by Roderick Conway Morris

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Nicolao Atelier
Stefano Nicolao at his Atelier

When Life's a Carnival, Venetian Tailor is the Designer

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 4 February 1997


One of the most enduring and productive offshoots of the spontaneous, grass-roots led revival of the Venice Carnival in the late 1970s was the creation of Nicolao Atelier, a sartorial box of wonders, a few minutes' walk from the Rialto Bridge.

This year's Carnival, which marks the 200th anniversary of the last before the fall of the Venetian Republic (and runs until February 11), will undoubtedly be infused with nostalgia for the much-lamented (by the Venetians, at least) ancien regime. And, if you see some reveler dressed in stylish 18th-century costume, whether as a gondolier or grande dame, which would satisfy the exigencies of even the most sharp-eyed fashion historian, the chances are that the clothes were made by Stefano Nicolao and his dozen expert and nimble-fingered helpers.

Although Nicolao still regards himself as primarily a cinematic and theatrical costumier supplying clothes for any historical period - his costumes for the recent film 'Farinelli' won a string of awards including a Cesare and a Golden Globe - he also has an ever- increasing stream of private clients come to him asking for one-off pieces for evening and even day wear.

'I think I must be the only tailor in Venice who isn't the son or daughter of a tailor or dressmaker,' said tall, blond and bearded, Venetian-born Nicolao, at his workshop on the eve of Carnival last week. 'I started by studying theatrical design at the Fine Arts Academy here in Venice, but before finishing went on the stage as an actor. I realized after a while that I was really more interested in what went on back-stage, and I had the opportunity to work at the city theater in Trieste and learn the tricks of the trade. To my amazement, I was then asked to run the costume department, which was a rather frightening prospect, but I took the plunge and accepted. In the first years of the revival of the Venice Carnival, there were dozens of different theater groups performing, not to mention a sudden rise is demand for costumes generally, and this gave me the chance to return to live and work in my home town, something I'd always wanted to do.'

International commissions followed, including making costumes in the Himalayas for the 'Marco Polo' film spectacular. 'It was an extraordinary experience. We were trekking and riding on ponies at over 3,500 metres, working with authentic natural materials, and dying, cutting, and sewing with no electricity in places where life had hardly changed since Marco Polo's day,' Nicolao said.

Among his somewhat less arduous subsequent tasks has been the making of some exceptionally sumptuous Renaissance costumes for a Chicago Opera production of 'Don Carlos', which involved the painstaking manufacture of hand-made velvets, reviving ancient techniques. Nicolao has amassed a considerable personal collection of historical clothes from the 18th century onwards, many of which he has bought at country auctions, often in France. 'These authentic examples are a constant source of reference for me, as are the important research that has been carried out at places like the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

'Tailoring in the past was not done in quite the same way as now - indeed, elaborate clothes were built up around a person's body in a way that's quite striking today. And by studying the past you can learn alternative techniques. For example, in an 18th-century-style dress, instead of wearing a corset underneath, you can build the stiffening into the bodice, which can make the dress more flexible and comfortable - but looks the same from the outside.'

Many of Nicolao's private clients originally came to him to hire a costume for Carnival or a ball or party, and have since come back again to order something especially made for them. 'The point about evening dress is that it's actually a kind of costume or fancy dress. And I suppose most of the designs I've devised for private clients are in some ways 'historical', or at least inspired by forms from the past - whether its something from the 18th century or the 1920s or '30s. But I'm not a normal stylist in that I don't try to impose my taste on my clients. They usually come with an idea of their own, a fantasy almost, and we work on it together.

'Some of my clients are now remarkably young - girls and boys in their teens to early twenties. They want ball gowns and dinner jackets and tuxedos, usually with a slightly period style. In a way they're children getting dressed up as adults. But I suppose this kind of reaction to the all-pervasive casual everyday styles is inevitable.'

A Nicolao hand-made dress usually costs between 900,000 and 1.8 million lire ($560 to $1,120), and up to 4 million for a really intricate wedding dress (his wedding dresses, like his historical costumes, can also be hired, from a wardrobe of around 6,000). The exotic range of Nicolao's styles make it well-nigh impossible for two people in the same room to find themselves wearing the same dress, even when it comes to fabrics, of which he keeps a vast and varied stock. 'Fortunately, firms like Bevilacqua and Rubelli here in Venice and others in, for example, Lyon, still produce many 'historical' patterns - though often these are now made principally for upholstery and furnishings. Another useful source are producers who specialize in materials for ecclesiastical vestments.'

To coincide with the anniversary of the fall of the Republic on May 12, 'Serenissima: The Arts of Fashion in Venice, from the 13th to the 18th century', an exhibition drawn from public and private collections in Venice and elsewhere, embracing pictures, historical clothes, shoes, fans and other contemporary accessories, will open at the Accademia Italiana in London (until July 20). The show is a new version of one held in New York in the winter of 1995-96, and once again Nicolao has been invited to design and stage a cat-walk-cum-historical drama, called 'Venetian Reflections', for a gala evening at the Westminster Theater on June 3, illustrating the development of Venetian fashion down the centuries, with a cast of over 50 models, dancers and acrobats, and nearly 300 costumes. Aside from the gala, there will also be a special morning session for teachers and students of fashion and design, so that they can examine closely the clothes and materials - something that proved popular when the show was done in New York.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024