1. Here I am in the finished product... my luscious white maxi designed by the Michelangelo of haute couture, the fabulous Fabiani. Believe me, a girl doesn't have to wait long for a light when swathed in such elegance. The place? Rome's Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo himself.
Ever wonder what it was like to have a garment made for you at a couture house back in their golden age? This article from a 1970 Cosmopolitan gives a easy-to-understand yet thorough overview of the purchasing process—and through that the make up of most houses. In this article Nancy Friday visits Fabiani in Rome, then one of the top couturiers in Italy. As mentioned below, Alberto Fabiani was born in to a family of couturiers where he learned his trade as a child—he then apprenticed in Paris before taking over his parent's couture house in the late 1930s. While his parents had copied directly from the French haute couture, Alberto Fabiani was one of a group of young Italian designers who sought to design fashions that spoke to the life and modes of their country. Alongside his famous wife, the couturier Simonetta (Duchessa Simonetta Colonna di Cesaro) and others, Fabiani helped create an Italian Renaissance in fashion design in the 1950s. By 1970 he was a few years away from retirement (in 1974) but still recognized internationally as a designer for the jet set and for his clean, sleek tailoring.
Text by Nancy Friday and photos by Giralamo di Majo for Cosmopolitan, March 1970.
COUTURIER: The very word makes the palms damp with desire... but clammy with caution. A word so elegant (like filet mignon) they don't even translate it. And so expensive they say couture is dying out even in Europe. Dying? Without me ever having sampled a single handmade, custom-designed item? Me, the girl who wants to try everything at least once... and maybe twice? Last fall I found the answer to the dilemma: I would invest sensibly in couture by making my first purchase a long, long maxi. Wouldn't that be practical? I'd have the dernier mot in this year's fashion... and a lifelong investment to boot (for today's long, long maxi is tomorrow's medium-long maxi, the next day's middle-of-the-calf maxi.
2. Let me tell you my couturier story from the beginning. It starts with a short taxi ride to Fabiani's elegant marble palazzo on Rome's street of dreams—the Via Condotti, where all the best shops are. Trembling, full of doubts and second thoughts, I make myself press the button that will open the door to an experience I won't ever forget. Clutching my purse (containing my annual bonus, saved for a moment like this), I say a fervent prayer to the god who watches over the working girl. And I wonder what it will be like on the other side of the door. Who awaits me? A matron in starched black who will size me up right away as no Jackie Onassis?
3. "Good afternoon," smiles the charming commessa (saleslady), who escorts me into the grande salone. What would I like to see? she asks in English. "Coats," I reply, and for an hour the mannequins model the new collection just for me, while the saleslady answers my questions (even prices). I love the style of this black-and-white coat but I want it long and white. Why not all the way?
4. The commessa agrees, opening books of marvelous fabrics. "The coat will be made for you, by hand, to your measurements, in your color, to the length you choose." I find a dazzling gabardine fabric. "This one," I say, and her response voices my secret hopes: "You will have the most elegant maxi in Rome. And next year, if you tire of it... cut it down. It was designed to be short, no?"
5. The style and fabric decided, Flavio, the head tailor on all the coats and suits (another tailor supervises only dresses and light-weight fabrics), comes in to take my measurements. Flavio answers only to Fabiani himself. When you consider the cost of couture fabrics alone, you understand why Flavio takes dozens of measurements.
6. Il Maestro, Fabiani, cuts the fabric for my coat with his mammoth cutting shears, the prime tool of a great couturier's trade... but only a few designers can use scissors anymore. Fabiani leaned from his parents, who started the House of Fabiani; today he is the only couturier who cuts his own toiles and original models. It is why he considered one of the greatest coat-makers in the world.
7. The laboratorio where all the behind-the-scenes work goes on... hand work. Each girl is assigned to my coat has a special task... a sleeve, the collar, etc... and they will spend thirty hours perfectly each detail. Because this intricate hand labor takes time, you must allow the designer time. Meaning: Go to the salon the first day of your vacation. Then allow ten days.
8. The first fitting: And I'm worried. I mean, look at the coat: too short, too shapeless, too wide... and all those big basting stitches! But Flavio and the capo gruppo (head girl of the team who works on my maxi) go imperturbably on. They know why the individual pieces of the coat have been simply pasted together: so that Flavio can r-i-p, and re-pin, and r-i-p again... until he is satisfied that the fit is perfection.
9. Second fitting: Stiffening has been put in the collar and down the front... shape emerges: the soft, flowing line of couture which, uniquely, can only be done by using a huge iron to mold the fabric forever, like sculpture. (Never, never any darts in high fashion!) Now is the moment: Fabiani himself snips off a centimeter here, two there.... adding that smashing, haute couture touch. Fabiani, a great feminist, could never let you leave looking anything less than a principessa.
10. Ecco! The entire cast assembles to applaud the New Me at the final fitting: pure silk ($4 a meter) lines the four meters of double gabardine ($60 a meter). The buttons ($2.50 each), handmade and hand-dyed to match the white exactly, have been sewn on, the seams stitched for eternity... and the coat steamed again. Over one hundred hours of work by six people and the genius of one man. Now the label: FABIANI. And encased in my cloudlike white maxi, I am ready for the bill: $700 for elegance that will wear forever, that I will wear this year and next, put away for a year and bring out again knowing that anytime, anywhere, I have the best coat of all. Couturier expensive? Only when you pay the bill—never after that.