I’m a hard-core shmatte addict, and nothing makes me happier than pawing through someone else’s discarded clothes, looking for treasures. My hunt takes me from the high end (Housing Works, and the string of charity shops that used to line Third Avenue in Manhattan) to the low (flea markets and the humble-but-reliable Salvation Army) and everything in between. So I was especially eager to check out the once-a-year blowout sale at Marlene Wetherell, one of my favorite vintage dealers in Manhattan. I found myself attracted to a black leather-trimmed wool pants-and-tunic combo that didn’t exactly wow me on the hanger but was so soft and comfy that I decided to give it the proverbial whirl. That’s when the wow became apparent. The seeming effortlessness of it was deceptive—it was as comfy as it had looked, but also pulled together, polished and very chic. The pants fit like a dream and two pieces could be worn together or separately, belted or not. The top allowed for layering, expanding its seasonal range. Clearly the thing had to be mine, so home with me it went.
After it had been introduced to some of the other pieces I imagined pairing it with and had settled happily in my closet, I was curious about the designer, Roberta di Camerino, whose name wasn’t one I knew. I did a bit of Google sleuthing and that was how I found the fascinating story of a can-do Jewish woman who used adversity to spur an illustrious career in fashion. Here’s her story, some of it in her own words.
Born Giuliana Coen in 1920, she was part of a wealthy Venetian family. Her grandfather owned a pigment factory, where young Giuliana became intrigued by the process of color matching, perhaps setting her life on its course (the factory would later become the atelier for her fashion house). At 18, she married Guido Camerino, and in 1943 the couple was forced to flee to Lugano to escape the looming Nazi menace. It was there that Camerino had her aha! moment:
“I was a refugee in Switzerland and I was forced to sell my bag, a leather bucket bag that I bought in Venice. That day I went home with all my belongings in a scarf. The next day I was searching for an economic bag, but I couldn’t find anything fashionable at a reasonable price. So I thought: what if I reproduce with my own hands that bag?
“I bought leather, a ball of string, a curved needle. Briefly I sewed my old bucket bag. I didn’t know I was triggering a mechanism that could change my life forever. The next week a policeman on a train arrested me for smuggling. I discovered that the lady who bought my old bag…was the one who denounced me. I bumped into her after the sale and she saw my new bag, identical to hers: so she went immediately to the nearest police station, accusing me to smuggle leather Italian goods into Switzerland’s market. The misunderstanding was soon cleared up, but that event changed my life. The press was interested too and I received a lot of job offers. So I began to sew bags.”
Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. When the war ended in 1945, Camerino and her husband returned to Venice and settled in their house at Campo Santa Maria Formosa. She then hired a few leather artisans to get started. But the conventional model of a handbag bored her; instead she was eager to create something fresh and original.
“Bags until then were strange objects. Too severe and without colors. There was only one rule to follow: the color of the bag must match with the color of the shoes. So I thought: what if I designed colorful and glamorous bags, that didn’t follow the rules anymore? At Vogini (a high end store in Venice), we put on display a soft leather bag, that could be closed with a double fold: at the time we didn’t know we were doing avant-garde accessories. We had to invent something: a bag should always be a container, maybe more elegant, but surely more outstanding. It was hard to reinvent an object, so closed in its traditions, into something new, then finally the idea came: I had to add something to the leather. I thought I had to create something important.”
She decided to name the fledgling company—as well as herself and later her daughter—Roberta after a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was the last song that Giulliana Camerino danced to before she had to leave her home for Switzerland and she said she adopted the name as a memory of earlier happier times. She added her husband’s surname, Camerino, to complete it.
By 1947 Camerino’s company had expanded to 10 artisans. It was also the year she became friends with Coco Chanel. “When we met in Paris for the first time, I gave her two bags. She was so enthusiastic that the same night, at dinner, she wore one of them. That night she told me something I would never forget. My husband had just called me from Venice, telling me that the market was full of my bags’ fakes. I called Chanel crying, telling her that I was puzzled and I preferred to stay in my hotel’s room for the night. She laughed out loud and she told me: ‘It’s amazing, there you go! You’ll cry the day they won’t copy you anymore!’”
