There are some press trips that you just don’t say no to.  Try as I have done to limit my travel schedule this year, opportunities that involve the following…  Rome, Valentino – both the founder of the house Valentino Garavani and his successorsMaria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli (who Garavani repeatedly refers to as his “guardian angels”), the opera La Traviata and Sofia Coppola… are somewhat irresistible.

And so I found myself in Rome for the fourth time again within the last year, to witness the premiere of La Traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, directed by Coppola, featuring costumes by Garavani for the lead character Violetta, with Flora and the Chorus outfitted by Chiuri and Piccioli, all constructed in the Valentino atelier and also financially supported by the Fondazione Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti.  That’s a lot of dreamy cross-field collaboration going on there.

During the press conference before the premiere, Garavani and the director of Rome’s opera house Carlo Fuortes described the project as “a dream come true”.  “When I met Mr Valentino and Mr Giammetti and we talked about La Traviata, I saw their eyes light up,” said Fuortes.  “In our business you have to catch this type of light.”  With Garavani’s help, the directing services of Coppola were secured, another coup for the opera house.  “I didn’t really know what to expect but when Mr Valentino approached me, I couldn’t really say no,” said Coppola.  “It really motivated me to take a chance and do something that was scary and unfamiliar for me.”

It might be unfamiliar territory in terms of directing for Coppola, the culture of opera is within her family with great uncle Anton Coppola being a noted conductor and composer.  “She was able to adapt to the typical Italian way of doing opera and in a way it’s like she was coming back to her origins as an Italian director,” said Fuortes, in reference to Coppola’s Italian heritage.  For Garavani, the obsession with La Traviata began when he was a young boy.  He was so enamoured with the project, that he managed to sketch out the four lavish costumes for Violetta (one for each scene in the opera), in just four hours.  “You will see that I gave the dresses a touch that reminds us of the time of the opera, but also a high fashion touch.”

From the perspective of Gavarani’s ‘angels’ – Chiuri and Piccioli, their approach to opera comes from the vantage point of an outsider, with both only really getting to grips with the art three years ago through working on their S/S 14 haute couture collection, which was inspired by famous operas and used the Rome opera house to paint the backdrops to the set.  “As an outsider, you can approach La Traviata with all its traditions and history, with fresh eyes and a new perspective,” said Piccioli.

Indeed, the injection of fresh energy, from having Maison Valentino behind the costumes as well as Coppola taking a character like Violetta and in her words, “finding a part of myself in her”, suddenly makes the idea of going to the opera – an art that still by and large struggles to connect with a younger audience – infinitely more appealing.  “Opera can be seen as something contemporary,” said Giammetti.  “The freshness and fragility of this woman is evoked through the dresses.  It’s not redundant or stuffy in any way.”  Chiuri and Piccoli also believe that this version of La Traviata can incite a fresh sort of excitement for those whoa are new to opera.  “We want to encourage curiosity,” said Chiuri.  “If you put a fashion house and a director like Sofia with La Traviata, that makes people curious.  Curiosity is what will bring the younger generation to the opera.”  The non digital nature (no waving of the mobile phone allowed during an opera) of the event could also be an added boon according to Piccioli.  “There’s something special about it being live.  In our digital world, there’s a bit of a distance and here you are so close to what you’re seeing.”  Clearly the lure of Valentino and Coppola behind the project has proved to be successful as they have already recouped EUR1.2 million in ticket sales against the EUR1.5 million cost of production, where opera productions are often loss-making ventures.

It’s an impressive culmination of creative entities that falls in line with Maison Valentino’s position as a Roman fashion house, whose output in recent seasons has of course taken direct inspiration from the opera and the performing arts.  It’s also a cultural exercise that adds a different dimension to Valentino’s haute couture, as it was emphasised that every costume was in effect, a piece of couture, fitted to a “real” performer’s body and made not out of fabrics that mimic luxury but ones that actually are the real deal.  Piccioli and Chiuri had the responsibility of fitting over 120 costumes for the cast.  “In a way, it was like real haute couture where you’re attuned to their needs,” said Piccioli.  “They’re chosen for their voices, not for the way they look and so it’s more intense in a way to fashion.”  Furthermore, it’s one of the few opportunities for us to see Garavani’s aesthetic blueprint sitting alongside with what Piccioli and Chiuri have created at the house.  His dresses for Violetta are unsurprisingly more grandiose and extravagant when contrasted next to the softly tiered tulle frocks and pastel Grecian gowns created by Piccioli and Chiuri.

