Sometimes life has its own mysterious ways, don’t you think? And a number of events – seemingly unrelated – end up being all part of the same complicated puzzle. That’s how I met Ennio Castellani: totally by chance, I’d say, and thanks to a series of lucky coincidences.
His name sounds familiar, but I couldn’t tell where did I hear it. I’m selecting fabrics from a stock at a charity place, he’s passing by and starts talking about an exhibition at the Boncompagni Ludovisi museum in Rome dedicated to his Haute Couture creations, about the place where he still keeps all the textiles formerly used in his atelier, about Vintage Fashion – the true one. At the beginning, I’m absent-mindedly listening, paying attention not to pick moth-eaten wools, but then the discussion captures my attention. “Are you a seamstress?”, he asks. And so I try to explain him what I do, with that smile saying “I know, this is such a weird story!”. “How about having a chat?”, he says giving me his phone number and address. “Have a nice day” and he’s gone.
I’m back to my fabrics but as soon as I get home, I google “Ennio Castellani”. I read about Rome’s exhibition of 2015, I see pictures of his creations and a page published on Vogue in the 80s dedicated to his work. I keep reading a few articles, just enough to inspire my curiosity. I start feeling like this is not just a casual event but the unique chance of knowing Vintage Fashion, the true one, directly through the voice of someone who made it. So I take my phone, dial his number and arrange a meeting.
A couple of days later I’m ringing the bell of a small building in the heart of Verona. We are supposed to meet at 10 am, so I take my time and decide to take a walk from where I live. I get there singing to myself the way I use to do when I’m alone and on a good mood. And today I am.
Mr. Castellani gets the door with a big smile and takes me to the rooms on the ground floor. “This is where we used to keep all our fabrics, but now in this room we created a small museum with the dresses collected for the exhibition in Rome”. I enter the room and I see the wall on the left is covered in Haute Couture dresses. The wedding dresses are on one side: the short one inspired to the 30s, the two-piece one with a silky blouse, the flared one with a fabulous embroidered skirt.
I look at each of those pieces, each with its impeccable style. 60s, 70s, day dresses, cocktail dresses, evening gowns, everything is made with care for details in an absolute perfection. This is the first time I see tailored dresses of such a beauty and I’m really excited. True masterpieces came out of “maison Castellani”: e.g. here’s an evening gown entirely hand-painted with the batik technique. “After creating the pattern, colouring was done by covering in wax the parts of the dress which wouldn’t have to be coloured. Wax was then carefully removed, proceeding with the following colour”, explains Mr. Castellani.
I’m completely captured by such a marvel and keep admiring the wall covered in vintage dresses before taking a look at the rest of the room. On a small couch, there’s a little bizarre hat together with a spectacular cape in a fuchsia double cashmere fabric. Once again, I cannot help but say “Wow!”. On the wall, the Vogue print I saw online and in the room many fashion drawings and a jewelry box full of jewels and buttons branded “EC”, “as Ready to Wear used to require custom designer details”, explains Mr. Castellani.
We move to the other room where all fabrics are still stored: tall shelves with textiles of any kind. In the middle of the room there’s a pair of clothes stands with other dresses by Ennio Castellani. I take a peek and I fall in love with a yellow silk blouse, simply gorgeous. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland”, I say, “I could just stay in here forever!”. Before going upstairs he shows me a little blue dress: flared style, super simple with some large ruches on the armhole finished with blue bias trim. I’m impressed by how much perfection something that simple could enclose, it really screams “classy”!
Even if reluctantly, I follow him upstairs, we seat in the big living room and I take the chance to give him the small package with the gingerbread cookies I made the night before. “He must be used to much more sophisticated gifts” – I tell myself – but he seems to really appreciate the present, he brings to the table two cups of tea and start tasting some cookies.
I tell him something about me, of how I started and what I do. I know that to someone who spent his entire life in the Fashion World, my work must appear far away from perfection – I know it is – so I tell him I know there’s a lot to do, but I’m willing to learn more and more and get better, one step at a time. He tells me about his wish to transfer all his knowledge and experience to young people passionate about fashion. I’m thrilled when he goes on saying: “Simona, I like you. Would you be interested in starting this learning experience?”. “No need for asking!”, I reply, so grateful for this unique chance.
We keep chatting for more than two hours, he talks about his life, how he started sewing at the age of 16, about his studies, how life got difficult after his father died, about the Academy in Venice where he learned how to draw the female body, of his training at his aunt’s tailor in Padua – his first great master – of the Koefia Academy in Milan, of the prestigious ateliers where he worked: from Fercioni Alta Moda, to Gigliola Curiel, to Florence’s famous tailor Cesare Guidi. He tells me about his years in the army when he went back to Verona and, for a series of lucky coincidences, moved the first steps towards opening in the 60s his own fashion maison in the historical centre of the city. Twice a year he would go to Paris to hear all news and see the new trends of the fashion world, which would then be reinterpreted in his own atelier… the “Castellani way”, of course.
His eyes capture every change and revolution of that period of time when fashion was entirely redefined, but it’s clear that Ennio Castellani has his own ideas and so, when the first ladies enter his atelier – bringing the latest fashion magazine and some fabric along – he has to explain that that’s not how things work at Castellani house: styles don’t come from magazines but from his own paper and pencil. While he mentions Coco Chanel with such a great admiration, to answer my question about men and the fashion industry, he explains me:
“Women always project themselves in their creations, men, on the other hand, imagine many types of women and design for each of them differently”
I let that silk for a moment and I realise it’s true: our creations really reflect our picture of ourselves as women, whereas men are not bound by this limit and much more free of creating every time for someone different!
Time passes by, he says he hopes not to bore me with so many stories, but the truth is I’d never stop listening to him while he brings me to a magical, sometimes bizarre, world in which ladies of the Veronese upper middle class cannot face going twice to the Arena wearing the very same dress. So they get invited to maison Castellani twice a year for four days of fashion show taking place in the elegant living room of the house in Via Cantarane, where they claim the exclusivity on their favourite creations. “This is where the fashion shows used to take place” he says, pointing at the room we are drinking our teas in, “and this is the door”, indicating the door behind him, “from which the models used to come out with my new designs. That’s why there’s still the big rug”. My eyes point down to the floor covered by a huge circular rug contouring the door and for a moment I can see that room full of high society, trembling for the chance to get the “latest Castellani” and waiting for the great finale in which the wedding dress would majestically appear, every time a different one, always spectacular but never sold: on the most important day, nobody wants to wear something so many people saw and applauded, after all! So it goes to the nearby female orphan school because, Castellani says: “Life has put me through many hard trials, but has always provided me with something to get back on my feet. And as life has given me a lot, I want to give it back…”.
The morning flies away sitting around that table of the living room, between his fashion figurines and sketches, some cigarette – which I usually hardly tolerate but I was so focused in listening to him that I barely noticed it – and dozens of stories from past times: of when, as a kid, he used to make clothes for the puppets of the little theatre built by his grandfather; of living immersed in fashion, with his mother and aunt both always sewing for the whole family; of how he decided to fix his army uniform as it was ugly and with no style at all; of the first time he met his wife and of how it truly was love at first sight. He talks about past times, memories, changes and life experiences and I cannot help but notice how much passion and enthusiasm he still carries in his stories; passion and enthusiasm which seem to have survived practically intact through all these years, especially when he talks about two of his biggest loves: his wife and Fashion.
It’s almost lunch time, he brings me back downstairs to give me the chance to take some pictures around before leaving. Here he is, Ennio Castellani, smiling in front of my camera with all his creations behind and the satisfaction of who firmly believes the tenth Muse is not Cinema, but Fashion as