Saturday, February 26, 2011

London Town-





After so many weeks without understanding French or Italian  -I was thrilled to be able to understand people and talk to them .In the taxi driving from the airport it was heaven to understand and hear a radio station in English .I felt very much at home in England as South Africa was a British Colony for so long.Through my trusted travel companion " Europe on $5 a day" I found a very nice hotel at a very reasonable price on Sussex Gardens near Paddington Station. I had my mail forwarded to  South Africa House on Trafalgar Square so the first chance I got , I rushed there to get my mail.it was so much fun to read the letters from my parents as well as some friends. I felt I belonged somewhere again!..



South Africa House Trafalgar Square.



Sussex Gardens.


Alitalia uniforms by Mila Schon.

Through the Alitalia Airlines  ( Mila Schon designed their flight attendants uniforms at the time )  I met a woman that agreed to teach me Italian .She was a retired Italian  opera singer married to a Polish gentleman. The  problem was that she was so busy. The only time she could see me was 8:00 am 5 times a  week. I was to come to her house at that time and she told me she would be dressed but I will have to come into her bedroom and while she did her make-up the lesson started. When she was done there, we went into the kitchen and while she had breakfast I got the rest of my hour Italian lesson + coffee!She decided to teach me only one  past tense- and one future tense. The vocabulary mostly had to do with fashion :- what is the word was for a dress, a coat ,hem, dart ,neckline etc. After the three month I could tell them in Italian-I went, I was going tomorrow and I am going now.....She was fantastic.
Meanwhile I could not wait to get the Royal Opera House. I went to the box office and saw that Grace Bumbry was singing in Richard Strauss's opera "Salome" there.After my experiences in the Italian  opera houses of Rome and Mila,-I was longing to see a "La Traviata"  "Rigoletto" or "Aida" .That was my type of opera at that stage of my life , but I could not miss the chance to hear Miss Bumbry.



Royal Opera House

I was in seventh heaven walking into the opera house with its small red light shades ( in those days) and the beautiful red velvet curtain. After the light dimmed and the music started- I could  not believe the magnificent music I was hearing.When the half naked Bumbry walked on to the stage and started singing I was mesmerized  by it all. The opera is very sexual and exciting  and seeing this was her first try to sing a opera in the soprano fach -when she was mostly known as a mezzo- the place was packed .What an introduction to Strauss's opera that was for me.I was hooked on this composer for life!



Grace Bumbry as "Salome"




Soon I realized that if you wait outside, before a performance, and wave a pound in the air, you can get a ticket for that night performance. It depended on how desperate people were to get rid of  a ticket.Very often a wealthy patron would just give you the ticket or only take half of what the ticket price was-realizing that one was a broke student. I was so thankful when that happened, that I try and do the same now if I have an extra ticket for a performance.In this way  I got a ticket for "La Sonnambula" the Bellini opera and the singer was Renata Scotto.I was  mad about  the female voice in those days - so to my shame I can not really remember most of the tenors and baritones or bases I  heard. Scotto was small but what a fire cracker .A friend in New York  gave me a recording of that performance later and when I listen to it I realize once again that I heard something outstanding that night. The audience loved it .They are rather reserved in London  but the applause went on and on.
 I had the opportunity to meet Miss Scotto a few years ago here in New York and told her about that experience I had .She thanked me but she said what she remembered about those performances were  the great tenor she sang with.....It was Stuart Burrows the Welsh tenor. I thought that was very kind of her to praise another singer when she did not have to. Later at the Metropolitan Opera I  heard her a few times in much more dramatic roles like "Francesca di Rimini"
One of the great singing actresses of opera .



Renata Scotto

I met an  English guy, Don Keyte  in the opera one night and we started talking. He was from Coventry and come to London a few days a week. He was a big ballet fan as well as an opera fan.  I did not know much about ballet .I knew about the two most famous ballet dancers in the world at that stage. I was thrilled when he offered to sell me a ticket for that sold out performance of "Swan Lake" in a few weeks time with Rudolph Nureyev and Margo Fonteyn.What I found so amazing was that when you see a star you know it- you don't know really why- but it is larger than life. Be it a singer, a ballet dancer or a baseball player. That night I stopped breathing.Ballet is much more visual than opera but it was just as wonderful to see the human body being so graceful. I will always be thankful to Don that he introduced me to ballet.Unfortunately he passed away in 2014.



