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From Charleston to Galleria Borghese: the metaphor of memory at Fendi

What a clash: androgyny and romance, looking back at Charleston’s Bloomsbury Group: a cultural dialogue with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Bernini marble sculptures


Rome, February 25th 2021. In between the two World Wars different sets of people, unconventional personalities came together in a dimension of romance to imagine a society in which they could be free to develop their own ideas. Art, sex, economics were reinvented by Bloomsbury group’s members, such as Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and Robert Fry, giving an unorthodox view on the development of the society during the early XX century. Kim Jones aimed to translate this legacy into an art that blended elements of the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston farmhouse, the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury set located a short distance from where Jones spent much of his childhood. The British designer showed references to a personal influence recalling his own story: he used to visit the farmhouse, drawing in the gardens and experimenting linocut printmaking technique, taking a cue from painters Bell and Grant’s frescoes. The collection expressed himself in form and decoration with a focus on the movement and freedom. Bloomsbury group’s exhibitions and books became contributions to the development of modern culture – historical references and contemporary androgyny came together in a fusion of different appeals inspired by Woolf’s novel Orlando, of which Jones owns various editions. Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy – wrote Virginia Woolf; each look gave birth to a page of the book with models replacing British ‘bohémien’ sensuality blended with Fendi’s Roman heritage. 

To a bespoke soundtrack by British composer Max Richter, models walked the lit labyrinthine before entering transparent boxes, erected in the glass maze in the form of the label’s double F monogram. Stepping into the role filled by Karl Lagerfeld, Kim Jones embraced the Fendi family bringing his own artistic vision, while maintaining the codes of tailoring. The Roman house founded by Adele Casagrande in 1925 has passed down to her five daughters. «It’s in its third generation with a Fendi at its helm, and I am guest starring while bringing in the fourth». Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is an examination of the creative process, sexual identity and inequality along with the experience of psychological time; together with the Bloomsbury set, they were the founding elements Kim Jones’ Fendi debut collection was built on. «Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us» wrote Virginia in the novel. Orlando was published in 1928, and Fendi was founded in 1925. An imaginary path connecting Bloomsbury’s bucolic farmhouse and Galleria Borghese, a road walked by a modern Orlando, who throughout the novel is depicted as a sexually ambiguous figure, as though the character possesses both feminine and masculine attributes. Dedicated to Sackville-West, Orlando’s long-lived history is modeled after her four-centuries-old aristocratic heritage – a reconciliation of her own sexual duality, as well as a lover’s gift. 

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Rrose Sélavy: Marcel Duchamp’s Female Alter Ego, 1924

The runway show melded the introduction of gender nonspecific pieces with the inspiration taken from the romantic prose Virginia dedicated to her lover Sackville-West, whose son later described as «the longest and the most charming love letter in literature, in which Virginia explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, drops a veil of mist around her». The collective of London writers and intellectuals inspired a collection in which «femininity and masculine androgyny appear as fluid choices rather than innate realities». Both male and female models showcased the womenswear collection as main characters of a visual novel. As in Orlando, one of the ways in which gender is constructed is through clothing – a rather fluid depiction of gender through which Virginia Woolf implied the dichotomous male-versus-female understanding of sexual identity is a social construction and that no one person is wholly one gender or the other: «Clothes are but symbol of something hid deep beneath» said once the writer. If clothing symbolizes the artificiality of gender as social construction in the novel, Kim Jones emphasized androgyny and gender fluidity as part of the cultural conversation the collection embodied.

Jones channeled the early twentieth century flowing capes, high collars and the attention to embroidery – with an added modern spirit reflected in bold constructions and inventive cuts. Keeping the color palette restrained, the designer focused on the embellishment and texture of the pieces: painted tailoring evoked the marbles at Galleria Borghese and the drapery of its Bernini sculptures; the navy- blue silk jacquard and taffeta suit shined through in its dimensional marble print and cascading cape. The collection is full of literal takes on Orlando, from the pale gray silk satin gown embroidered with organza flowers and crystal beads to the mosaic cape, layered atop a marbled silk jacquard gown. The marbled satin suit echoed the hand-painted books Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard published for Hogarth Press, while other tailoring more rigidly structured for male anatomy were displayed along with a rose and gray suit in a white and pink marble palette, layered atop an ivory silk tulle pleated shirt detailed with turquoise and bronze pearls. Sculptural floral appliqués burst into life: a cape worn over a silk satin and chiffon slip embellished with a jour embroidery. Historical and art references to modern androgyny came together in the silk and satin dress, worn by a male model, adorned with white organza and Murano glass flowers. Motifs from the painted murals at Charleston appeared as embroidery on ornately beaded boots; necklines are paired with opulent materials and lavish jewelry. 

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Fendi Couture SS21, Final, Bureau Betak Set Design

Creative director of jewelry Delfina Delettrez Fendi, who walked the runway, created beaded ear cuffs and supersized chandelier earrings which embellished hybridized dresses whose forms at times grew shapeless. In a continuous juxtaposition of evening gowns and blazers or shirts Jones paid tribute to his predecessor Karl Lagerfeld’s sketches from 1993. The Calligraphy monograms that appeared in his final collection for Fendi coming back in the form of a beaded detail on the boots. Kim Jones aimed to transform the artistic scenario transposing his universal knowledge on streetwear’s cultural codes. Jones’s global vision is in his DNA: as a child he followed his father’s work as a hydrogeologist, following him in places such as Tanzania, Kenya, Ecuador, travels that shaped his inspirations as a designer, being surrounded by people who used clothing as self-expression. The designer looked closer to home for his first Fendi Couture collection owning a house in Rodmell, where he has partly experienced Bloomsbury’s atmosphere of openness and experiment, which embraced a culture of sexual equality, informality and intellectual debate. 

As Orlando is an exploration of the many possibilities of life across the centuries, Jones used Fendi’s archives to design a collection that appeals to the female desire. Each look was chosen for the women in the show, reflecting each of their own biographies: «That’s the luxury of couture, it is designed specifically for the person», pointed out the designer. Mixing Bloomsbury Group’s British romanticism with Fendi’s heritage, we recall what Virginia Woolf wrote: «Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down. We know not what comes next, or what follows after» – Some of the writer’s words were used in the show: quotes from Orlando were written directly onto the pieces in the form of metal-bound book clutches decorated with an embossed cameo and pearls, along with extracts from the text were inscribed into leather boots. Memory and time overwhelmed the collection in a temporal twist that crosses centuries: Virginia Woolf suggested that time, like sexual identity is a personal process of the individual’s mind – Kim Jones maintained this line showing an intangible moment where past and future, objective reality and subjective consciousness coexist in what we today refer as the present. From woven jacquards to silk gowns, Italian aesthetics is found in the marble palette that mirrored Galleria Borghese, which is inscribed in the visual language of the collection – a Haute Couture show in a cultural dialogue with Bloomsbury’s liberal view. 

IMAGE GALLERY

Named Fendi’s artistic director of Haute Couture, ready-to-wear and fur collections for women last September, Kim Jones presented his Spring Summer 2021 Haute Couture runway show, which took place in Paris at the historic Palais Brongniart. Joining Silvia Venturini Fendi, who still leads on accessories and menswear, for his debut, Kim Jones unveiled nineteen looks drawing from diverse inspirations, from the visual language of Bernini’s marbles to Virginia Woolf’s time-travelling, along with her gender fluid and literary hybrid Orlando

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