Spanish fashion designer Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949) created limited-edition collections for his avant-garde clientele by transforming sumptuous, hand-printed fabrics into elegantly columnar dresses. At his Venice atelier in the early years of the 20th century, Fortuny developed a proprietary technique for hand-pleating silk that became a widely recognized visual signature in women's luxury apparel.
In addition to designing high-fashion women's garments, Mariano Fortuny and his Venice studio produced luxury textiles for his interior-furnishings business, and this continued to thrive in the decades following his death. However, he made his name with the House of Fortuny, producing dresses, capes, and other costly wares that became a favorite of modern dancers, boundary-breaking actresses, and affluent fashion mavericks shortly after he launched the company in 1906. The studio's peak years came in the 1920s, when he operated boutiques in both Paris and New York City. As Kennedy Fraser wrote in the New Yorker column, “Fortuny's pleated-silk gowns, colored like jewels or hothouse fruits and shaped like Greek chitons, have a legendary place in the history of twentieth century fashion.” Referencing a 1981 retrospective exhibition then on display at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Fraser argued that Fortuny “stood aloof from fashion in his day and, as a result, has never entirely gone out of fashion.”
Born on May 11, 1871, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was one of two children and the only son of highly regarded artist Marià Fortuny y Marsal. A Catalonia-born Spaniard, Fortuny y Marsal was considered one of the top portraitists and landscape painters of his day. Of particular interest to art historians were the majestic battle-scene series he would complete on royal commission while traveling with Spanish forces in Morocco. By the time of his son's birth in the Spanish city of Granada, Marià Fortuny was widely known throughout Europe and represented by Goupil, the prestigious Paris art dealer.
At the time of Fortuny's birth, his father spent extended periods of time in Italy and contracted a malarial fever while visiting Naples. He died in Rome in November of 1874, when his son was three, prompting the newly widowed Doña Cecilia de Madrazo to settle in Paris to be near her family. Also of Spanish origin, the Madrazo clan included several prominent painters during the late 19th century, and Fortuny's maternal grandfather and greatgrandfather each served as director of Madrid's world-class art collection housed in the Museo del Prado.
Fortuny was especially entranced by photography and other technological advances that were revolutionizing the arts. The harnessing of electricity into lamps for interior use was a particularly exciting development. In the early 1890s, he began working in the southern German city of Bayreuth, where composer Richard Wagner had built a venue tailored to the specific needs of his epic cycle of operas. Fortuny first made his name while serving as a set designer for Bayreuth Festival Theatre productions.
At Bayreuth, Fortuny developed what became known as the “Fortuny cyclorama,” which earned a mention in a 1919 issue of the journal Arts & Decoration. Noting that the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City boasts “skies [that] … are surely the best stage skies in New York,” the anonymous writer explained that the playhouse utilizes “an adaptation of the well-known Fortuny Cyclorama—a dome of plaster which gives great depth and saturation to the blue lights thrown upon it.” In 1922, Fortuny was commissioned to create a variation on his cyclorama at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, one of the world's most famous opera houses.
Fortuny's career as a fashion designer was linked to his longtime professional and romantic relationship with Henriette Negrin, a dressmaker he met in Paris in 1897. She was divorced, and this status was a rarity enough to upset the conservative-minded Doña Cecilia, who also lived in Venice. After a few years of clandestine meetings, Negrin finally joined Fortuny in Venice in 1902, where three years earlier he had acquired the rundown Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei, named for its 18th-century tenant. Located near the fabled Piazza San Marco, the Orfei address became the atelier for Fortuny as he transitioned from painting and stage-set work to textile production and interior design.
Both Fortuny and Negrin were enraptured by the archeological discoveries being unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete and on the Greek mainland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These included excavations at Knossos, an enormous late Bronze Age site on Crete, and the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Described in the Greek myths as the navel of all humankind, the temple and its religious-ritual structures formed an especially exciting trove. Fortuny's generation of classically educated Westerners were astonished by the lifesized sculptures hauled out of the ground nearly 2,400 years after they were first erected.
Foremost among the Temple of Apollo discoveries was the Charioteer of Delphi, one of the oldest and most cannily lifelike bronze sculptures of a human figure ever to be found on European soil. Dating to roughly 475 BCE, the standing Charioteer had a noble visage, but it was the way the unknown sculptor had created subtle pleats in the statue's robe that struck art historians as remarkable. Fortuny was fascinated by the perfectly arranged draping around the shoulders and torso and the long skirt's pleasingly tidy column of pleats, which maintained their linear precision in bronze all the way down to a neat hemline.