Nureyev and Fonteyn

One day at South Africa House I  met another South African guy Neil Britz.
He just arrived in London as well to start his studies in Pottery at the Harrow Art School. He had a Doctorate in Botany but after his parents where tragically  killed in a motor car accident in South Africa he decided to come to London and study pottery.



Neil on Trafalgar Square .



We went to the National  Gallery and got along very well. My hotel was costing me quite a bit as well as the Italian lessons.My father was not thrilled that he had to support me for an extra 3 months before I went to Italy, so we decide to share an apartment in a private house in Willesden Green a North West London suburb. This made it a bit easier on the finances .




                                                                        Willesden Green

I met Margaret Smith in South Africa before I left for Europe. She was  a freelance writer on fashion for the South African Newspapers in London. She was Scottish born but to me very British .She was very sweet but had her barriers that you could not cross. She lived in "The White House "in Regent Park. We did become very close friends and would invite me to lunch at The Bistingo in Soho every week and also to fashion shows and other fashion events.



Carnaby Street



Twiggy



Veruschka


She knew a lot of people ,but with the offer from Mila Schon I decided to give that a go first.
 I wanted to work in a European Couture House and London was more instant fashion with Carnaby Street, Biba's Veruschka  and Twiggy .I was not really interested in pop culture - having very long hair ,wearing skintight clothes with  bell bottoms and boots . We all did that up to a point, but the art of elegant couture was what I was interested in .I think when Margaret realized I was not after her to find me a job- she relaxed much more and we became great friends even with  almost a 20  year age difference.Between the Italian lessons, the opera, ballet and theater- the time went so quick so before I knew it the three months were  up and it was time for me to return  to Italy
.

Loris Abate and Mila Schon.

 I did receive a telegram from Mila Schon during this time, telling me that she would be in London. I went to her hotel and had a drink with her and Loris Abate that was her business partner. She did not speak much English so that was the reason I had to learn Italian, so that we  could communicate when I got to Milan. My Italian teacher arranged with some friends in Milan that I would rent a room from a widow that had a son my age. With my three month course of Italian behind me-  a place to stay-,as well as a job- I was set for Italy.



PARIS city of Fashion?



After knowing that I had a job offer at MILA SCHON in Milan-I booked my flight to Paris for the next leg of my work founding mission. I was very excited by the Mila Schon offer but decided to go to Paris as well and see what the city had to offer. I had to learn a new language  so if it was going to be  French or Italian- I would  have to find out.
When I arrive at the Airport in Milan ,it was pandemonium. All the flights were cancelled because of fog and thousand of people where screaming and performing.
I saw a very elegant woman dressed in a magnificent fur coat   with crocodile shoes and handbag.
 I asked her what was going on and she told me that all the planes were cancelled and that the airline  will exchange  flight ticket for a train ticket .She was French and on her way to Paris -so I asked her if I could tag along with her. I don't think she was too thrilled but she agreed.
We took a cab back to Milan and when we arrived at the station it was a bad as the airport! There where hundreds of people at every platform trying to catch a train to various  cities in Europe. She told me to follow her and she marched up to the guy keeping all the people off the platforms. She spoke to him and greased his palm very well, as he lifted the barrier and let the two of us through. She told me to run to the dining car and get a seat for us. As we reached the dining car the flood gates open up and the rest of the passengers where allowed to rush the train.




In the dining car I packed  all out luggage under the table and she ordered drinks for us. Looking the way she looked- they thought we had seats in the train but just came in for a drink .The staff were very charming and for the first 3 hours we had a seat on the packed train. After that they very politely told us that they had to set up the tables for lunch and we had to return to our seats. Nothing that she could say would change their minds and we had to g back into the passage .I gave her my suitcase to sit on so we traveled like this for a while. As  we got to Switzerland some people got off and she found a seat. She claimed another one for me a little while later, and we had a pleasant trip for the rest of the day .By this time she knew my history and she also said that  Jean Patou was her designer and she would try and get an interview with them for me. She was a publisher in Paris and went to Milan for a funeral .That evening when we arrived in Paris she asked where I was going to stay? I showed her my Frommer "Europe on $5 a day " travel book and she found a cheap ,but safe hotel for me. Her driver dropped me off so by the end of the long day I was safe in Paris.



*

I did have Annette De Villiers's telephone number in Paris and I called her the next morning. When the famous French couturier Pierre Balmain visited South Africa Annette modeled for him in Johannesburg and he then offered her a job in Paris. By this time she was not modeling anymore but was married to  a wealthy Frenchman .



