The looks of love

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Romeo Gigli's name will be unfamiliar to anyone under the age of 40. The Italian fashion designer has been off the radar for eight years, but he was one of the most innovative and influential designers of the 1980s and '90s. He is now preparing a comeback, with the help of the Hong Kong retailer Joyce.

Gigli revived a taste for elegant sculpted clothes at a time when fashion was dominated by power dressing and the angular silhouettes of Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. He reintroduced romance and poetic femininity into wardrobes.

Using a palette of rich Byzantine shades embellished with exquisite embroideries, he created cocooning coats and softly cut dresses with a precious heirloom quality.

He has always liked the idea of longevity in his work, and says: 'When I decorate clothes, I think of a woman collecting a piece of art or jewels.'

The designer disappeared from view in 2004, when he left his company during a bitter legal battle with its owners. Such is the snail's pace of Italian justice that this still hasn't been resolved.

A couple of years ago, Joyce was planning its 40th anniversary celebrations. The retailer contacted Gigli and asked for a coat from his archive for their exhibition. He sent a velvet coat with an embroidered shawl collar from autumn-winter 1989. It was a sensation. 'Joyce told me everyone loved my coat, because although it was 20 years old, it looked so contemporary. They asked if I would do a capsule collection for them when we met in Milan. I am really happy about it.'

Andrew Keith, president of Joyce, says the team has found Gigli inspiring. 'His energy, passion and enthusiasm for the project have been infectious.'

Keith says there are many Gigli fans who have been awaiting his return.

'There is also a whole new generation of customers who will be seeing his unique vision for the first time,' Keith says. 'I think that anyone who has an interest in fashion will appreciate how distinctive, relevant and influential he continues to be.'

The collection Joyce by Romeo Gigli hits the rails here mid-July, and there will be a special pop-up store in Venice during the city's film festival in August.

There is menswear and womenswear: cropped coats and capes with narrow shoulders and large fur collars that gently frame the face; and dresses in silk, velvet and brocade with tulip-shaped skirts and wraps that can be fastened in a multitude of ways.

One standout item is a black coat with a deep shawl collar covered in rosebuds, to be worn with skinny black pants. His coats look as dramatic in profile as they do from the front or back. They recall the way some of his coats from the '80s and '90s resembled delicate insect wings folded over the body.

The menswear is similarly stylish. There are suits in dandy stripes or crumpled wools, and fitted jackets in marled tweeds or soft mohair checks, worn with waistcoats and shirts that have neat piped detailing. There is something poetic about the look. The clothes are very evocative of Gigli's personal style.

The 62-year-old designer wears a shirt that appears to have had an accident with a red felt tip pen (he constantly doodles and plays with pens as he talks). He wears this with a mulberry waistcoat and a fine brown-striped suit. Gigli has an air of rumpled, artistic elegance which is vaguely aristocratic. But this is not an affectation. It is part of his lineage.

Gigli was brought up in a beautiful country house full of books and art in Faenza, Italy. He was the only child in a sophisticated, elderly family of aristocratic descent (his grandmother was a countess). His earliest memories are of being taken to the tailors and cobblers to have his clothes made.

His father, an antiquarian book collector, had his clothes made in London, and his mother would buy hers from Christian Dior. 'In those days, you could buy the fabric and pattern from the couture house and then have it made to measure by your own dressmakers,' he says.

Those early experiences of good taste and refined living came to the fore in his collections. 'I remember when I was 18, one night before Christmas, my mother wore one of the earliest Yves Saint Laurent toreador jackets with a black skirt and white shirt,' he says.

Both his parents died when he was 18. He witnessed the dissolution of his family and home, abandoned his architectural degree and took off to travel the world alone for 10 years.

Fashion happened by accident. 'I used to go to India to buy silks to have made into shirts for me in London. I started collecting art, craft and costumes and wearing my clothes a little differently,' Gigli says. He speaks an oddly broken English for which he frequently apologises.

'A friend recommended me to Mr Dimitri in New York, an Italian tailor who was famous at the time. He rang and asked me to help build his menswear collection.'

At the same time Gigli was styling his girlfriends. 'I was putting them in men's jackets, tying sari-style fabrics underneath and covering them in ethnic jewels.'

He launched his own label in 1983: 'I didn't want to sell it in a showroom, so a friend suggested I use my home in Milan's Via Larga - it was a crazy house, like a glasshouse with floor-to-ceiling windows, and neon everywhere.'

The friend invited important retailers, including Linda Dresner from Chicago, Joan Burstein from Browns in London and Hong Kong's Joyce Ma. It sold out immediately.

His lush fabrics, rich jewel colours, elaborate beading and graceful draping captured the romantic, bohemian spirit that dominated the '90s.

Refreshingly, Gigli is devoid of vanity and egocentricity.

His fashion shows in Milan and then Paris were hot tickets, but he never appeared on the catwalk to take a bow, and he would invariably disappear for some air and a cigarette.

This modesty was demonstrated in the famous 10 Corso Como boutique he opened with former close friend and muse Carla Sozzani in 1986, where he would mix his collections on the rails with clothes by other designers like John Galliano, Martin Margiela, Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier.

'That, for me, is the freedom of fashion. When you buy a piece it has this kind of balance - you can keep it for a long time and mix and match it with what ever you like.'

His wife, Lara, has a huge collection of his dresses. 'She mixes all the pieces from different periods.' he explains.

Despite not having a collection, his creative workload has included projects in the film world with British director Peter Greenaway, with the great choreographer Merce Cunningham and musician Jean Michel Jarre. He has designed for operas and exhibitions, including the display for 'China: At the Court of the Emperors' at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence four years ago.

He has other accessory projects too, but Joyce is a welcome return to the frontline for one of fashion's great romantics, proving he is as relevant today as he was in the '90s.