Roberto Capucci: Couturier as artist

"Do I admire him? I bow to him," says Phila.'s Ralph Rucci.

Posted: March 13, 2011

Maybe you've never heard of Roberto Capucci, but you know his work.

That's because the silhouette of one of his grandest legacies - the Bocciolo - has been echoed in the later work of designers you know well: Valentino, Yves St. Laurent, and Oscar de la Renta.

He debuted that piece, known better as the Bud Dress, in Florence in 1956.

The cocktail-length dress with its super-cinched waist blooms into a voluminous layered skirt resembling rose petals - and it's one of 83 pieces composing the Philadelphia Museum of Art's costume exhibition "Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion," which opens Wednesday.

"Capucci was doing this kind of sculptural work in the 1950s before everybody," said Clara Henry, director of the fashion design program at Philadelphia University. "I look at his pieces and I'm in awe, simply in awe. He's not known to the mass market, but he has been such an inspirational source."

Although Capucci's post-World War II tailored suits; structural, iridescent-lined capes; and uniquely shaped gowns made him popular with actresses Marilyn Monroe, Esther Williams, and Gloria Swanson and helped launch him as a patriarch of modern-day Italian fashion, they make up only the first half of this bold retrospective of his work.

The other half of the show is dedicated to the maestro's clothing as sculpture, featuring sweeping, larger-than-life gowns that are more art than apparel.

It's these silken wonders that catapulted the now-80-year-old designer to the realm of European fashion genius. But one can also argue that those extreme styles - which Capucci called sculpture - are the reason he is far from a household name here.

Fashioned from Italian silks in sharp, jewel-toned greens, yellows, pinks, and reds, these nature-inspired floor-length pieces overflow with pleats, ruching, and gathering. Sleeves just don't bell, they billow and blossom. Hemlines dramatically zig up and zag down, appearing boundaryless.

Adornments are amazing. One chocolate brown gown is covered with handmade silken leaves that drape the torso in autumnal shades. The dress is reminiscent of an overstuffed cornucopia.

"Do I admire him? I bow to him," exclaimed Philadelphia-born fashion designer Ralph Rucci, the only U.S.-based designer ever to be invited to present at the Paris haute couture shows.

"He would blend the most vibrant, enormous, stark colors together. But he controlled their overpowering nature and made them his own. To see these pieces . . . . They are incredible."

Most of the fashion world agrees. This is the museum's first costume exhibition since 2004 (when it featured Elsa Schiaparelli) and Capucci's first comprehensive showing in America, said Enrico Minio, Capucci's nephew and director of the Roberto Capucci Foundation in Florence. The show has been touted in Marie Claire, Harper's Bazaar, Elle Decor, Vogue, even Architectural Digest.

Although Capucci himself won't be attending, tens of thousands of people are expected to come, including Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The show, which will be housed in the main building's 11,500-square-foot Dorrance Galleries, has the potential to boost Philly's fashion cred in museum circles, often a hard nut to crack.

"I do think that people will come from New York and other cities to see this exhibition," Steele said. "The Philadelphia Museum of Art has worked hard to emphasize its collection, and everyone who saw Schiaparelli will want to go see Capucci because they know Philadelphia does a wonderful fashion exhibition."

In addition to the 83 pieces on loan from Capucci's foundation, a pleated black and white Capucci - part of his 1985 show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York - will be on display, a purchase the museum made last week from a San Francisco vintage dealer to include in its permanent collection.

Other highlights: a 10- minute video on Capucci's influence on Italian fashion, produced by Lise Raven, an assistant professor of film at Drexel University, and a series of full-color drawings Capucci completed for his 1995 architectural show at the Biennale in Venice, as well as a second set of drawings and dress sculptures from a 2007 showing.

The exhibition is beautiful, and also makes you think. This 45-minute tour is not a shopping-based show like the much-blogged-about Vivienne Westwood exhibition that opened Wednesday at FIT. As a matter of fact, the closest anyone will get to wearing these clothes will be imagining themselves as a stem of a blooming calla lily in Capucci's famed gown of the same name.

"We just don't want to follow what everyone else is doing," said Dilys Blum, senior curator for costume and textiles at the museum. She saw many of Capucci's pieces at the Florence-based foundation in 2007, the seed that inspired her to organize a Capucci exhibition in Philadelphia. "Our knowledge is often limited, and when it comes to fashion, what you see in the fashion magazines are the names that have been licensed."

Licensing, or the lack of it, is one of the key reasons Capucci's name wasn't lodged in the American fashion conscience. Unlike his contemporaries such as Balenciaga and St. Laurent - who licensed their names for other product lines like perfume and bags - he chose a less commercial path to focus on his apparel as art.

Born in 1930 in Rome, where he still lives, Capucci studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, briefly working as an apprentice to designer Emilio Schuberth, who was popular in the Italian movie world. In 1951, Capucci opened an atelier with a $70,000 inheritance.

In that same year, Italian businessman Giovanni Battista Giorgini invited Capucci to be among the designers participating in the first show of Florence-based Italian designers to rival Paris' hot fashion scene. Capucci's five-piece collection was shown at the closing ball, and it became an overnight success.

In the next 10 years, Capucci became a "rich man," according to a New York Times article, designing one-of-a-kind dresses for Italy's most elite women. He had several high-society American clients then too, and his experimentation with bamboo and plastics earned him the title of "boy wonder." He was among the first couture designers to pair knee socks with shifts.

In 1961, Capucci came to Philadelphia with other Italian designers for a fashion show that was part of the Festival of Italy, a citywide nod to Italian culture.Philadelphia Inquirer fashion writer Dorothy Perkins wrote that Capucci's rose split-level evening coat with wide, flaring sleeves was a "showstopper." (That piece is part of the current exhibition, too.)

In 1962, Capucci moved his operation to Paris, where he further experimented with different mediums. He returned to Rome in 1968 and created one of his most artful silhouettes - the Doric column dress, literally shaped like a Roman column.

Twelve years later, unwilling to adjust to style's simpler silhouettes in ready-to-wear fashion, he removed himself from the fall and spring presentations geared toward the press and retailers. Instead he showed his own collections in Paris, Tokyo, New York, and Berlin.

These days he also has a bustling wedding gown business.

"He hid himself," Rucci said. "Still, what he did was unlike any other you will ever see before in your life. He is a total original."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or

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