Born: Aix-en-Provence, 13 February 1933. Family: Married to Laura Ungaro. Career: Worked in his father's tailoring business, Aixen-Provence, 1951-54; stylist, Maison Camps tailors, Paris, 1955-57; designer, Balenciaga, Paris, 1958-64; head of design, Balenciaga, Madrid, 1959-61; designer, Courréges, 1964-65; established own firm, 1965; Ungaro Paralléle ready-to-wear collection introduced, 1968; menswear collection added, 1975; sportswear line, Emanuel, introduced, 1991; launched bed and bath collection, then plus-size line, 1995; firm bought by Ferragamo, 1996; opened new Palm Beach store, 1998; Gianbattista Valli hired as creative director, 1998; launched Fever denim line, 2000; Valli took over all designs but couture, 2001; fragrances include Ungaro, 1977; Diva, 1982; Senso, 1987; Ungaro pour l'homme III, 1993; Fleur de Diva, 1997; Desnuda, 2001. Awards: Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, 1969; Dallas Fashion award, 1995, 1996; first fashion designer asked to address Oxford
Emanuel Ungaro, Paris, with Yves Navarre, Paris, 1988.
Emanuel Ungaro, with Frederico Fellini, Milan, 1992.
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Approaching 50 years in fashion, Ungaro can look back and see he had indeed accomplished his goal of "seducing the woman." His early training in the atelier of Balenciaga taught Ungaro about line and color. He still refers to what he learned about draping directly on the model. Later, working with Courréges, Ungaro participated in the Space Age hard chic of his mentor.
It was later suggested that many of Courréges's successful designs might have been attributed to Ungaro, who created metal bras, skimpy cutout A-line dresses, and white boots in a hard, futuristic manner Ungaro himself later dismissed as "false modernism." The influence of two years with Courréges carried over into the early years of Ungaro's work on his own. He continued to make young, "kicky" fashions, dresses, and coats in bold, interlaced geometrics. His turtleneck and leggings worn underneath a sleeveless pinafore was a 1960s look that was resurrected by other designers to great popularity 20 years later. With the advantage of textile designer Sonia Knapp's artistic fabric designs, Ungaro gradually developed a softness of line that was to fully develop a decade later. Of his early designs, Ungaro prefers to say little, but chenille daisy appliquéd see-through trousersuits speak for themselves.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Ungaro began to experiment with the then-taboo mixing of textures and prints, of which he has become the master. Knapp's fabrics had evolved into more painterly, impressionistic florals, abstract smears, luminous colors. In daytime clothing Ungaro would pair a paisley blouse with a plaid suit, or a striped top worn under a tweed jacket with glen plaid trousers. In 1980 this daring approach found full expression in a collection of casual but complex ensembles, featuring fantasy printed, gold-edged jackets over sheer lace blouses, luxuriant paisley shawls wrapped over quilted, fur-lined cardigans, solid chiffon blouses paired with half-patterned, half-striped skirts.
For evening, there were embellished velvet burnooses or wrapped paisley dresses, trimmed in black lace, completed this unusual eclectic look, offered through Ungaro's expensive ready-to-wear line, Paralléle. This risk taking had its early appearance in Ungaro couture, and has continued to the present day. The clothes were designed for women who chose and combined their outfits without regard to what others would think. In the wake of the drab "dress for success" uniform, Ungaro's vision offered the self-confident woman, or one who was not dependent upon conformity for job security, the opportunity for a more personal, individual look. Knapp's special fabrics made the mixtures work. Her colors were rich, with underlying coordinate properties hard to duplicate. Over the years many designers have borrowed from Ungaro's ideas, with varying degrees of success.
Borrowing from the East, in 1981, Ungaro layered fluid chinoiserie patterned tunics over contrasting colorways skirts, draped with tasseled shawls of tiny floral and undulating lines in a riot of colors. The sensual, covered-up looks suggested Gustav Klimt's paintings in their profusion of mosaic colors and patterns. Cummerbund-bound floral skirts topped with lacy blouses under boleros showed a folkloric influence, though less literal than Saint Laurent's Russians a few years before.
