Stepping into the shoes of Charles Frederick Worth, the British-born founding father of couture, would sound daunting to even the most seasoned designer. But the Italian Giovanni Bedin, who has just finished showing his second ready-to-wear collection since the relaunch of the house last year, is sanguine about it.
Drawing upon the extensive Worth archive that spans the birth of the House of Worth in Paris in 1858 through to its closure a hundred years later, Bedin has been inspired by the silhouettes, embellishments and fabrics of the early designs. Apart from the changes that Worth brought to the fashion industry, transforming the mere dressmaker into an artist, creating four collections a year and dictating the season's styles, his own design signatures included a curved, moulded construction, a simplicity of line and silhouettes that were guided by the fabrics' traits - stiff duchesse satin, frothy tulle and lace and rich embroidery.
Bedin puts his own dramatic spin on his collections by juxtaposing signature Victorian-style figure-hugging corsets and bodices with super-short tulle skirts, and uses high-tech fabrics such as ruched leather and the finest stretch lace, reflecting his passion for designing couture lingerie in light-as-a-feather materials.
Bedin's Worth Paris ready-to-wear collection of beautiful, delicate lace and open-work woven pieces sits comfortably alongside his more opulent Worth Couture confections, which were championed by the late Isabella Blow. Anna Dello Russo, the flamboyant editor-at-large of Vogue Japan, has worn Worth Couture, as has an impressive line-up of gamine international socialites.
"When you start to write a song, you find the right note and from that note it goes on into a lovely melody - this is how I like to start when I design," says Bedin, who cut his teeth working with Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler. "The Worth heritage is my core for the collections, and mirrors the fundamental credo for the future of Charles Frederick Worth's work. As Diana de Marly wrote in her book Worth: Father of Haute Couture, 'To Worth, the art of the past was to be the inspiration for the future.'"
With two couture ateliers in the pipeline in prestigious areas of London and Paris and the introduction of a capsule couture lingerie collection scheduled to launch alongside the autumn/winter 2011/12 Worth Couture collection in Paris this July, it is an exciting time for the House of Worth and its fans and clients.
"Worth was established in 1858 and today we enjoy calling ourselves the first 150-year-old start-up," explains Martin McCarthy, Worth's director. "Worth came back to life in the late 1990s when the fragrance business was acquired by Dilesh Mehta and I bought the clothing business. Dilesh unified the Worth fragrance and clothing businesses once more in 2005, having acquired the rights to both."
A Worth Couture jewellery line is currently being developed with one of Europe's oldest and most prestigious stonecutters, and the house is also gearing up to reintroduce its portfolio of fine fragrances, including the classic floral Je Reviens. "We positioned the brand with the couture first, which was Worth's strength and innovation in his time," says McCarthy. "And with the couture we are repositioning the Je Reviens fragrance, which Worth devised for his couture customers and was the very first fragrance gift."
According to the fragrance expert Roja Dove, Je Reviens, which was introduced in 1932, is one of the great classical compositions: "It will be wonderful when the new owners relaunch Je Reviens. It is generally the couture that creates the world into which one wishes to step, and the scent allows us to reach the stars upon which dreams are built."
It all sounds very highfalutin, but Worth himself was as much a technical innovator as a creator of exquisitely lovely clothes - many of which are now represented in the world's top historical fashion collections, including London's V&A Museum.
Worth was the first fashion designer to sew garment labels into his designs and to show clothes on models. He was also an early champion of the use of sewing machines in his ateliers. Worth came to prominence when he was commissioned to design for the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, and he was also a favourite of the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
A measure of the designer's current modishness is that a book on the House of Worth is currently being written by the V&A curators, Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Hay, and is scheduled for publication in 2013. Meanwhile, an extensive archive of images of Worth's signature wedding dresses from the 1930s is currently on show for the first time at the "What Will She Wear?" exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, which offers a rare glimpse into the fashions of the time. Acquired for the museum in the 1950s, "The Worth photos kickstarted and defined our exhibition which was conceived following the announcement of the Royal engagement last November," says Rosemary Harden, the manager of the Fashion Museum. "From a curatorial point of view the images are very important. The archive also includes the card books that the house created of its early creations, showing front and back views shot in a mirror. We also own press books from Paquin when Worth was merged with the house in 1954."
When asked if this is a good time to relaunch a luxury brand, McCarthy appears unconcerned. "As it happens, many high-end, internationally contemporary brands are casting their minds back to their heritage, and in this aspect we are in a great moment, having a heritage that can keep us going for decades."
Selling exclusively in a selected line-up of international fashion stores such as Joyce in Hong Kong and Browns in London (and now available online at Brown's for international shoppers), the Worth Paris collection has been a hit with women looking for unique designs, and in particular, occasionwear. Bedin's penchant for making the inside of the garment as beautiful as the outside ensures that his clothes also feel wonderful to wear. Just the intricacy of the lace garment label is a testament to his constant attention to detail.
"Giovanni has produced a collection of such beauty. Each item is at the height of luxury, using exquisite fabrics with a modern and sophisticated design,' comments Joan Burstein, the owner of Browns and one of fashion's most influential figures. "I think it was because it had a strong identity and also a very unique look that embodied the traditional style I remember from the House of Worth, while still feeling fresh and current. I adore all the luxurious and rare fabrics Bedin uses."
Browns' womenswear buyer, Françoise Tessier, concurs, adding that the designer's parents are in retail in Vicenza, Italy, which explains why Bedin is so conscious of his customers' needs. "That is a huge strength. I love the fact there is so much detail in each garment. The SS11 pieces are all very light - almost like clouds. Worth Paris is for someone who is feminine and who likes understated clothes. They may already wear Marni and Dries Van Noten - nothing too structured. These aren't Roland Mouret kind of dresses. It's for the woman who likes something slightly more feminine."
As Bedin's muse, the Italian socialite Carla Maria Orsi Carbone knows exactly what it feels like to wear the designer's womanly silhouettes. "His collection is for the ethereal and confident woman," she says. "She is international and practical, but requires an all-round elegant allure of sophistication. Worth Paris addresses these needs, with soft, stretch leather pieces worked with lace which are sexy and elegant and can be scrunched up into the smallest suitcase without damaging their perfection."
You'd expect to hear such sentiments from the muse of the label, but Carbone demands from her clothes what any fashion lover would, whether it's Anna Dello Russo or Joan Burstein: "When I wear Worth, I feel like a woman with a capital W."
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