When Mariano Fortuny died in 1949, just eight days shy of his 78th birthday, the Spanish-born textile and fashion designer was world-renowned for the inventiveness and beauty of his work.
First produced around 1907, his intricately hand-pleated Delphos and Peplos gowns – made of fine Japanese silk shaped at an extremely high temperature – are works of art, and his printed, hand-painted fabrics in such patterns as the Lucrezia, De Medici, and Moresco have adorned the interiors of museums, churches, and stately homes since the early 20th century.
Top: Fortuny’s showroom in the D&D Building; Above: Elsie McNeill, Countess Gozzi, in the onetime Fortuny showroom on Madison Avenue.
While its origins are ultimately Venetian, the story of Fortuny as it exists today is as American as it gets, and if not for a chance encounter, it is entirely possible Mariano Fortuny would have faded into obscurity.
In 1927, New York interior designer Elsie McNeill Lee was in Paris where she visited the Musée Carnavalet and discovered the most beautiful fabrics hanging there. McNeill Lee was so impressed that she traveled to Venice to convince the artist that she should be his sole distributor and representative for the United States. The next year, the windows of her shop at 509 Madison Avenue in New York City (where she sold antiques and some English fabrics) now read “Elsie McNeill, Inc” and “Fortuny, Inc.”
Through her Madison Avenue showroom, McNeill Lee introduced Fortuny to clients including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, actress Greta Garbo, and fellow designer Albert Hadley – whose own clients included Brooke Astor, William and Babe Paley, and Washington, D.C., hostess Oatsie Charles.
Two decades later, upon his death, Fortuny’s wife Henriette asked McNeill Lee to take over his namesake company. Elsie and her husband Alfred Humphrey Lee agreed to go to Venice to discuss the matter, and to console the grieving widow. However, fate intervened and Alfred was killed in a car accident before they could depart. A little time passed before McNeill Lee ultimately acquired the company, largely due to Henriette’s belief that she was the only person who understood both the artistic and commercial aspects of the business.
Eventually, the New York interior designer made Venice her home, and the historic Fortuny factory on Giudecca – and its spectacular gardens – her life. She would later marry Italian count Alvise Gozzi, becoming Countess Elsie Lee Gozzi, or simply “La Contessa,” and for 40 years she continued the work of Mariano Fortuny. In the early 1980s, it became evident that she, by then in her 90s, needed to transition ownership of the company if it was to survive. Gozzi’s choice was her friend the New York lawyer Maged Riad, and in 1988, just as Henriette hadhad to convince her many decades earlier, the Countess finally persuaded Riad to buy the company.
Elsie McNeill’s showroom windows after she added Fortuny in 1928.
Until her death in 1994, the Countess Gozzi continued to work in the business. It was only at this point that Riad and his family took over daily operations and began the process of bringing Fortuny into the 21st century, and despite applying numerous innovations in technology, the company has essentially maintained Mariano Fortuny’s original ethos.
Today, Fortuny fabrics are available through more than 100 independent showrooms around the world and sold to designer clients like Peter Marino, Michael Smith, Kelly Wearstler, Barry Dixon, and Bunny Williams. The brand’s only official outpost (outside of the factory on Giudecca) is the showroom in New York’s D&D Building at 979 Third Avenue, where Elsie opened a satellite office around 1964 to show the collection and offer samples as a courtesy for designers. The original Madison Avenue location was closed in 2010 when Fortuny expanded its space on the 16th floor of the D&D.
As Fortuny celebrates its 90th anniversary in New York City, AD PRO spoke with Mickey Riad, the company’s co-owner and creative director (who runs Fortuny alongside his brother, Maury), about its history, his family’s responsibility to the legacies of Mariano and Elsie, and what’s in store for the future.
AD PRO: Fortuny has been in New York City, and the United States, for 90 years. How do you feel this presence has served the company in terms of its longevity and success?
Mickey Riad: It has served the company well. There is a very sophisticated design community here that understands and appreciates Fortuny, especially since our fabrics by the yard were first introduced to designers here in New York. The U.S. continues to be our largest market, although we are seeing growth in Europe and the Far East. Elsie is really the person responsible for bringing Fortuny’s fabrics out of the churches and museums and into people’s homes.
