Emanuel Ungaro, a Designer of ‘Fantasy,’ Dies at 86

Emanuel Ungaro died in Paris on Saturday at the age of 86.

Known for feminine designs, embellished with frills and polka dots, and a penchant for the color fuchsia, Ungaro founded his eponymous couture house in 1965 and retired from it in 2004.

The house of Ungaro wrote in a statement: “Even if he left his house in 2004, he continued to inspire the label as well as the international fashion world. His work will remain in all memories as synonymous [with] seduction and flamboyance; colorful draping; mix of prints, and his passion for women and their sensuality.”

Valentino Garavani on Sunday called Ungaro “a great and generous friend. Always with a smile and with a kindness very rare in this fashion world. His colors, his draping and the fantasy he put in every dress, deserve a very important place in the history of fashion.”

“It is a very sad thing,” said Diane von Furstenberg. “Ungaro reminds me of my youth…of happy, sexy printed dresses.”

“This is really sad news,” said Ferruccio Ferragamo, chairman of the Salvatore Ferragamo Group, which at one time owned the fashion house. “A beautiful part of fashion history is gone with him. He had such good taste and knew how to dress women in a feminine way — a style I really liked.”

Ferragamo said he had seen synergies in the acquisition of Ungaro by his family’s company in 1996, as Salvatore Ferragamo would supply hides and produce shoes for the Ungaro house, and the designer would provide “input” to Ferragamo’s ready-to-wear collections. Despite the “succession of events and problems that complicated our plans,” Ferragamo said he had “good memories” of Ungaro, praising his elegance and his persona. “He knew how to exalt women and make them really beautiful.” Ferragamo sold Ungaro to tech entrepreneur Asim Abdullah in 2005.

“I knew him, adored him and loved him,” said Alber Elbaz. “Once at a dinner at his house, I asked him: ‘What did you learn in your years at Balenciaga?’ He said silence and rigor — I think it’s so wonderful and beautiful and intelligent. It’s perhaps what I love most in fashion — the silence and rigor.”

The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode paid its respects to Ungaro, as well. “After having worked next to Cristóbal Balenciaga, he marked haute couture with his great talent. The house he created in 1965 has been very successful. He developed his ready-to-wear with the same energy and the same spirit of permanently combining creativity and savoir-faire,” the federation said. “He was a committed and generous personality.”

The house of Balenciaga said it “is extremely saddened to learn of Mr. Ungaro’s death. He collaborated closely with Cristóbal Balenciaga before founding his eponymous house and going on to become one of the greatest couturiers of his time. We extend our most sincere condolences to his family.”

Ungaro, a Renaissance type prone to quoting writers, philosophers and artists, was born in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1933. The designer’s family hailed from Italy’s Apulia region and emigrated to Paris during the Fascist era. His father was a tailor and, according to legend, gave his son a sewing machine when he was a boy.

Although Ungaro’s first job in fashion was as an assistant to a Sicilian tailor in Aix, his formative experience came working for the legendary Cristóbal Balenciaga. There, Ungaro learned the importance of draping — as opposed to sketching — and the rigors of couture.

After six years under Balenciaga’s tutelage, Ungaro struck out in 1965 with his own house in Paris, earning quick acclaim as an innovative tailor and bold colorist. The company was located in a shoebox studio on Paris’ Avenue Mac-Mahon. There were just 17 dresses in his debut couture collection.

In an interview with WWD in 2001, marking his house’s 35th anniversary, the designer recollected the July 1967 opening of his Avenue Montaigne store. “It was madness. Everybody had worked three days straight without sleep,” he said.

Among his first couture clients were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and French high-society doyenne Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, who helped catapult his seductive and colorful style into society.

He had a meteoric rise. A WWD article dated July 1, 1967, replete with his sketches as illustration, began: “Emanuel Ungaro is the new star of the Paris couture and the new darling for America. That is, if America still wants hard Tough Chic tailoring superbly done.”

On Sept. 21, 1967, WWD published an article saying: “Though he may not call it a success story, The Ladies are straying from their former hunting grounds. Catherine Deneuve has abandoned Saint Laurent and is being dressed by Ungaro for her latest film…they are even shooting scenes in the house. Everyone wants the Ungaro look….”

Inspired by Carnaby Street, the Beats and the hippie movement, Ungaro became associated with lusty Mediterranean style — replete with shocking colors, cascades of ruffles and daring shapes.

By 2001, the last year he designed rtw, Ungaro’s collections were staged on elaborate sets, often conjuring up decadent visions, and with models flooding the runway. He would continue to design couture for three more years.

In a WWD interview that year, he explained that in the early days of his career, the practical side of fashion, which now obsessed him, was subordinate to allure and fancy. “One hardly ever thought about designing for a woman who drove a car or of adapting a dress to everyday situations,” he said. “Today, those concerns are foremost. And one still learns.”

In the same interview, Ungaro called himself “an enlightened pessimist. I think we can play ball with the big groups. But I refuse to eschew my basic values, my personal vision.

