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

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.


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.


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 .

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