Here Penelope Cruz is wearing a Vintage Pierre Balmain dress


She invited me to lunch and we spent the rest of the day buying clothes for the very elegant fashion store - Derbers in Johannesburg. She did this on a freelance basis for them. We went to the Intercontinental Hotel where the designers were showing and it was a wonderful experience for me. Annette knew a designer at Christian Dior and she said she would see what she could do to arrange for an interview for me there.




While I was in Paris- Coco Chanel died -10 January 1971. It was front page news especially in a city like Paris .The day was sad and it was raining and the same morning I saw them fish a dead body out of the Seine River. Paris had a lot of glamor but it was not happy place for me. The  French were snobbish and arrogant and thought there were better than everybody else. I did my share of knocking at the door of most of the fashion houses but no success.



Me in Paris

The interview with Jean Patou that the French publisher arranged for me came to nothing and when I went to see Annette's friend at Dior, they could only offer me a position for designing handbags and leather. I was not interested in that and it felt more and more ,that Milan was the place for me to go. The Italians could be just as rude- but there were not snobs. The were more down to earth and I felt more at home there -than in France.



Molyneux Jersey dress


Johan Tullis on the right.
This photo was taken in South Africa after John retired .


I went tot see the House of Molyneux in Paris as well. Captain Edward Molyneux was born in London and had a fashion houses  in Paris- as well as London. I spoke to the designer John Tullis- Molyneux's cousin -and  he invited me to their fashion show the next day, although he could not offer me a job. The next day I arrived for the show. This was a real Parisian Couture show with the rows of small gilded chairs .The mannequins walked in -without any music- and showed the clothes while the customers made notes. The director of the houses-dressed in black with a white flower on her shoulder called out the number of the dress and the costumers would mark it on their programs if the were interested in the garment .Their main customer was Lady Mary Soames-whom was then married so the British  ambassador in Paris- Lord Christopher Soames. She was the youngest daughter of Winston Churchill. She was there in the front row!



Captain Molyneux.


Lady Mary Soames.

Shortly after the show started some shouts were heard from the street and everybody stormed to the windows to see what was happening - ignoring the fashion show- including Lady Soames.
Paris was rife with student unrest and this was another episode of young hippies throwing rocks and protesting. After the excitement was over, the show could continue....
John Tullis 's  mother was South African .He was a tall elegant man with great style - A real gentleman. After Molyneux closed the Paris fashion house 1977 he went to work with Hartnell  in London and designed a lot for the Queen and the Queen Mother .He designed the outfit that the Queen Mother wore to Prince Charles  and Lady Diana's wedding.



Years later I bumped into him in Johannesburg after he retired. He did not remember me but we became friends then .He lived with his brother and his wife and once  showed me many photos of gowns he did for the Royal family as well as movie stars like Marlene Dietrich .
The kindness of strangers made this job finding mission so much easier for me.


Read more about Molyneux here :-
http://david-toms.blogspot.com/2010_11_18_archive.html





Unfortunately the PARIS OPERA was closed for alterations, so I only saw the beautiful building from outside. I did go to the Johnny Hallyday concert. He was the French Elvis Presley -as well as a  concert by Francoise Hardy









Realizing that Paris -for now - was not the place for me- I moved onto London......and much more- much more opera!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fashion and Opera



After completing my three year Commercial Art degree ,that my father insisted on as he did not see a career in fashion as being that safe , I eventually started my studies in fashion at the American Academy for Technology in  in Cape Town South Africa.  I was the only guy in a class of 30 students. I loved studying fashion at last,  and after completing the course I had to work in the industry for two years before my father agreed that I could further my studies in Europe.




"Academy of Technology" Boston House .Strand Street .Cape Town
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With a open return ticket for a year as well as the addresses of all the most famous fashion houses in Europe ,I set of for Italy in January of 1971. I have always loved Italian Fashion and as my love for music ,and specially opera,  my goal was to try Italy first before I went to Paris or London.

 
Leaving my family behind.
Frikkie, Charel, Zackie,
My parents,
Carin and Quintin.
 
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I had my first encounter with a "diva" when Amelia Rodrique's -the famous Portuguese "Fado" singer -joined our flight  from Lisbon to Rome. She was going there for a series of concerts. I was fascinated by this mysterious woman and a great star in her country as well as the rest of the world.


