Born: Duchess Simonetta Colonna di Cesaró, Rome, Italy, 10 April 1922. Family: Married Count Galaezzo Visconti di Modrone, 1944 (divorced, 1959); married Alberto Fabiani (divorced); children: Verde, Bardo. Career: Opened design studio, Rome, 1946-62, 1965; partner/designer, Simonetta et Fabiani, Paris, 1962-65; introduced fragrance Incanto, 1955; traveled in India, 1960s-70s, establishing a colony for the care of lepers and a craft training program, 1973-76. Exhibitions: Rome, 1946; Homage and International Celebration of Italian Designers, Center for Italian Fashion, Florence, 2001. Address: 8 Via Cadore, 41012 Caroi, Italy.
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Eugenia Sheppard, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, in November 1951 called Simonetta the "youngest, liveliest member of the up and coming Italian Couture,"commending the breadth of her collection from a two-part playsuit with cummerbund and bloomer shorts to a silk shantung dress-suit with tiered collar to her short and long eveningwear. By 1951, with ardent advocacy from American Vogue and Bergdorf Goodman, Simonetta was one of the best-known names in America for the new Italian postwar fashion.
Simonetta had presented her first collection in Rome in 1946, two years after her marriage to Count Galaezzo Visconti and a year before the birth of their daughter, Verde. An aristocrat, Simonetta had been interned by the Mussolini government for antifascist activities. The further pluckiness of starting up her couture business so immediately after the war was a sign of Simonetta's dauntless determination. A press release for her 1946 collection read in part: "To understand how difficult it was to open a maison de couture and have a show with 14 models just after the liberation of Rome by the Allies, one must remember the general situation at that time. Materials and trimmings were very scarce. The most surprising and common materials had to be used to make the extraordinary collection—dish cloths, gardeners' aprons, butlers' uniforms, strings and ribbons, and everything that could be found on the market." It was a humble beginning for an aristocrat dreaming of a high style.
But Simonetta was not alone. Other aristocratic Italian couturiers joined her, including her future second husband, Alberto Fabiani, as well as Roberto Capucci, Marquis Emilio Pucci, Princess Marcella Borghese, Federico Forquet, Ognibene and Zendman. They turned the attention of the international fashion world away from Paris, where they had been rebuffed, to Rome, with their elegant yet comfortable ensembles, created from new and innovative textiles and set in striking color combinations. The glamor of a politically correct aristocrat improvising an Italian postwar renaissance was of hypnotic charm to the American market. Moreover, Simonetta's youthful style held a special appeal, especially in the buoyant silk cocktail dresses, elegant debutante dresses, and ball gowns she created in the 1950s, with their emphasis on the bust.
Equally popular were the daywear and sportswear lines, as well as Simonetta's coats, with the coats in particular providing a favored inspiration for Seventh Avenue copying. She could rival Balanciaga in creating coats and suits made in robust materials, cut with precision and minimal detailing to draw attention to one salient feature. Like Balenciaga, she favored capelike sleeve treatments that gave the coats a dramatic sense of volume, especially in photographs. Further, she shared with Balenciaga a preference for the seven-eighths sleeve in coats, allowing for the display of gloves and jewelry. For the American market, these popular attributes constituted an idea of ease and mobility, but they also lent themselves to facile imitation and copying.
Famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini helped the fledgling Italian designers by making their clothing visible in his La Dolce Vita (1960), and other films, like Joseph Mankiewicz's Barefoot Contessa (1954), also featured Italian style. Suddenly, Simonetta, Fabiani, Pucci, Armani, Jole Veneziani, Marucelli, and Emilio Schubert were enjoying international attention, though France still snubbed these Italians. In fact, in 1962, when Simonetta and Fabiani moved to Paris and established Simonetta et Fabiani, the enterprise was less successful. But for a time, Rome was a locus of fashion.
Simonetta's distinguished international clientéle included the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Clare Booth Luce, Eleanor Lambert, Lauren Bacall, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As Aurora Fiorentini Capitani and Stefania Ricci observed in the Sala Bianca (Milan, 1992), "The collections by Simonetta were invariably met with success, in terms of the public and in terms of sales, because they translated the image of a naturally chic woman, with essential lines, elevated by one simple feature, a knot or a raised neck, and corresponded in every way to the personality of the Roman designer."
Modern Italian designers have paid homage to Simonetta and her husband, describing the two of them, along with the Fontana sisters,
Simonetta was often photographed in her clothing and served in some ways as her own best model. She lived the life Americans dreamed of as portrayed in such movies as William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953). If Simonetta was the ideal model for her clothing in the 1940s and 1950s, exemplifying practicality and young elegance, and a famous designer of clothing in the 1950s and 1960s, she later epitomized another cultural transformation as she forsook fashion to devote herself to philanthropy and spirituality, working with lepers in India in the 1970s and 1980s. Eventually, she moved to the Himalayas, where she studied Eastern spirituality and mysticism. In the 1990s, she returned to Rome, interested in reviewing and collecting her fashion work for a museum, and her works influenced those of future designers like Anna Municchi.
Simonetta's life seems to have been, more than most, culturally keyed. If it was in any way a destiny granted with privilege, it was also a destiny seized. Her fashion recognized the possibility of renewed elegance in postwar Italian and American life as well as the practicality of designing for distinctly modern women.
updated by Daryl F. Mallett