In 1906, Fortuny created what became known as the Knossos scarf while designing sets and costumes for a private ballet performance in Paris. When the long, handprinted silk scarves became a minor sensation, he began fielding requests for custom versions. The American dancer Ruth St. Denis gave the item a more public debut during one of her Berlin engagements in 1907. Her Indian-dance performances effectively launched Fortuny's career as a fashion designer, which began in earnest with his revolutionary Delphos gown.
Inspired by the Charioteer of Delphi, Fortuny's signature dress featured the same style of loosely gathered folds and a columnar pleated skirt. The Delphos gown, moreover, was designed to be worn without the constraint of a corset, which made it a favorite of transgressive women whose careers centered around the emerging Modernist movement in the arts. Even French novelist Marcel Proust paid homage to it in one of the later volumes of his sevenvolume masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past.
One of the few outsiders to forge a tight bond with Fortuny and his art was American socialite Elsie Kruse McNeill, a fashion trendsetter and interior designer. On a visit to Paris in the mid-1920s, she encountered Fortuny's fabrics on display at the Carnavalet Museum and successfully petitioned the designer and his wife to train as their apprentice. McNeill then struck an arrangement to sell Fortuny fabrics and furnishings to interior design professionals from a New York City showroom, and she invested heavily in Fortuny's company. Her efforts proved successful, despite challenges that included trade restrictions imposed by Italy's Fascist dictatorship during the 1920s and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
Fortuny died on May 3, 1949, at the Palazzo Orfei in Venice (some sources give May 2 as his death date). Eight years earlier, McNeill had wed Humphrey Armitage Lee, the scion of a British textile-dealing fortune. Lee was killed while driving his car near the junction of New York City's Triborough Bridge and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive; he was en route to meet Henriette Negrin Fortuny, who was mourning her husband's recent death.
Following Fortuny's death, the company carried on with Negrin at the helm and Elsie McNeill Lee managing the U.S. division. Output was slim, and Fortuny left explicit instructions that no new apparel be produced under his name after Negrin's death. Although she died in 1965, the last known Delphos dress was thought to have been made in 1952.
Because of their scarcity, Fortuny originals became among the first highly coveted designer items sought by collectors of vintage couture. Their allure was bolstered by occasional references in fashion magazines, such as the 1969 Vogue profile of iconic socialite Gloria Vanderbilt “In Her Fabled Fortuny Dresses,” as the headline read. A 1980 article running in the London Times mentioned that Delphos dresses could be located in specialty resale boutiques in New York City for as much as $4,000 each.
Fortuny's separate interior design and textile business remained in continuous operation at its showroom at 509 Madison Avenue from 1929 until the late 1980s, retaining its close association with the Giudecca workplace in Venice. Fortuny, Inc. relocated to midtown Manhattan a few years after the death of Elsie McNeill Lee (who became Countess Gozzi after her 1959 marriage to an Italian aristocrat). Widely credited with keeping the Fortuny textile business active and profitable in the decades following the deaths of its founders, Lee worked past her 100th birthday and ensured that the company remained a carefully managed small operation. The succession team that took over after the death of the 104-year-old countess in 1994 included her attorney, Maged Riad, whose sons Mickey and Maury maintain the Fortuny legacy. The Palazzo Orfei was donated to the city of Venice and became an art museum.
The continued ardor for Proust novels also kept the Fortuny brand au courant; Proustian scholars assert that Fortuny is the only living artist mentioned by the French writer in Remembrance of Things Past. Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer showed his awareness of Fortuny's place in fashion. In a 2013 New York Review of Books interview with Ioanna Kohler, the constitutional law scholar discussed one of the Proust heroines, a woman who “has managed to turn herself into a work of art. With her allure, her choice of clothing, the flowers that adorn her neckline, the way she holds her parasol as she strolls, she becomes an artwork,” Breyer remarked. “Later, in the Albertine cycle, the narrator is obsessed with the Venetian couturier Fortuny. Why? Because Fortuny transformed women into works of art.”
Deschodt, Anne-Marie, and Doretta Davanzo Poli, Fortuny, translated from French by Anthony Roberts, Abrams, 2001.
Arts & Decoration, December 1919, “A Little Theatre with Great Ideals,” p. 99.
New York Review of Books, November 7, 2013, Ioanna Kohler, “On Reading Proust” (originally published in La Revue des Deux Mondes), translated from the French by Antony Shugaar.
New Yorker, July 13, 1981, Kennedy Fraser, “Feminine Fashions,” pp. 84–85.
Times (London, England), September 16, 1980, Lou Taylor, “Fashion,” p. 7.
Vogue, December 1969, “Kore-Sculpture in Cloth: Mrs. Wyatt Emory Cooper in Her Fabled Fortuny Dresses,” p. 243.
Fortuny—Visionary Legacy, http://fortuny.com/ (December 10, 2017). □