Headstrong Hemlines

Fashion designer Carlottta Actis Barone talks to about feminism, prostitution and Scarlett Johannson

“If you were the daughter of Italian visual artist Manuela Corti and writer Gianni Actis Barone, you’d studied at the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s, worked for fashion royalty Balmain and had your own successful label, you would certainly be destined for yet further greatness.  Meet Carlotta Actis Barone. Having been lucky enough to see her previous and latest collection during London Fashion week, it was a surprise that each occasion provoked a remarkable reaction. It must be an exhausting requisite for artists to justify their work with profound conceptual ideas or a moral, political conscience. But for Barone, the background to her work is not contrived, it marks her apart as a designer who is talking about more than just hemlines.

Carlotta has a creative mind which seems to absorb inspiration from the richest and most interesting places; her latest concept is ‘the stolen liberty and beauty associated with prostitution’. Now, you wouldn’t get Chanel or Burberry venturing down that rabbit hole. But Barone pulls it off effortlessly, with an intellectual ease and aesthetic understanding, which never seems to falter throughout her collections. “I am always very political when preparing my collections, Feminism, slavery and this time, I came across the matter of prostitution.” In the world of fashion, which is often based a lot on escapism, it is a risk to delve into reality. With her focal interest on social truths, it is challenging, yet at once resolving that her work is also “elegant, passionate, sexy and glamorous.”

Inevitably then, Carlotta says she designs to a strong, feminine woman who, more importantly, is liberated. She clearly has high standards for her own designs, and her subjects, but this merely reinforces her appeal. She describes her ideal client as being “Scarlett Johansson- she is my muse! Because she’s different, she’s sexy and sensual. She is absolutely the perfect woman for my collection.” Barone uses her principals as her priority, and Johansson just happens to fit that bill, rather being a designer who chooses the pretty ‘it’ girl.

Another rather intriguing element of her involvement in her fashion, as opposed to just design, is that she wears her own clothes. One can appreciate that it might come across as self-publicising for a designer to wear their own creations, but it should seem bizarre if they don’t. Barone explains that she unfortunately never has the time to make them all for herself, but as she speaks to me tells me that she is wearing one of her previous season’s jumpers. “I only make one garment a season, which is the one that I go down the catwalk with. I am not as skinny as the models, many things don’t fit me. But I couldn’t design something that I wouldn’t wear.” It feels like a refreshing take on minimizing the disparity between the way the models and the way real people wear the clothes.

The real people really matter; they need to know when can you wear these dreamy, yet substantial creations. “Big occasions, then day-wear. I always try to balance it out because of what sells unfortunately. It’s more the day-wear.” There are pieces in each collection that do take into account practicality. Coats, hooded garments and non-revealing suits that can conceal, can be seen in all collections. Another surprising detail she lists is that “I want my client to be not too young actually. I want her young but definitely over 20, around 25 years old. I want her to be confident and have a full range of clothes, from the red carpet to the morning.” The Barone brand can achieve the balance between garments for all occasions with catwalk glamour. Her theatric combination is audience considerate throughout, but she knows how to push boundaries against her conservative counterparts.

This season’s boundary pusher has been prostitution. Barone assures me that she hasn’t gone down this route as a dirty pull, “when I start my research I look at images that can inspire me and I came across an image of a Victorian brothel from the late eighteen hundreds it was just beautiful, of all these meaty, curvy women in lingerie, that for us would be pretty well covered but for them it was like porno”. All of this sounds very borderline, but I assure you there is a well versed method to this idea. “Then I started to look into all the different kinds of prostitution, and then I came up with the matter of the deportation of girls who has been tricked into coming to Western countries. I started to try and find a level of prostitution that wasn’t as bad, because I am not against prostitution itself. There are women that do it quite happily and are not forced to do it. There is nothing wrong with that, and so that is how I ended up with Geisha.” To explore this for her collection, Barone has gone through an extensive thought process to support her work.

When you think of prostitution, fashion is definitely not, and should not, be the first thing to pop into your head. Women can look sexy and suggestive, without going being tarty. But how did all the unsavoury connotations avoid coming through in Barone’s Spring Summer 2012 look? “I tried to avoid the trashy part of the situation and look at the beauty of these women that are still now imprisoned. The dresses are all very floaty because actually the women inside of them are free, or want to be free but are just compressed with this rope. That was the concept I wanted to express. I didn’t want to show the body or degrade it, I wanted to show the beauty of it.” To add further light to her explanation, when she describes the women being compressed with a rope, she literally in aesthetic terms means just that. In her latest work, she has used a rope to contour the silhouette and this in many ways can be seen as an item holding in the woman beneath. She describes how it represents “the freedom that is taken away, they are imprisoned”. It seems as if every detail in her work has been considered to the highest standards, which is probably why her work is of such a high calibre. Her working mind leaves no stone unturned.

Even without the background knowledge of her concept, the Geisha look is still prominent. She tells me that, “the Geishas are really the first category of quote unquote prostitution that is willingly done. There is a big tradition behind Geishas. Because I had to make a statement that was the most visible one.” With these Eastern influences, there are also glimpses of French boudoir features, combined with the other major theme of Victorian brothel. The silks, delicate satins, densely printed chiffons and hems of Chantilly lace all evoke ethereal dreams. When used in the kimono, puffball and play-suit silhouette, all garments do hint at being bedroom worthy. The styles capture the bitter sweet underlying theme between the positive and negative origins to the look.

With Barone’s merge of East meets West I am curious to know where this bricolage has come from. “I always like the contraposition between East meets West, because they were actually deported from Eastern countries to Western countries. I just mixed them together, I think the culture dichotomy is quite nice because it clashes but then it comes out as something else which I really enjoyed.” The make-up is highly oriental, but the Western hints shine through in such looks including the white, virginal bride style end gown. This gown was to represent liberation, in which the bride had finally found her love, contrasting against the restriction of other looks.

Another Western feature that featured on the catwalk were the X-rated shoes. At one point the focus were on the variety of floral decorated, clear acrylic platform stilettos. They certainly took the prize for highest heel shown during LFW. I was curious to hear if Barone had designed theme herself, “no, I styled them together with my team. The shoes are stripper shoes, but once again we decorated them with fresh flowers that were actually dressed half an hour before the show and the florist was backstage making them up. So even though they are stripper shoes, we are embellishing them.” Amy Winehouse once sang about ‘Fuck me pumps’, and this foot candy could fall into that category, but they were also honest, and elegant.

“I am not against prostitution, but the ropes represent the freedom that is taken away, they are imprisoned”

Finally, arguably the most bold feature shown in her collection were the head pieces. She told me that she “didn’t want to be too obvious. We tried to put it in a modern feel, when we found the headpieces they were absolutely perfect, even the colour perfectly matched my fabrics.” The intertwined structures full of pins, blossom and flowers, and “very heavy big things hanging down” do add a nice crowning touch to her looks. Barone says that she found it very “inspiring” working with the head wear and that they will definitely be featuring again.

With all the politics and social truths nurtured by Barone’s creative mind, she always ensures they get stylishly expressed. The fusions she creates from potentially the most dark and sinister themes is surprising and effective. Her historical references, the fact that she knows her stuff and is not afraid to tell you defines her as a designer who expects the same level of response from her fans. Barone is injecting some unique themes into the fashion wheel, unlike any other out there. We can only being challenged further. Bring on Autumn Winter 12. M

One comment

  1. Yes, but geisha are not prostitutes. Geisha are highly talented artists, like prima ballerinas or opera divas.

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