I think it’s more interesting when you read a story when its main character is also the narrator.
So in this post I will share with you some the fascinating words of Roberta di Camerino from her self-biography, a woman who changed her destiny through her passions, a genius, who was capable to develop a great business from a hand-made bag and an artist, whose friends were Salvador Dalì, Giorgio de Chirico, Andy Warhol, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel.
“I was a refugee in Switzerland and I was forced to sell my bag: a leather bucket bag that I bought in Venice.
That day I went home with all my belongings in a scarf. The next day I was searching for an economic bag, but I couldn’t find anything fashionable at a reasonable price. So I thought: what if I reproduce with my own hands that bag?
I bought leather, a ball of string, a curved needle. Briefly I sewed my old bucket bag. I didn’t know I was triggering a mechanism, that could change my life forever. The next week a policeman on a train arrested me for smuggling. I discovered that the lady who bought my old bag at the price of 6CHF was the one who denounced me. I bumped into her after the sale and she saw my new bag, identical to hers: so she went immediately to the nearest police station, accusing me to smuggle leather Italian goods into Switzerland’s market. The misunderstanding was soon cleared up, but that event changed my life. The press was interested too and I received a lot of job offers. So I began to sew bags.”
Giuliana Coen was the daughter of a Venetian wealthy Jewish family. She married Guido Camerino at the age of 18. In 1943 they were forced to leave Italy and lived in Lugano. In 1945 the family return to Italy and they settled in their house at Campo Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. Here Giuliana opened her first laboratory, with a few leather artisans. She knew she could do more than producing fine quality bags; she could innovate.
“Bags until then were strange objects. Too severe and without colors. There was only one rule to follow: the color of the bag must match with the color of the shoes. So I thought: what if I designed colorful and glamorous bags, that didn’t follow the rules anymore?
At Vogini, we put on display a soft leather bag, that could be closed with a double fold: at the time we didn’t know we were doing avant-garde accessories.
We had to invent something:a bag should always be a container, maybe more elegant, but surely more outstanding.
It was hard to reinvent an object, so closed in its traditions, into something new, then finally the idea came: I had to add something to the leather”
Giuliana Coen sold her bags at Vogini, a famous store in Venice. The owner of the store believed in Giuliana’s ideas and suggested her to create her brand. So Giuliana created her mark, the famous twisted “R”.
“I thought I had to create something important. I thought about my first dance: the song was “Smoke gets in your eyes” and it became famous because of the film “Roberta”. Indeed I thought to call my daughter with the name Roberta, and so I did when she was born. Meanwhile I called my company also Roberta, addingg my husband’s surname to it: Camerino. In the Vogini’s shop-windows there was my new brand’s name: Roberta di Camerino. Shortly after my bags were published in a glossy magazine “Bellezza”, whose director was Elsa Ribola.”
In 1947 Giuliana Coen’s company counted 10 artisans working for her and she gave birth to her daughter Roberta. In 1950 the production of bags increased fastly and Giuliana had to move to a bigger location: she opened her factory near a school-laboratory in Venice, called “Zitelle”, to help dropout girls to find a job. And in 1947 she became a close friend of Coco Chanel.
“When we met in Paris for the first time, I gave her two bags. She was so enthusiastic that the same night, at dinner, she wore one of them.
That night she told me something I would never forget.
My husband had just called me from Venice, telling me that the market was full of my bags fakes. I called Chanel crying, telling her that I was puzzled and I preferred to stay in my hotel’s room for the night. She laughed out loud and she told me: “It’s amazing, there you go! You’ll cry the day they won’t copy you anymore!”.
In 1948 Sacks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, Dallas placed a big order with Roberta di Camerino: Giuliana had to produce a huge amount of bags for their stores in the United States.
Stanley Marcus, the founder of the “Fashion Award”, came to Venice, to visit the factory of Roberta di Camerino and another artisanal laboratory at Bevilacqua, where antique looms were used to produce high quality velvet for ecclesiastical dress. In fact Giuliana intended to use that kind of precious velvet to create a new type of bag.
“Velvet fascinated me, because of its vibrant colors. Night blue, deep red, bottle green. They matched perfectly. I spent hours and hours searching for the best way to make this brand new fabric work.
I sketched a bag, and then another and another one….the essential design of a doctor bag inspired me so much, more than other bags’ shapes. I remembered some boxes set and jewelry boxes..I thought about small buckles and belts…It was a long process…at the end the idea: we had to make a figured velvet for my bags. We could weave buckles and all the other decorations: I mean they would be part of the bag, but they would be an illusion, a trompe-l’oeil.”
Giuliana worked tirelessly to create her most famous bag named Bagonghi.
Made with colorful velvet, the bag featured a curios shape, connected with its name, Bagonghi, who was a dwarf clown, recalled from Giuliana’s child memories, when she used to go the circus.
That bag is the key of her success: every jet-set’s woman wanted the Bagonghi bag.
Giuliana Coen opened a luxury boutique in Piazza S. Marco in Venice and in 1956, wearing a Dior gown, which Christian Dior specially designed for her, she was given the “Fashion Award”.
During the second half of the 60′s Giuliana Coen had something more to say about fashion: she wanted to give a new twist to women’s clothes as well.
Once a client bought a Roberta di Camerino bag, with its typical revolutionary colors and the richness of its fabrics, she was easily attracted to the same language expressed by dresses.
Giuliana thought about uncreasable fabrics, extremly wearable and easy, but outstanding. A compromise between creativity and ready-to-wear, avoiding the mass production.
“Time has changed. Housemaids, who helped women to get dressed, didn’t exist anymore. And then it was very difficult to match the right t-shirts with that kind of suit or with those jackets. Not to mention traveling. How many times did you happen to forget that specific accessory?
So my ideal dress had to solve all your problems: I imagined it as a t-shirt, in which you could slip easily and get ready in one go. For many years I sketched tromp-l’oeil on velvet and one day I decided to apply this unique method also on my dresses. On them I sketched everything a woman should need to feel herself well dressed: buttons, a belt, lapels and the blouse beneath them and even the last buttonhole of the sleeve was undone, just like the most elegant men did. And then a huge variety of prints, which made the history of the tromp-l’oeil.”
It is amazing how modern her idea of style was and with how much force she was able to establish herself in the world of fashion. Today we can only learn from Giuliana Coen’s genius, whose ideas were like the women who wore them: strong, smart, with an unexpected allure and totally careless about prejudices.