday.
Previously on view in Italy, the show is being presented for the first time in the United States by the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, slated to open in Beverly Hills next fall. The center's executive director, Lou Moore, first saw the exhibition at the Musei Mazzucchelli in Brescia, Italy, where it was organized. "We don't have a theater yet, but we wanted to share something about the performing arts with the community," she said. (The center rented a temporary gallery space on Beverly Boulevard.)
The exhibition is also being supported by AltaRoma, an organization funded by the city of Rome, which is working to preserve Italy's artisan heritage and promote Rome as a fashion city by staging events in cultural sites such as the Sistine Chapel.
Several Italian fashion houses were founded in Rome, including Fendi and Valentino, whose designers used to stage runway shows there along with Capucci and others. But the center of Italian fashion shifted to Milan in the 1960s and '70s with the rise of Versace, Armani and other ready-to-wear designers who continue to show in the industrial northern Italian city.
Rome has its own underdog fashion weeks hosted by AltaRoma. Held in January and July with the goal of showcasing new talent and old traditions, they aren't as well-attended by media or buyers as the big four fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris.
But now that Milan's fashion week is scheduled to overlap with both New York's and London's in September 2012 (a move that has caused an international fashion furor), maybe it's time to give Italy's Eternal City a second look. Runway shows in the Roman Coliseum sound pretty enticing to me.
"Il Teatro alla Moda," through Nov. 13, 253 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, which can be purchased at the door, are $10; children under 12 and students with valid ID are free. Admission on Wednesdays is free.