By 1950, the growing company needed to find a bigger location. Camerino opened her factory near a school-laboratory in Venice, called Zitelle, and part of its goal was to help dropout girls find employment. Her line was beginning to command attention. When Stanley Marcus, the founder of the “Fashion Award,” came to Venice, he visited her factory as well as another artisanal laboratory at Bevilacqua, where antique looms were used to produce high quality velvet for ecclesiastical dress. It was a fortuitous coincidence because Camerino had intended to use that just that kind of precious velvet to create a new type of bag.
“Velvet fascinated me, because of its vibrant colors. Night blue, deep red, bottle green. They matched perfectly. I spent hours and hours searching for the best way to make this brand new fabric work. I sketched a bag, and then another and another one….the essential design of a doctor bag inspired me so much, more than other bags’ shapes. I remembered some boxes set and jewelry boxes..I thought about small buckles and belts…It was a long process…at the end the idea: we had to make a figured velvet for my bags. We could weave buckles and all the other decorations: I mean they would be part of the bag, but they would be an illusion, a trompe-l’oeil.”
Out of this process her most famous bag, the Bagonghi, was born. It was made of colorful velvet, and had an odd shape inspired by Bagonghi, which was the name of the dwarf clown Camerino had seen at the circus as a child. In 1956, Camerino won a Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in recognition of the success and influence of her handbags. Her cut-velvet bags featured brass hardware made by Venetian craftsmen, and were carried by celebrities such as Grace Kelly, Farrah Fawcett and Elizabeth Taylor.
She continued on in this innovative vein, using densely patterned and colored fabrics that in the past been used only for clothing. As early as 1946, she had created a bag patterned with a trellis of R’s, foreshadowing the famous G’s used by Gucci. In 1957, she was using woven leather well before Bottega Veneta made the technique its trademark. And in 1964, she made a handbag with an articulated frame that was later reproduced by Prada.
By the mid 1960’s, she branched out into clothing, and the black ensemble I’d bought was probably from a few years later, sometime in the 1970’s. Some of her fabrics were woven on antique looms, which helped support local industry in post-war Italy. The first Roberta di Camerino fashion show, held in Venice in 1949, was remembered as a quite an elaborate spectacle.
Camerino was keenly aware of how the needs of the modern women had evolved. She wanted to use fabrics that didn’t wrinkle, and designs that were extremely wearable and easy, but also exceptional. “Time has changed. Housemaids, who helped women to get dressed, didn’t exist anymore. And then it was very difficult to match the right T-shirts with that kind of suit or with those jackets. Not to mention traveling. How many times did you happen to forget that specific accessory? So my ideal dress had to solve all your problems: I imagined it as a T-shirt, in which you could slip easily and get ready in one go. For many years I sketched tromp-l’oeil on velvet and one day I decided to apply this unique method also on my dresses. On them I sketched everything a woman should need to feel herself well dressed: buttons, a belt, lapels and the blouse beneath them and even the last buttonhole of the sleeve was undone, just like the most elegant men did. And then a huge variety of prints, which made the history of the tromp-l’oeil.”
In 1980 Camerino closed her fashion house and turned to the lucrative licensing deals for ties, scarves, aprons, and wallpaper. Exhibits of her work—at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology—soon followed.
In 1996 the Roberta di Camerino label was revived, and began to re-issue the handbags, which were sold through New York and other department stores, including Neiman Marcus, which had been the first American story to carry her line. The Sixty Group acquired the label in 2008, and at that point, many of the licensing deals were terminated.
On May 10, 2010, di Camerino became ill, and she died in Venice that night; she was 89. The Mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, remembered her as a friend, entrepreneur and an active promoter of Venice and Italian-made goods, especially during the Italy’s struggling post-war years.
I’m not sure why I find it so important to know all this. But I do. Helena Rubinstein, another powerful Jewish entrepreneur, said that for a woman, the act of applying cosmetics was akin to the construction of an identity with which she could face the world. I believe the same can be said of our clothes. And if that’s the case, then understanding the vision that gave rise to a particular garment and the context in which it was made becomes an integral part of that identity. I haven’t worn my Roberta di Camerino pants ensemble yet. But when I do, I hope it will project a bit of the fortitude and grace that helped her create it.