Ungaro's designs have been intended to convey sex appeal without being vulgar. He has said that when doing a dress he would always ask himself if the woman in the dress would be seductive. Women and music are his inspiration. One can only guess if a particular collection has been created while Ungaro was listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, or Ravel. Certainly his designs possess the contrast and harmony, repose and counterpoint of a musical composition. By the mid-1980s an Ungaro dress could be immediately identified by its diagonally draped and shirred skirt, wide shoulders gathered into gigot sleeves buttoned at the wrist, wrapped V-neckline, or jewel-toned silk jacquard fabric.
Ungaro wedding dresses were of pale pastel crêpe, sculpted, diagonally draped and caught with self-fabric flowers. At this time he introduced the short black-skirted suit with colorful jackets, both printed and plain—this look continues to be universally chic. To add to the seductiveness of his ensembles, Ungaro's models wore veiled elongated pillbox hats, pushed down over the eyes, an accessory resurrected a decade later for fall.
By 1985 Ungaro seemed to achieve a new serenity, the result of his thoughts and dreams. Since then he has repeated with variations the sleek curvaceous silhouettes, the fluid construction, ingenious cut, original color sense, and print and pattern mixtures without ever becoming boring. The self-confident Ungaro customer is also appealingly vulnerable because the fabric and cut subtly reveal her body. A flirtation with the short bubble floral skirt followed Lacroix's introduction of that silhouette, but Ungaro became even more wildly successful with his short, tightly wrapped dress. Late 1980s spring dresses featured short flounced skirts, big puffed sleeves, and bold solids or florals. Ungaro called his style a "new Baroque."
Fall 1989 ball gowns were gypsy inspired, with floor-length bouffant floral skirts trimmed with polka dotted ruffles and black lace, puffed sleeved jackets of contrasting florals trimmed with velvet and jewels. In 1990 folkloric flowers trimmed a cape worn over a short black leather skirt and deep red jacket. Voluminous Victorian-bustled plaid skirts on strapless evening dresses highlighted Ungaro's 1991 couture, while padded Asian coats were offered through his ready-to-wear line. After a cheerful, bouffant skirted spring, Ungaro presented a more somber, but no less luxurious, collection for the fall of 1992. Ungaro Paralléle continued to produce feminine floral brocade dresses and vibrant plaid suits interwoven with gold threads. In 1991 the lower priced Emanuel line was launched, with the famous tight and short Ungaro silhouette typified by a thigh-high shirred houndstooth dress with high neck and long sleeves.
Certainly the body-hugging Ungaro designs require a trim figure, but all the shoulder and hip emphasis can also be flattering to many figures by simulating an hourglass shape. Diagonal lines have a slimming effect. Some of Ungaro's spring dresses have merely skimmed the body, hiding flaws. Slit skirts have flatteringly shown off still-good legs.
At the end of the 20th century Ungaro was a name and brand increasingly recognized worldwide. The designer's 17th freestanding boutique opened in Palm Beach, Florida, and all remaining stores were renovated to reflect a new, hipper style. The outward changes reflected some internal struggles over the last few years, including the loss of longtime designing team Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, who went to Anne Klein. Esther Chen took over, then Gianbattista Valli was hired in 1998.
Ungaro ignited a storm of controversy in 2000 after new ads featured model Kirsten Owen and a large German Shepard wearing unusual accoutrements and assuming unusual positions. Most laughed at the resulting bestiality and S&M jokes, and Ungaro himself was unfazed. When the new Ungaro swimwear collection was introduced a few months later, there was nary a wag about the dog.
Ever in search of pleasing women, Ungaro has endured because his clothes show profound appreciation and respect for women (with the exception of that silly canine ad). Though Ungaro stepped back a bit to design only his couture line, turning the rest of the responsibilites over to Valli, he will continue to do what he does best: make women feel beautiful.
—Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker; updated by Owen James