I was so excited to be in Europe and Rome was just magnificent. It was so old and historic and I was mesmerized by the elegant people on the Via Condotti  as well as the spectacular architecture that is so much part of this ancient city!  It was the beginning of January so for me the weather was quite a shock as we were use to 12 months of sunshine in South Africa. On Monday morning I was up early and ready to go and knock on every fashion house's door in Rome. Not knowing that Monday mornings the shops only open at 3:00 pm , I was rather disappointed that every door I knocked on -stayed shut - until I was told what was going on.Realizing that the morning was wasted, I rushed to the Rome Opera House where I purchased a ticket for that evening's performance of Mussorgsky's "Kovanchina". It was my first opera in an European opera house and the red velvet and the horseshoe shape of the house made me feel that I was "home". It also helped to know that this was the house where Callas had her famous walk-out scandal during  the performance of "Norma"- when she felt she could not finish the opera, as she was ill .






For a country bumpkin like me "Kovanchina" was a rather difficult opera to cut my teeth on- but I did enjoy the experience.After spending the next few days trying to sell myself to any fashion house that would take me - I was rather discouraged. When I gathered enough courage  to go to the Valentino Palazzo on the Piazza di Spagna - Mr. Valentino was not there, but in Capri where he was showing his spring collection .The very elegant , and very kind   "directrice" of the House could see I was rather  miserable and asked me to have cup of tea with her. I will never forget her for that kindness. It is a tough business and fashion people can be very nasty. She said I should not give up and that I would one day  be  just as famous as  Valentino was .How wrong she was - but she tried and I commend her for that. 



Spanish Steps
 
 
Peter Zendman and Sergio Ongibene

 
Ongibene Zendmann was an American and Swiss design team. I was so pleased that I could communicate in English with Mr. Zendmann .He was another kind soul that I encountered in Rome.
He looked at my sketches and said they were good and original but he could not see how creative I was. He  suggested that I restrict  myself to a color story  and design ten outfits, keeping within the guide lines. They could not offer me a job, but his advice was priceless.
The next stop on my quest was the Opera and Fashion capital of Italy -Milano. While  the weather in Rome depressed me, I was suicidal in Milan with the thick fog and rain. I was so miserable I wanted to fly back to South Africa after less than a fortnight in Europe- but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.I did have a contact with one of the most famous Fashion Houses in Milan -but he was out of town when I arrived. It took all my courage to walk up to Via Montenapoleone 1 ,and ask to see to Mila Schon.Mila Schon was a Yugoslavian born designer and on the top of her game. Her design were sold in Saks Fifth Avenue,  Neiman Marcus as well as Bergdorf Goodman .She was also called the Chanel of Italy. Jackie Onassis and Agnelli's wife were among her top clients. She was famous for her double wool suits and up to this day the house is  still in operation. She always wore a black pearl in one ear and a white pearl in the other one.She died three years ago at the age of 95.








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Mila Schon.

Then I also had the excitement of la Scala waiting for me in Milan. To be in the city that is the heart beat of Italian  opera was an unbelievable experience .The first night I saw Rossini's "Barber of Seville"  sitting so high up I could see only a quarter of the stage. It was amazing to hear the audience up there criticizing the singers while the opera was being performed. Two even got into a rather loud argument  about the mezzo -and nobody was very quite and almost all had an opinion about the singing. All this during the performance. The seats are not made for 6'3" tall  people in mind, so I had a very uncomfortable evening at the opera.My next opera was Wagner 's "Parsifal" -Another rather sophisticated opera for  23 year old opera lover "out of  Africa ".It started at 9:00 pm and when I started to realize that all those men around the table all have to sing- it broke my spirit.  I left by 1:00 am , not being able to sit in the cramped seat anymore and to be tortured by all those male voices droning on....Wagner and  Italy is not a very good match in any case. I do love Wagner now and I have enjoyed his "Parsifal"  at the Metropolitan Opera may  years later with Placido Domingo in the title role on a Good Friday .My third opera that at  La Scala was Saint Sean's "Samson and Delilah". Here the audience in the opera boxes chatted and entertained their friends and only shut up when the mezzo sang her famous aria "Softly awakes my heart" and after screaming the hearts out -they returned to the merriment in the boxes and ignored most  of the opera.
 
The next day I had my interview with Mila Schon and I was offered a position with the company -starting in 3 months time .A requirement of the job was  that I had to learn the language and I decide to go to London  -via Paris to study Italian.I was so excited that I was going to be able to combine the two passion of life -fashion and opera-by  not only working in Italy- but in Milano!

Working in a FASHION HOUSE and enjoying myself in the OPERA HOUSE .