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_MG_6686The train of Violetta’s opening act gown by Valentino Garavani

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_MG_6950The back of the red cape worn by Violetta at Flora’s party, where she is denounced by Alfredo

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_MG_7031The white dress worn by Violetta at her country house where she is happily in love with Alfredo

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_MG_7093Valentino Garavani adjusing sleeve of the nightgown ensemble, worn by Violetta in the final act of the opera

_MG_7143Dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the opening act

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_MG_7151The second dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the party scene

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On a tour around a largely empty atelier (in comparison the my last visit in July), some larger-than-model dress forms, padded out with strips of fabric and marked by black ribbons for measurements were dotted around, both to illustrate the demand that Valentino experiences for its haute couture (as it is currently finishing off its SS16 pieces for clients) as well as the extra work taken on for La Traviata.  The house’s connection with the opera were further stressed in a temporary exhibition of Valentino’s S/S 14 opera-inspired haute couture collection in the windows and shop floor of their Rome flagship store.  Resurrecting pieces like the on-theme La Traviata gown, made up of an embroidered tulle skirt that bears the score of the opera, or the lavishly embroidered Adam and Eve dress, only contributed to the connection between the house and this production.

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As a mild enthusiast of ballet and opera with a specific interest in the music (I’m a product of a very stereotypical Chinese upbringing, with my not so very virtuoso grade 8 piano skills), my knowledge of La Traviata was pretty elementary, having only seen the filmed Franco Zeffirelli version.  The story of course will be universally known by most (if you’ve watched Moulin Rouge for instance) and the Giuseppe Verdi score – particularly Violetta’s waltz – will also resonate, but for me, the primary point of difference with this version of La Traviata would lie in the costumes.  Coppola enthusiasts might have been expecting some sort of a twist but even before the premiere, it was asserted that this version of La Traviata would largely be a classical interpretation with some contemporary touches.  “I wanted to keep the focus on the beautiful music and beautiful costumes and bring the spirit of this young woman and make an opera that people can relate to and enjoy,” said Coppola.

And so, what played out was a faithful but strikingly stylish La Traviata, with perhaps the vulnerability of Violetta (played by Francesca Dotto), enhanced and brought out by Coppola’s direction and sensitivity towards young female characters, who are judged by society.  There were moments in the interaction between the staging and lighting that seemed to be solely focused on highlighting the costumes, particularly Garavani’s creations.  Violetta’s layered peacock-esque teal train as part of a black gown, that made dramatic movements as she walked, Nathan Crowley’s surreal white marble staircase in the opening act.  Her high-collared cape and gathered taffeta dress in Valentino red stood out against a sea of black at the Spanish-inflected party scene.  And finally as day broke just as Violetta’s consumption would claim her life, sunlight shone through the sleeves of her nightgown with roses embedded into the leg of mutton sleeves.  Chiuri and Piccioli’s contributions made their mark too, as even in a throng of female chorus singers, you could see that every tulle dress had a different detail or construction about them, be it in pastel shades in the opening act or entirely in noir at Flora’s party.  These weren’t identikit cast costumes and certainly helped to lighten the time period, from what is supposed to be a late Victorian-set opera.

Like their Mirabilia Romae show, this staging of La Traviata adds yet another Rome-rooted chapter to the history of Valentino.  The sincerity from all collaborators concerned made the occasion perhaps more about a gesture of goodwill and passion, rather than aiming for artistic subversion.  If you are lucky enough to see it, you’re in for a visual feast, one that tells you more about Valentino’s positioning and its prowess in haute couture, than the re-examination of an operatic masterpiece.

