Runway News

Art Into Fashion: a Roberto Capucci Retrospective

Roberto Capucci

The line between high art and high fashion is a thin one, and the work of Italian designer Roberto Capucci exemplifies this. Capucci has been famous for his uniquely colorful and sculptural designs since he opened his first atelier in 1950, and is still creating innovative works today. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting the first exhibition of the couturier’s work in the U.S. from March 16 through June 5, Art Into Fashion, and it is a definite must-see for the fashion fan and art aficionado alike.


Capucci was born in Rome in 1930 where he attended the Academia of Bella Arti, apprenticed with Emilio Schuberth, and in 1951 (at the age of only 21) was invited to present at the second Italian fashion showing in Florence. He caught the eye of the fashion world with his 1956 design Nove gonne (Nine Dresses), a red silk taffeta knee length sheath with a nine-layered skirt that lifts in front and cascades to the floor in back (above). The dress, which was featured in a famous American Cadillac advertisement, was inspired by the concentric circles created when a stone is thrown into water. Nature, in fact, is one of Capucci’s inspirations—he has created dresses inspired by calla lilies, fire, and butterflies. This velvet Arancia dress is meant to reflect a peeled orange (below).


Capucci left Italy for Paris in the 60s, where he began to experiment with new, cutting-edge textures.  Art Into Fashion includes a black-and-white dress made entirely out of woven silk ribbons with black feather cuffs and a hood. Capucci was also the first designer to use plastic in his fashions, and examples of his clear plastic mini-dresses are on display. One of the most unique displays in the exhibit begins simply with two dresses ornately covered in jade-colored beads, then the lights turn off to reveal that the beads actually glow in the dark and create eerie disembodied forms. Capucci actually turned off all of the lights at the 1965 runway show where they debuted. He was inspired by a procession of nuns at twilight, whose phosphorescent rosary beads seemed to glow in the dark, and ordered beads from the factory that makes the rosaries to use in his dresses.


This kind of traditional and authentic handicraft is also seen in his 1970s designs, which were created after a trip to India and use bamboo, straw, and even pebbles to adorn their simple Georgette shapes.


In the 80s and 90s, Capucci’s work became increasingly avant-garde and sculptural, and he liberated himself not only artistically from the constraints of the fashion world, but also from the courture calendar by choosing to show only once a year, when and where he wanted. Weaving around Art Into Fashion and taking in the designer’s timeline, one is struck by the architectural evolution of Capucci’s sculpture dresses.



One quality of Capucci’s work that Art Into Fashion makes obvious is his mastery of form and color. His completely unexpected color combinations leap vividly off of the rich fabrics, and some of his dresses feature thousands of tiny pleats molded into outrageous shapes. The sculpture dresses look spectacular when still on the mannequin, but the viewer is able to imagine their energy flowing down the runway in the videos which complement the displays of gowns. Any fashion or design student will be fascinated by the wall of Capucci’s original drawings, which are placed in juxtaposition with the finished gown to allow the viewer to follow the design from whimsical conception to dazzling fruition.


If you’re anywhere near Philadelphia this spring, a stop by Art Into Fashion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will leave you swooning for Capucci’s technicolor sculptures.

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