Rome Has the Experimental Moda

Unique pieces from 25 designers of extraordinary fashion were united for a few days in Rome last week for the fifth edition of Altaroma’s Limited/Unlimited, a showcase developed by Silvia Venturini Fendi to promote the creativity of Italian fashion and set a new direction for Rome’s haute couture. Displayed on a pale gray and white chessboard floor posed in the ancient Sala Baglivi in the Complesso Monumentale Santo Spirito in Sassia, one of the frescoed halls which once housed the Vatican hospital, Limited/Unlimited’s ephemeral “Sculptural” show offers a bird’s eye view of the current state of fashion as art, from Italy and the rest of the world.

A pair of pumps which resemble a jagged balancing act of toothpicks (actually in leather-covered nylon) from Brazil’s Andreia Chaves’ “Naked Version,” 2011 invisible shoe series, is placed not far from “Corde” 2007, a couture gown that has been pressed into a sharp-edged square, so stiff it appears to stand on its own, in pure gold silk mikado with gold cord and turquoise cabochon trim, by Rome’s master couturier Roberto Capucci, who is 82.

“I didn’t want to limit the choice to Italian designers,” says Fendi. “Throughout the year, I look at all sorts of things. It’s not that I travel to find them, but I see things on the Internet and I have scouts who bring me ideas. The purpose of Limited/Unlimited is to highlight fashion creativity, but of course also to present Italian designers within that. And I think Rome is a perfect showcase for this.”

The show included work from young Italian designers who produce their collections independently—Sergio Zambon, Marco de Vincenzo, Aquilano Rimondi, and Francesco Scognamiglio, to name a few—and Italian powerhouses Valentino and Fendi. Also on view were key looks from London’s Gareth Pugh and Mary Katrantzou and Maison Michel in Paris.

Unique pieces from true outsiders—like Japan’s Aoi Kotsuhiroi, whose biography states: “I was a mistake, a wild animal without feathers and with different lifetimes”—blur the border between fashion and objects. Kotsuhiroi’s “Unknown Embrace,” 2012, is what she calls a “foot object,” a one-of-a-kind pair of spike-heeled sandals which look like an African sculpture one might pray to, made from Urushi lacquered horns, lacquered cherry-tree wood, bison leather, and horse hair. London designer Cat Potter’s foot fetish is smoother. Inspired by architecture and the wooden sculpture of Australian artist Ricky Swallow, her wooden shoes look like polished bookends, with hinges which allow the block-like forms to open so they can actually be worn.

Next to these exotic propositions, Marco de Vincenzo’s chocolate fur-lined leather jacket with white curve-sculpting seams, from his Rome-inspired Fall/Winter 2012/13 collection, seems positively sedate. Vincenzo launched his label in 2009 with a show in Paris and has worked with an assistant in his atelier in Rome ever since. He now shows in Milan and sells to stores all over the world, including Blake in Chicago. Fabric design is his focus, and for his Rome collection, Vincenzo airbrushed dresses for a 3-D sculpture look, designed coats inspired by Roman carriage doors in cashmere with rubber studs, and mimicked Roman marble in pleated silk.

Tiziano Guardini, a Rome native, is in his first season making clothes and accessories inspired by his passion for nature and haute couture. His fierce-looking coat for Limited/Unlimited, in tree cortex, is embroidered with pinecone petals and embellished with hemp and raffia. More established commercially are Silvano Arnoldo and Massimiliano Battois, who produce their Arnoldo)(Battois collection in Venice (where they also teach fashion). The pair’s “Elefante” bag in soft nappa leather resembles an elephant’s wrinkled trunk in pleats inspired by the techniques of historical couturiers Madeleine Vionnet and Mariano Fortuny.

Rome-based designer Sergio Zambon, who shows his Zambon collection in Milan, maintains his atelier in Rome, where he previously worked for Fendi. His little black “Swim” dress in the show, in silk cady and nylon, comes from his his 2010 experiment to morph swimwear and dresses in a mix of 1950s and 1980s style. Zambon pairs the dress with his banana heels: a pair of classic black patent-leather pumps posed on a banana-yellow “pop-kinky” heel.

“Rome and Milan are like Los Angeles and New York,” says Zambon. “Of course it’s slower here, and not as easy to produce as it is in Milan, but Hedi Slimane has set up his studio to work on Saint Laurent in Los Angeles, so why not?” Zambon produced a reedition of illustrious Rome couture house Galitzine’s trademark palazzo pajamas last year and is currently working on a capsule collection to revive Galitzine, one of the most illustrious Roman couture houses from the late ’50s and ’60s, which will be presented in Milan in September.