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STE_2676Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, looking resplendent in a SS16 haute couture opera coat

L1250649Giancarlo Giammetti with Pieraolo Piccoli and their buddy opera binoculars

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http---prod.static9.netEschewing an opera gown… Valentino pre-fall 2016 pyjama set worn with J.W. Anderson “Pierce” bag and Maison Margiela boots

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Most of the photographs courtesy of Valentino

Aqua may have been on to something back in 1997. Their song “Barbie Girl” and its cheeky lyrics riled up Mattel so much so that they subsequently tried to sue Aqua’s record label for tarnishing the reputation of their most precious commodity. Fast forward fifteen years and Mattel are perhaps slyly acknowledging that maybe lead singer Lena Nystrøm had a point when she was sarcastically singing, “Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please.” Barbie doesn’t need Ken or any other male equivalent. And he sure as hell isn’t going to “make” her do anything. She is her own woman. Thus sets the scene for Sophia Webster‘s latest collaboration with Barbie, accompanied by a film and a look book starring Colombian singer/songwriter and Kali Uchis and a gang of Rinse FM girls, shot by Sharna Osbourne.

Back in May I went along to follow Webster’s own Barbie World and shoot behind the scenes. As Uchis switched from marabou-trimmed negligee to pleather leopard to Clueless-esque uniform (well done to Louby McLoughlin on her most excellent styling), it was clear that she was in control of all that pink that she was swathed in. The big *gasp* news is that Webster has given Barbie her first pair of flats. Not just flats but Webster’s Riko high-top trainers, doused in pastel and glitter so that her impossibly teetering tip-toe-y feet can get some respite. A self confessed Barbie aficionado, Webster didn’t stray too far off-piste though. There are sky high heels too, adorned with butterlies, bows, Webster’s signature speech bubbles and yes, plenty of that plastic fantastic.

Yet at the same time, Webster is adept at subverting those saccharine surfaces and the very act of indulging in candy-like shoes.  Her house is filled with pastel painted enlarged Barbie-esque house furniture, plenty of tulle tutus and of course, a ton of shoes.  Everything is hyper girly but Webster’s surfaces and aesthetic take on a different tone when worn with the right attitude.  That’s where Uchis and the Rinse FM crew come in giving more sass than sweetness.  Uchis, with her Latino/LA drawl and impossibly blonde beehiveis, was transplanted like a powder pink alien into the heart of the East End in London, as she and her girl gang hung out in Walthamstow institution pie and mash shop L. Manze and psychedelic sweet shop down the road (where you can find every flavour of Nerds in existence!).  The result is a trippy Super 8 meandering short shot by Osborne.  It’s Webster’s London colliding with Uchis’ genuine first time experience of these places.  Even I hadn’t been to a pie and mash shop in…. forever.  I loved that the girl working behind the counter at L. Manze was a veritable customer of Webster’s.  It’s easy to see how her shoes would appeal to a crowd beyond insider fashionistas.  And you can bet that women, whether they’re channelling their inner Barbie Girl or not, will be clamouring for these shoes.

Barbie x Sophia Webster available at Selfridges (London and Manchester) and on SophiaWebster.com now

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Ah London.  How I’ve missed trampling up damp smelling staircases to get to concrete bunker rooms where I get sploshed about with beer.  It’s back down to earth after my far-and-away otherworldly jaunts to Palm Springs and Cannes but with Donatella Versace leading the proceedings, it was never really going to be yer’ average event.

Last night saw the first Versus collection presented by Anthony Vaccarello, after his appointment as permanent creative director of the line, at a #VersusCalling event in London.  When Versus was entrusted to Donatella by brother Gianni in the nineties, she was keen to kick things up a notch with by injecting a young and clubby spirit with party-slash-gig-slash-presentations.  The recent reboot phase of Versus has followed in more or less the same line.  The event last night was termed a “happening” and with an emphasis now on the e-commerce, this collection is the first to adhere to Donatella’s ‘See Now-Buy Now-Wear Now’ concept as most of the pieces are available to buy straight away.

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And so we went up those familiar dank stairs of the Old Truman Brewery festooned with #VersaceCalling tape to catch the skyline of London disappearing into darkness.  Under shelter from the appropriately drizzly skies, the latest campaign images shot by Collier Schorr and styled by Alastair McKimm were projected onto the walls, with the intermittent playing of a choppy short film by Natalie Canguilhem.

