It was a real treat to discover this gossipy interviewwith Micol Fontana online recently. I never really knew Micol, although technically she was my former employer. Until her death in 2015 at the ripe old age of 101, Micol was the last of the three brilliant sisters who founded the celebrated couture house of Sorelle Fontanain Rome. Along with her siblings Zoe and Giovanna, she dressed celebrities including Audrey Hepburn (most famously creating her wedding gown), Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Claudia Cardinale. The sisters worked extensively in film too, styling Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa and - perhaps most famously - crafting Anita Ekberg’s gravity-defying “fountain dress” for the 1960 film La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini.
I lived in Rome in 1961 and 1962, as a post-graduate student at the Accademia dei Belle Arti di Roma. Of course, Rome during the golden age of Cinecitta (a.k.a. the Italian Hollywood) was far too much fun – and too expensive – not to pursue a whole array of extracurricular activities. I eked out my modest grant by painting portraits, which opened the doors to wonderful private homes and experiences.
I also spent a LOT of time getting all dressed up to examine the inside of garments in the Roman couture houses, to learn all I could about the specialist hand-finishing techniques employed in the ateliers. I’d always loved designing and making my own clothes (from a very young age) and during this era I would hand-paint my clothes, including Mad Men-style, full-skirted dresses, in oils, since acrylic paintsfor artists only became widely available from 1963.
Peering through a tiny window of Sorelle Fontana one day, wearing this scarlet dress hand-painted with flowers – and no doubt smelling of oil paint and linseed! – I was absolutely delighted when a “stilista” (assistant designer) ran outside to admire my outfit and ask where I’d bought it. This led to a joyous spell freelancing as an artist at Sorelle Fontana, where I not only hand-painted fabrics onto evening gowns but also created the designs for beaded embroideries. This was such a privilege for a green 21-year-old Brit!
On recent visits to Rome, I was delighted to see that Sorelle Fontanais still going strong (although it was sold in 1992), in its original location near the Spanish Steps. Close by is the Fondazione Micol Fontana– established as a training centre rather than a museum, it seems that some fashion fans have bought their way in for $20! A two-part TV miniseries based on the story of the fashion house, Atelier Fontana - Le sorelle della moda, was broadcast on Rai 1in 2011. I’d love to see it.