Created by a secret process, Fortuny textiles are known around the world for their sumptuous luxury. There are copycats, but there is only one Fortuny—the textile of pure luxury invented by the brilliant Mariano Fortuny in 19th century Venice.
Antique and vintage Fortuny textiles in silk velvet, silk, and the finest cotton sell for thousands of dollars. Fortuny fabric continues to be made today with the same techniques and in the same factory in Venice and currently retails in the range of $600 and up per yard.
The brilliant, enigmatic Mariano Fortuny was born into a family of renowned artists in Granada, Spain, in 1871. In 1889, the family moved to Venice, where Fortuny would establish himself for the rest of his career.
Constant curiosity made the industrious Mariano Fortuny as varied as he was prolific.
Constant curiosity made the industrious Fortuny as varied as he was prolific. Today’s narrow definition of artist cannot adequately describe Mariano Fortuny: He was first a painter, then an etcher, a sculptor, a photographer, an architect, and inventor.
He was truly a Renaissance man who made his own photographic paper, bound his own books, and designed his own lamps and furniture. He created one of the first dimmer switches, invented a boat propeller, and made his own paints, dyes, brushes, and machinery.
He modernized stage lighting and set design by engineering the Fortuny Dome, which employed his theories on indirect and diffused light. His influences on modern life are often unrecognized, but no less immeasurable.
It was in 1907 that he really entered the fashion industry, with the introduction of one of his most notable achievements, the Delphos gown, inspired largely by Greek sculpture. It was a garment, both elegant and versatile, that seemed to achieve the impossible: simultaneous simplicity and complexity.
His revolutionary garments emphasized the female body in motion so well that notable dancers, such as Isadora Duncan, coveted them. The Delphos gown was a stark contrast to the Victorian and Edwardian corseted dresses that were in style at the time.
Soon after, Fortuny began work on the textiles that are still manufactured today. The production of these textiles was the culmination of his knowledge of engineering, color, design, and art, into one manifestation of pure artistic genius.
Fortuny was influenced heavily by the history and romance of the past, and his textiles borrowed designs from the Renaissance and Byzantium, from the Arabs, Persians, Copts, and Indians, and from the Golden Age of Flanders. His fabric was avidly sought after by connoisseurs.
Fortuny’s obsessive quest for perfection led to importing only the finest natural pigments from around the world to color his textiles. He invented the industrial process for printing his designs on fine white cotton to reproduce the silky raised effect of brocade. This was an immensely complicated technique for printing superimposed colors, but the result was a triumph and allowed the textiles to be made available for home decor. This painstaking process continues today.
Fortuny is also widely known for the “Fortuny pleating process,” which he developed and which is still shrouded in secrecy. Silk was folded into minuscule and perfectly even pleats to create the effect of rippling waves used in the design of his Delphos gowns.
Fortuny textiles have been compared to “woven moonlight” and grace the homes of the aristocracy worldwide.
Cherie Fehrman is part of ForgottenLuxury.com, a San Francisco-based company of designers and collectors offering their treasures online. Fehrman is a designer, color consultant, antiques dealer, author, and avid collector.
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