I’m not sure what I expected when I set up an appointment with Giulia Mondolfi, the designer behind emerging Florentine fashion brand Alberta Florence. I’d seen and “liked” her photos on Instagram, attracted by their vintage style and the simple lines of her dresses. We corresponded a bit and she said she was an architect, specializing in landscape architecture, so I suggested we meet up in a garden. She chose the yellowish patch of grass in the courtyard of the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. Intrigued, I can’t pass up a good Renaissance courtyard, so that’s where we met on a chilly autumnal morning.
Like many young Italians, Giulia’s taking a creative approach to the job market. A highly trained architect with a degree from Milan and a specialization in landscape architecture gained in Florence, she’s an expert in archaeological areas and has been involved in the restoration and planning of archaeological spaces on the via Appia in Rome. But with age 30 just around the corner, she still doesn’t have a steady, full time job. Rather, she found herself using her “spare time” in a smaller-scale creative field, designing and making clothing. Her dresses and skirts started attracting attention and she decided to found Alberta Florence, her own artisan clothing brand.
Fashionista, she is not, and neither are her clothes. Rather, they have a timeless line and appeal that derives from architecture. Sitting in the cloister in front of the church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi designed by Giuliano da Sangallo in the late 15th century, Giulia explains why she chose this place. The high school she attended, the prestigious Liceo Michelangelo on via della Colonna, now occupies part of the convent, which was literally cut in two in the mid-19th century to make via della Colonna. She spent many a break in this quiet courtyard, meditating on the austere regularity of its Brunelleschian columns.
“What I like about this place,” she explains, “is that at its base is an essential structure, of line and of project… and that is a philosophy of life.” You could easily extend this architecture to Giulia’s designs: lack of excess, simplicity, architectural, timeless, quality. It’s the perfect formula for economic-recession-era consumption.
We head inside the church, which, being Baroque, is in contrast with the serene Renaissance courtyard. But it’s a calm Baroque, in part because there is nobody else inside.
Baroque is not Giulia’s favourite style. She’s a bit of a throwback to the early 20th century. In her own words, wearing her designs is like “reliving the atmosphere of a Somerset Maughm book, like walking in a landscape painted by Magritte or Morandi. You feel like you’re inside a [painting by Filippo] De Pisis, reading a poem by Tagore [19th-century Indian poet]. I’m inspired by unique women like Luisa Casati, Peggy Guggenheim and Diana Vreeland. Do you know Eva Fischer? Look her up.”
I did. Eva Fischer was a Jewish Croatian-Italian artist, born 1920, who frequented De Chirico, Picasso and Dalì, was a great friend of Chagall. She died only this past summer. Her colourful and abstract worlds tell a story of a lifetime of both art and hardship, her Jewish heritage and memories of concentration camp contrasting with her joyous rendering of Italian seasides.
That’s one heck of a history to aspire to. A moment frozen in black and white, of text before texting, of strong women who found ways to make their voices heard. If a dress, a skirt, a scarf or a pillow can conjure up a rich past, Alberta Florence’s do just that. Each piece is made from 5-10 meter remnants of historic interior design fabrics, adding structure, history and uniqueness.
While examples are available at select boutiques in Florence, Bolgheri and other cities, Giulia doesn’t make a full range of sizes in any one pattern. Rather, you choose the fabric that catches your eye, she measures you, you decide on a model that will suit your body and your needs, and then she or her partner artisans will sew it for you. Yes, just like in the olden days. I fell in love with a heavy cotton patterned with large parrots, and Giulia made me an elegant long skirt that I wore to a world premiere we organized at work.
To order your own timeless piece, write to Giulia Mondolfi at email@example.com – browse her models at http://www.facebook.com/albertaflorence