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Donatella and Anthony held court over performances by upcoming bands Nothing But Thieves and Zibra (picked out by Donatella’s son apparently) with the likes of Maisie Williams and Jaimie Winstone in the crowd to mosh away with the pair.  Well actually, knowing Anthony, he was more of a stoic observer whilst on the other hand,  Donatella waved hands like she just didn’t care.  In my beer-friendly plaid shirt and kilt and flat Versus “bovver” boots complete with safety pin hardware, I was also happy to be back in my natural habitat.

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IMG_0308Maisie Williams – line of the night was “Oh my god – she’s not a child!  She has boobs!”

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IMG_0297Hardware ready to pound concrete with new season Versus boots and Versus safety pin bracelet and leather cuff 

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Whilst the primary reference of this latest collection was the lithe Brett Anderson in his Suede heyday, Vaccarello’s treatment of his own Versus references – primarily the campaign imagery shot by Bruce Weber in the nineties – have continued to yield pieces that resurrect that yesteryear Versus spirit.  For this see-it-buy-it-wear-it collection, Stella Tennant flanked by rugged redhead lads in Scottish tartan from a 1995 campaign made its presence be known with asymmetric kilts (for guys and girls), plaid sweaters and perfectly proportioned shirts that can be semi-tucked in and out.  The black dresses of Vaccarello’s first outing for Versus also reappear with askant hemlines and Versace lion’s head continues to rear its head in the silver hardware.  The “happening” may have been in London but the appeal of Vaccarello’s Versus revival certainly goes far and beyond the big smoke.

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Opening Ceremony do a lot of cool things.  In fact, sometimes they can be overwhelming in their endeavour for cool with their numerous collaborations, “x” ridden collections, parties, events and projects.  But the fact of the matter is, you do come away from 95% of it all going, “Wow that’s pretty cool.”  And then you berate yourself for sounding like a brainless sheeple.  Last night though, the consensus was a resoundingly solid thumbs-up “That was really cool!” from everyone who dropped by the Cheim & Read Gallery to see Opening Ceremony’s A/W 15-6 presentation slash exhibition hybrid show “Please Use Your Best Judgement.”

The title is a reference to Spike Jonze’s process of selection when going through contact sheets, which conveniently ties in with the show’s sponsor Kodak (featured in a few of the looks).  Lim and Leon had unprecedented access to Jonze’s photographic work, spanning the years of 1985 to 2005 from his early photography of the BMX/skate scene to stills from behind the scenes with Björk’s video for Triumph of a Heart from the album Medúlla.  Waves of heartfelt nostalgia washed over us as we looked up at the 35mm film photographs of Björk, Karen O, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and Sofia Coppola and for guys from the BMX and skate scene, in-action shots of Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton and Mat Hoffman will no doubt have prompted the same.  

This late 90s/early millennium era of optimism and blurry soft-hued photographs summated by the collection and the exhibition definitely stirred up my own memories of that period.  When gigs at the Forum (RIP…), cute slogan t-shirts and running to The Shop (RIP again…)  to check out X-Girl and Milk Fed (double RIP – unless you’re in Japan) ruled my world.  The Opening Ceremony collection similarly taps into that casual don’t-care-if-everything-is-too-big look.  If Britpop ever had a fashion aesthetic, this collection could certainly lay claim to it, what with the rain macs, shirt coats and culottes in autumnal retro-tinged shades.  The highlight of the collection is definitely the pieces featuring collages of Jonze’s photographs.  In particular, a print featuring outtakes of Björk, Chloe Sevigny and Kim Gordon pasted together like a sixth form year book scrapbook, will be on my personal hit list.  The scribbles from Jonze’s contact sheets are also translated into a print – another example of the human hand creating pattern and print in recent collections to rebel against all things digital and instanteous.  I’m no fan of saccharine nostalgia but Lim and Leon’s flash back and tribute to a genuinely inspiring epoch is difficult to resist.  The chasmic gap between then and now means it feels good to look back and mine that decade for references.  One look at Björk at the bottom of a pool in a diaphanous green dress blown up on the wall and there’s no way you wouldn’t want to tap into that bright-eyed exuberance.    

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