He gave up fashion for art

'Roberto Capucci: Art into Fashion' at the Art Museum (2nd review)

4 minute read
Headless, legless, armless: Goodbye clients, hello museums.
Headless, legless, armless: Goodbye clients, hello museums.
Did I miss something? The current ticketed show at the Art Museum is titled "Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion." But the exhibition— more than 80 gowns that trace Capucci's doggedly focused career— heads in just the opposite direction.

Capucci started out as a fashion designer, and somewhere along life's runway he presented himself as a sculptor whose medium happens to be fabric. "Fashion Into Art" is how I would bill this particular show.

Boy wonder

Capucci, who was born in Rome in 1930, entered haute couture at the top. When he was just 18, he sold a gown to Marcella De Marchis, then-wife of the film director Roberto Rossellini; and at 20, under the wing of fashion patron Giovanni Battista Giorgini, he sold his entire inaugural collection to a group of world-class buyers.

As the years passed, Capucci was a hit in Florence, a sensation in fickle Paris for a time, and on top again in Italy, where he finally settled and where he works today.

Despite his international reputation, Capucci has mostly dropped under the radar in the U.S. Filene's gave him a "Young Talent Design Award" (along with James Galanos and Pierre Cardin) in 1958, and in 1961 Capucci appeared with other Italian designers in Philadelphia's Festival of Italy. In 1985, he was again part of a group show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. This résumé adds up to skimpy advance notice for the gutsy Museum to exhibit Capucci in a ticketed show.

Gloria Swanson's wish

From the start, even when Capucci thought of himself primarily as a fashion designer, his works were markedly sculptural. His "Nine Skirts," from 1956, has tiers of fabric surrounding a sheath-like inner form, each tier constructed to maintain its splayed form. That same year he created the dress he calls "Boccioli," whose skirt mimics the overlapping petals of a just-opening rose— held face down, with the narrow upper body suggesting the flower's stem.

Capucci would turn haute couture on its head in other dramatic ways, such as embellishing with stones, brass wire and bamboo; or changing the customarily two-seamed dress into a four-seamed box enclosure.

In his early years, Capucci designed somewhat fantastical though basically wearable gowns, give or take the inconvenience of a multi-puffed, cascading train. Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Swanson all bought him, the last wanting to burn her wardrobe and wear just Capuccis.

From runways to museums

Then, in 1980, Capucci withdrew from the daunting seasonal schedule of runway shows, preferring to present only when he felt ready. Exhibition notes describe him as exhausted by the time demands of the fashion industry. In fact, his work was shifting more toward "art" and away from the commercial milieu. Eventually, Capucci was showing in museums rather than on runways.

He's now totally outside the haute couture scene: A Wikipedia essay on contemporary Italian fashion doesn't even include him among Italy's famous fashion houses.

In the last decade, Capucci's gowns have more thoroughly transcended clothing and become fabric sculptures. They need a support to be shown, but not necessarily a body. The Art Museum exhibition minimizes the clothing aspect of his work by showing it on headless, legless, armless black mannequins that further disappear against the gallery's black walls.

Yet the body serves him: Human proportions make for a standard canvas, a set of invariables, like the rhyme schemes of a sonnet or the syllables of a haiku. Within these confines, Capucci works with color and form, and he keeps pushing fabric to do and be more.

Some kind of receptacle

Some gowns reach a conceptual level. "Crepe" (2007), for example, which is mostly vivid fuchsia and mildly acid green, has a wound-like, jagged cut-away that reveals an underskirt of orange. The colors are actually jarring, the orange suggesting something willful within, wanting to have its say. Despite its magnificent tailoring, this gown is not a pretty dress.

Its shape is equally provocative. With a four-sided boxed bottom, narrow waist and flared bodice, it looks like some kind of receptacle: Bottle? Vase? Cinched pouch? Rough-edged paper bag clutched in a fist?

Is someone trapped inside? I'm not sure, but this gown begs to be interpreted. It makes you think, which often happens at an art exhibition, but not at a fashion show.♦

To read another review by Marilyn MacGregor, click here.
To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

“Roberto Capucci: Art into Fashion.†Through June 5, 2011 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ben Franklin Parkway and 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.

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