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Theater + Arts

'Bellissima' explores the rise of Italian fashion at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale

Italian high fashion comes to Fort Lauderdale's @nsuartmuseum.

The art is in the drape with the exhibit "Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968," now at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale Feb. 7-June 5.

The show comprises apparel, sketches, art, movie clips, photography, shoes, bags and jewelry (especially from luxury brand Bulgari, one of the underwriters) that organizers say will illustrate the rise of Italy's high-fashion aesthetic.

"It was a very important time in Italian history with an incredible convergence of different artists and minds in the same place and time," says Stefano Tonchi, the editor in chief of W magazine and one of the exhibit's curators. "It was an incredible time in cinema, art and fashion. They, these artists, were all animated by the same kind of energy, and they were collaborating and living very close to each other … this designer working with that artist, being influenced by an artist and influencing that artist in return. We put our attention on this collaboration."

Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin says via email that he thinks the exhibit will resonate with South Floridians because, "South Florida contains an abundance of diversity,culture and an audience who appreciates creativity, craftsmanship and style. The exhibition features stunning and timeless designs that showcase our innovation and experimentation throughout the key period.."

Bonnie Clearwater, the museum's director and chief curator, adds: "In Italy the past is part of the present. It informs their whole Zeitgeist."

Drawing from the post-World War II fashion scenes in Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice, the exhibit looks at the work of recognizable names such as Valentino, Fendi and Pucci as well as lesser-known design houses such as Renato Balestra, Emilio Schuberth, Sorelle Fontana, Germana Marucelli, Mila Schon, Simonetta, Roberto Capucci, Fernanda Gattinoni, Biki, Irene Galitzine and Fausto Sarli.

"Many of them are unknown to the American public," Tonchi says. "I didn't even know some of them. This is really the history of Italian fashion, before Armani, Versace, Prada and all of that. This is really something before. A lot of people may have thought Italian fashion started with Armani and Versace."

Tonchi says the exhibit also shows shoes and bags from Italian labels such as Ferragamo and Gucci. The inclusion of Bulgari jewelry, he says, is especially important.

"Bulgari's history mirrors the history of Italian fashion," he says. "Until the '50s, Italian jewelry, like the fashion, was an imitation of the French houses, Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels. In the '50s, they become confident to express their own point of view, mixing stones of different colors and different values. It was not only about diamonds, but tourmaline and turquoise, too."

Clearwater adds that this exhibit dovetails with the permanent collection of postwar, avant-garde European artists.

"A lot of artists at the time felt this time was ground zero," Clearwater says. "There was even a group called the Zero Group. They felt this was a new beginning. For them, abstract art meant modernism … and international. They saw the abstract [movement] as the means of rejoining the world. Remember, Italy was a Fascist country. So you have someone like Lucio Fontano who cut right through the canvas. That kind of nihilistic gesture is picked up by fashion designers in the fabric."

The spark for this age was the Marshall Plan, or the European Recovery Program, which pumped billions into Europe to rebuild economies after the devastation of WWII. In Italy, that relief pumped large sums into the country's textile mills.

"They really invested a lot into the Italian economy in a very different way that they did in, say, France," Tonchi says. "In Italy, it was the small, family businesses, the artisans and the textile mills. These kinds of businesses were very strong and important to the economy in Italy, unlike France and Germany."

Italy's glamorous movie business — with directors such as Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci exporting films globally — disseminated the Italian aesthetic, which was more practical and modern than the looks coming from Paris.

"Hollywood on the Tiber was a shining example," Tonchi says. "Ten kilometers away was Yugoslavia and the Russians. It was the Cold War. All these glamorous movie stars started wearing the Italian designs. Americans became the best ambassadors of Italian style. They wanted to show that the American dream could become the Italian dream."

"Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968" will run Feb. 7-June 5 at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $12 adults; $8 seniors and military; $5 students; free for children under 12. For more information, call 954-525-5500 or go to NSUArtMuseum.org.

An Italian-themed operatic concert by artists from the Glimmerglass Festival that was specially curated for the exhibit will be staged in the Museum's Horvitz Auditorium at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9. The Glimmerglass Festival is a summertime event in New York state. Tickets cost $40 for general admission and can be ordered by calling 954-262-0204 or emailing MOAreservations@moafl.org.

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