“I’ve been through ups and downs in my business,” he admitted. “There have been periods of fantastic success. The time during the terrorism of minimalism was a low period for me. But I’ve always stuck to my guns. I’ve never capitulated. I couldn’t do otherwise. That’s my personality. Integrity is very important — and dignity.”

Still, the designer was loath to discuss fashion; he considered it something he did, not what he was. Soft-spoken, Ungaro had a gentle yet quietly intense air, as if he were absorbing everything around him and every word spoken. His replies to any question were extensive, although he preferred brisk repartee about poetry, music or Bordeaux wine, his self-confessed obsession, than talking about clothes. He also looked forward to solitary Sunday afternoons in Paris, when he ambled through the side streets, around Saint Germain, paying impromptu visits to his gallery-owning friends.

“I’m a very interior person,” he said. “I need to search for emotions, and to ask myself questions. But above all, I love life. I love people.

“Fashion: It’s all I can do,” he said. “If I could start over, perhaps I’d do something else. I would have loved to have been a conductor. Fashion is not the only thing in life. It’s not art. But life is art. Foucault said: ‘Everyone can make his life a work of art.’ I believe that. That’s what I try to do.”

Many took to Instagram on Sunday to mourn Ungaro’s passing.

Fashion model Marisa Berenson posted a picture of herself being fitted into a midnight blue evening gown by Ungaro himself, seen sitting on a stool beside her and adjusting the dress’ waistline.

“Emanuel was a beautiful, refined and generous man,” wrote Berenson. “Elegant at the core of his soul, he loved women, who loved him back. He was one of the greatest designers of his generation and will go down in fashion history.…I still wear his clothes; they are timeless, stunning with their colors and their creativeness.…Thank you dear Emanuel for having been the friend that you were, you are in my thoughts and in my heart.”

Milliner Stephen Jones also took to social media to react to Ungaro’s passing. “So sad to hear of the passing of the magnificent Emanuel Ungaro,” he wrote. “To work with him was extraordinary. He was also incredibly generous to me showing how his master Cristobal Balenciaga made hats. Here is Natalia Vodianova in 2003 in one if our creations. R.I.P.”

“Emanuel Ungaro had been the assistant of the great Balenciaga,” wrote fashion historian Olivier Saillard. “He made his way in fashion with discretion and elegance, preferring to create strong relationships with refined private clients rather than endlessly pursuing trends. It was a way of showing the dignity he felt toward his position and his life. He is one of those couturiers who used their talent with a real feeling of politeness.”

On the business front, the Emanuel Ungaro brand went through many twists and turns over the years.

Salvatore Ferragamo bought Ungaro in 1996, when the brand, especially the Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro bridge collection, was riding high. In 1997, designer Giambattista Valli was hired to work aside the couturier. He was named creative director in 1998 and took the reins from Ungaro in 2001, designing the rtw while Ungaro continued to create the couture. He retired in 2004, and — sticking to his belief that fashion did not define him — was only occasionally seen at industry events since. Interested as much in interior design as in fashion, he and his wife — the former Laura Bernabel — spent the years subsequent to his retirement between their homes in Paris and Rome.

Although Valli ultimately became a darling of the press, the road to rejuvenation was not an easy one for the house. In 2003, Paolo De Spirt was named chief executive officer with the intent of relaunching Ungaro and focusing on its core women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and accessories businesses, while also identifying strategic partners for production, distribution and licensing. De Spirt replaced Valli with Moschino alum Vincent Darré.

In 2005, the Ferragamo group sold 100 percent of the Ungaro company to the San Francisco-based Abdullah, via Aimz, his personal investment vehicle. However, the Ferragamos continued to hold the Ungaro licenses for leather goods and fragrances for a while.

In 2006, Peter Dundas succeeded Darré as Ungaro’s creative director, and in 2007, Esteban Cortázar replaced Dundas. Cortázar remained with the house until 2009, the year designer Estrella Archs was paired with “artistic adviser” Lindsay Lohan in a disastrous bid to kick-start the brand. Their fashion was met with overwhelming negative responses and in 2010, Giles Deacon was appointed creative director.

In 2012, the French fashion house struck a deal with Italy’s Aeffe to relaunch its top line, and tapped up-and-coming Sicilian talent Fausto Puglisi as Ungaro’s new creative director. While technically a license for the global production and distribution of the brand’s women’s clothing and accessories under the Emanuel Ungaro moniker, Ferretti defined the agreement as a “partnership” with Abdullah and Aimz.

Aeffe was active in the Ungaro business from the fall 2013 season through summer 2016. The two parted ways in 2015, and Ungaro switched to Modalis, formerly known as Studio Roscini.

Ungaro, which was unable to deliver its spring 2017 collection as a result of Modalis filing a petition for composition with creditors, decided to take production back in-house. It inked a production agreement with Italian manufacturer Cieffe Srl.

In 2017, Ungaro parted ways with Puglisi and hired Marco Colagrossi as creative director of its women’s rtw collection. In April 2018, Colagrossi left the company, and subsequently its collections have been designed by the in-house studio. Alongside, fashion, Ungaro today also produces products such as perfumes and luxury furniture.

Ungaro is survived by his wife, Laura, and a daughter, Cosima. Funeral plans for the designer could not immediately be learned.

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