Dior’s open-borders Tiepolo Ball echoes theme of the Venice Biennale
Maria Grazia Chiuri never really takes a break. Barely two weeks after the couturier staged her African inspired Christian Dior cruise 2020 collection in Marrakech, Chiuri designed the costumes for a phantasmagorical performance at the Tiepolo Ball in Venice, echoing the open borders and all-encompassing mood of the Biennale.
Golden gods and goddesses; multiple Julius Cesars; divinely proportioned countesses; wicked courtesans; dandies in giant plumed headgear; a towering Cleopatra; and assorted celestial figures – one who spent the evening at the top of a tall ladder fishing for a silver globe amid the VIPs and stars. Karlie Kloss vamped behind a fan, dressed in printed corset gown; Sienna Miller came as a giant beige silk cape and shimmering bodice dress with her newest young beau Lucas Zwirner; Tilda Swinton in a silk bouclé suit and both Monica Bellucci and Dasha Zhukova in floral bustier robes and cloaks. All in Dior.
In a veritable aquatic traffic jam Saturday night, scores of Riva speedboats ferried the guests into the palazzo, as the Parolabianca dance troupe performed on a canal side terrace. Three of them on stilts, the better to display Chiuri’s exotic prints – containing mythological animals; night skies; giant black and white crustaceans; galloping bulls and Renaissance admirals. “Celestial and ancestral journeys across the sky,” as Chiuri put it.
“I think we Italians have forgotten that we are a nation of navigators, especially the Venetians. That we ended up living in hundreds and cultures and countries. And that we have been a nation of immigrants all over the planet for many generations,” added Maria Grazia.
Images fitting for a Biennale, where multiple artists called for more open borders. That afternoon, Australian aborigine artist Richard Bell had a barge towed around Venice bearing a mock prison wrapped in chains, in a criticism of his country’s refusal to accept sea-born refugees. Within the Arsenale, a nerve center of the Biennale, Swiss artist Christoph Büchel installed Barca Nostra, a huge, rusting 70-foot fishing boat that sunk off Lampedusa in 2015 causing the death of some 1,000 refuges.
While inside the main international exhibition, the images of exclusion, outcasts and cultures crossing were powerful. Soham Gupta’s nighttime photos of Indian outsiders in the rubble of Kolkata; Arthur Jafa’s civil rights films; and some brilliant autobiographical collage paintings by the Nigerian-born and US-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Elsewhere, South Africa’s Zanele Muholi took a daily self-portrait for a year to capture hate crimes and homophobia in her homeland; while the Venezuelan pavilion failed to open due to political turmoil back home.
Across the city, the ball was staged inside the Palazzo Labia, famed for the beautiful frescoes of Giambattista Tiepolo, notably inside the two-story-high ballroom with the legend of Antony and Cleopatra. Dior’s opulent soiree evoked the celebrated Oriental Ball of 1951 thrown in the same palace by its then-owner Mexican grandee Charles de Beistegui, who had restored the looming building to its original splendor. It went down in history as the Ball of the Century, where Salvador Dali and Christian Dior together designed many of the costumes and gowns worn by guests and performers.
Dior underwrote the latest ball, created to raise funds for Venetian Heritage, that has raised money for over 100 restoration projects, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. The non-profit organization’s chairman is Peter Marino, the American architect who has designed more influential boutiques for fashion houses – such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and, certamente, Dior – than any other living architect.
“Times do change. Beistegui’s was a fabulous event for the beautiful and wealthy. This is a great ball too, but with the goal of raising money for all our projects,” said Marino, attired in an all-black outfit of Renaissance jackets, britches and boots, the sort Velasquez might have worn if he had ever caroused the leather bars of the West Village. A post-dinner benefit auction in the Labia raised over 400,000 euros for Venetian Heritage.
Like with her cruise collection that contained works and collaborations with Moroccan artisans; Masai beading; Ivory Coast wax printers and artists and couturiers throughout Africa and its diaspora, Chiuri worked with important local resources for the Tiepolo ball.
The beautifully laid out tables – with rooms devoted to different themes – Jungle, Sicilian and Chinese – were decorated with Egyptian sphinxes, giant ostrich eggs, huge glass candelabras, ceramic parrots and custom-made table clothes from the legendary Venetian fabric maker and painter Fortuny. Guests dined on a seafood pudding of caviar, lobster and shrimps, followed by delicious sea bass, prepared by Silvio Giavedoni, chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant Quadri in St Mark’s Square.
For her fantasy costumes Chiuri also called on silk-makers Rubelli, and Bevilacqua, the famed specialist of velvet and soprarizzo damasks whose headquarters is on the opposite side of the Grand Canal to the Palazzo Labia. Attired in the magical reflective materials, a half dozen performers, three on stilts, from the Parolabianca troupe finished the soiree dancing underneath Tieopolo’s mannerist frescoes to a Malian harp and violins.
Giddy, titillating, salacious and provocative like all great masquerade balls. Being masked allows one to be politely rude as if there was someone you wanted to avoid you simply claim you didn’t recognize them. The evening felt like the set of a Merchant Ivory movie, or a film by Fellini, who after all shot Casanova. While Sienna Miller starred in another life of the most famous of all Venetian libertines.
“Monsieur Dior always loved Venice. So its artists, artisans and art are very much part of Dior’s heritage. Another reason I loved working with Venetian savoir-faire for the ball,” said Chiuri.
In a nice touch, Dior left fans for each guest on the dinner tables carrying a phrase from Monsieur Dior: “Les fêtes ont ceci de nécessaire qu’elles apportent de la joie.” Celebrations have that which is necessary for them to bring joy.
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