Mickey (left) and Maury Riad with their late father.
AD PRO: While the company is celebrating nine decades in New York, it’s also a milestone of sorts for you and Maury – your 20th anniversary running the company.
Riad: We were quite young when we were handed the reins of the company in the beginning of 1998 – I was 23 and Maury was 22. We didn’t have any experience in our industry, other than a few visits to the factory. We were met with a lot of skepticism by our representatives and clients, for obvious reasons, but we called several of them and explained, “We know we’re young, we know we’re inexperienced, but we also know that we love Fortuny and this company more that anyone, and we’re asking you to help us make this company as great as it can be.”
AD PRO: Sometimes a lack of knowledge can be the best motivator.
Riad: The fact that we did not know anything about the industry may have seemed like a handicap at first, but it actually proved to be an asset. We learned the ropes from the ground up, allowing us to learn every aspect about how our company works and begin tackling the administrative and customer service issues head-on. Once we got the New York showroom operating smoothly with new systems – we had to put computers in the place, as they were still doing everything on typewriters when we arrived – we took on the factory and made the necessary improvements there.
Fortuny’s Venice factory.
AD PRO: There was definitely a lot of maintenance to tackle. But what about on the creative front – when did the “fun” begin?
Riad: Once the business side was stable, we began introducing new colors, patterns, and collections allowing ourselves to put our own stamp on the company. It is a challenge, but part of our growth has been finding that right balance between remaining firmly rooted in our tradition while embracing our founder’s love for innovation.
AD PRO: How long does it take to develop a new design?
Riad: It varies. Could be anywhere from a month to eight months, depending on what we are doing.
AD PRO: You’ve recently reissued a pattern called Gran Battocchio which comes from the archives. What year did Mariano design it and why did you choose to bring back this particular design?
Riad: For a long time, I had wanted to introduce one of his designs that was based off the pomegranate motif. This was a motif that Mariano did a number of variations on. When we were finally satisfied with our printed velvet techniques and decided to reintroduce them, I felt the Gran Battocchio was the right scale and would work well. The pattern was originally designed in the 1920s.
Inside Fortuny’s first Madison Avenue showroom.
AD PRO: A 1996 New York Times article mentioned that there were, at the time, over 800 Fortuny designs in the archive. I imagine the number has increased?
Riad: In our archives we do have several hundred designs, spanning fabrics, clothing, and drawings; we have probably added a few dozen since then.
AD PRO: Can you tell us about some of Fortuny’s most recent collaborations?
Riad: We collaborated with Valentino on their 2016 spring/summer haute couture collection inspired by Mariano Fortuny. The Met Costume Institute showed five of Fortuny’s original dresses in their “Manus x Machina” exhibit. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, recently did a large exhibition of Fortuny, and Palais Galliera – Paris’s fashion museum – did a big retrospective on Mariano Fortuny’s fashion and included a new pleated, reimagined Delphos dress that we made.
A Fortuny dress that was part of the Met Costume Institute’s “Manus x Machina” exhibit.
AD PRO: A “new pleated” Delphos? I thought it was impossible – even for Fortuny – to re-create the pleating?
Riad: Fortuny’s pleats have not been made since he died in 1949, but we have figured out the secret and have remastered the art of the pleats.
AD PRO: What are some of the most fascinating pieces in the archive?
Riad: When we look to the archives for inspiration, or to find designs to introduce into our collections, I am always struck by the modernity of so many of his designs. We have many pieces of his original textiles, paintings, and clothing in our collection – a few of our favorites would be a multicolored textile wall hanging, a silk printed kimono, a blue printed velvet kimono that was featured in the series finale of Downton Abbey, an icy blue pleated Delphos dress, and a pencil drawing he made of his wife, Henriette, that she gifted to the Countess.
AD PRO: Lastly, which of your contemporary designs is your current favorite, and why?
Riad: My favorite new design would have to be the Camo Isole design, which is our version of camouflage. We did it from the point of view of a Venetian, though, and used photographs I took of reflections on the canal in front of our factory for the background of the pattern, and silhouettes of all the islands that have significance to our employees and family for the top layer.
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