by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fortuny Fabrics Once Again in Vogue

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 11 October 1996
Private collection
Elena in Yellow Delphos Gown
by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, 1909



The dramatic revival of interest in Fortuny fabrics has been one of the surprise fashion trends of recent years. And when one looks at the career of Fortuny himself and the vicissitudes of his enterprise, it is little short of miraculous that these sumptuous textiles with their complex and multifarious designsare still being manufactured today.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born into a dynasty of Spanish painters in Granada in 1871, but spent most of his life in Venice. His father Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, who is regarded in Spain as one of the country's most outstanding 19th-century artists, died when he was 36 of malaria in Naples when his son was three. After a spell in Paris, Fortuny's widow settled with Mariano and his sister in Venice in 1889, and devoted the rest of her life to cherishing her husband's memory and encouraging her son to follow in his footsteps.

Fortuny was a paradoxical figure. He resolutely turned his back on every innovative artistic movement that emerged during his lifetime, including Impressionism, but was much engaged by new technology. He said he 'always considered painting to be my profession.' Yet, he was a pioneer photographer, made major advances in electric stage lighting and patented a score of inventions, among them a machine for pleating silk on heated ceramic cylinders, which he used to create his celebrated Grecian-style 'Delphos' dresses.

Fascinated by his father's large collection of antique and oriental fabrics, Fortuny's eclectic tastes led him also to study patterns from the even more remote cultures of Africa, Central America and Polynesia. Overshadowed perhaps by his father's towering reputation as a painter, he began to invest moreof his creative energies in his own textile designs, which he produced after he found his own quarters in the 15th-century Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei in 1899. The palace is now the Fortuny Museum and isclosed for restoration.

After the arrival in Venice in 1902 of what was to be his lifelong companion, Henriette Negrin - a pretty young French divorcee of whom Fortuny's mother thoroughly disappoved, but who was a highly skilled dressmaker - the artist made clothes as well.

These small-scale manufacturing operations, which were extended when Fortuny established a factory on the island of Giudecca in 1922, more or less sustained the Fortunys and their other varied artistic ventures until his death in 1949.

At this point the Fortuny business would undoubtedly have folded but for Elsie Lee McNeill, a person in her own way as remarkable as the artist himself. A New York interior designer, shehad founded Fortuny Inc. in 1927 to import the fabrics and dresses (and along with her husband and business partner, Humphrey, had rescued the Giudecca factory from receivership during the Depression). By a bizarre twist of fate, on the eve of their hurried departure for Venice to comfort Henriette, Humphrey was killed in a car crash.

Despite now finding herself in the same state as Madame Fortuny, Elsie McNeill sold her Italian villa and bought the company. Later she married Count Gozzi, the last male descendant of the 18th-century author of 'Turandot' and 'The Love for Three Oranges.' The countess continued to work full-time at the Giudecca factory and its offices until she was well over100 years old. She died in April 1994.

The countess had, meanwhile, recruited Atalanta Bouboulis, who had been a university lecturer in Japan. She is now adminstrator and manager of Fortuny Sp.A, the company set up by Maged F. Riad, the countess's lawyer, to assure the future of the Giudecca factory after her death.

'Although the business had kept working, and we still had a number of loyal clients who went on buying the fabrics, by the 1960s Fortuny's name had been all-but forgotten,' said Bouboulis in her apartment on Giudecca near the factory (which has traditionally been out of bounds to visitors and is shrouded in secrecy).

'Then in the 1980s there was a sudden explosion of interest again in Fortuny and his fabrics,thanks in large part to an exhibition in Lyon that went on to London and America, and a book about Fortuny by Guillermo de Osma. In fact, after that it became quite crazy for a while, and we had so many orders we had to start turning them down,' said Bouboulis.

'Things have calmed down a bit, but our delivery times are legendary, I'm ashamed to say. At one stage they reached two years, but we've recently managed to get them down to about four months.'

The factory, which employs 30 people, now sells about 24,000 meters (79,000 feet) of two kinds of cotton fabric, Maco and the slightly heavier Serge, annually.

'We use exactly the same methods as Fortuny did, first printing the fabrics by a photographic process he developed, which is a bit like lithography, and then painting them, using the 'Renaissance' system of building up layer upon layer of color. We still mix all our own colors, using mineral and organic ingredients according to Fortuny's formulas. About 80 percent of the work is done by hand,' said Bouboulis.

'We have a very good archive and over 800 Fortuny designs. Of these we do about 40 different ones a year, of which around 25 are regular favorites,such as Carnavalet, Lucrezia, De Medici, Glicine, Granada and Moresco,and others that gradually change over the years according to taste. We do everything to order, and once we accept an order we do a run of 500 meters (the material is 1.5 meters wide), though, of course, the client can take any quantity they want. Whatever's left, we put aside and do the final touching for only when we receive further orders.'

'These fabrics are intended for wall hangings and furnishings. People do make clothes, bags and even shoes out of them,but we don't advise it. If you stretch them on wooden frames as wall coverings, and vacuum them regularly they will last a lifetime and more. We have representatives in England, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, South Africa and Hong Kong, and Fortuny Inc. still exists in the United States. We have only three representatives in Italy, and Trois here in Venice, for example, sells all the fabrics retail for 350,000 lire (about $240) a meter.'

THE principal reason that Fortuny no longer makes the artist's clothes is that he did not want them to to be done after his wife Henriette's death. So the clothes were discontinued after herdeath in 1965.The last Delphos dresses were being made as long ago as 1952.

'I think Fortuny placed limits on the making of the clothes also because he already found it very difficult to find materials of sufficient quality, and he anticipated that it might eventually become impossible to obtain some of them. The pleats in the silk of the Delphos dresses were done at extremely high temperatures, and he realized that if you could no longer find material of the purity of the incredibly fine Japanese silk he used, the process wouldn't work,' Bouboulis added.

'While the countess was still alive and working, people didn't dare make copies, but there are a lot now. So far, however, they've never come close to the originals. Because the point is the materials we use are very expensive and there's so much hand-working that they're very costly to make. People who are only interested in making money are simply not prepared to put in the time, the work and the money needed to make the kind of fabrics we do,' she said.

'Ironically, all these imitations have actually given us quite a lot of publicity, because when people see them many are stimulated to go in search of the real thing and become extremely interested in genuine Fortuny products.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024