As she demonstrates in her highly sought-after pieces, coming soon to the UAE, the Italian designer Luisa Beccaria is orchestrating a couture 'revolution'. It's time, she says, for women to embrace grace, romance and femininity. Helena Frith Powell reports. If you made a list of the world's most beautiful and famous women, the chances are they are fans of Luisa Beccaria. They include Anne Hathaway, Madonna, Uma Thurman, Halle Berry, Catherine Zeta Jones and Angelina Jolie. Not a bad client list for a woman who has managed to raise a family of five at the same time as building her business. Luisa Beccaria was born in Milan to an illustrious Italian family that can be traced back to the 14th century. Among them was Cesare Beccaria who wrote a treatise against the death penalty in Italy during the Enlightenment. Beccaria calls her forebears "intellectual and with a good aesthetic sense" but says she is the first Beccaria to have gone into fashion.
She started her business in college, where she studied literature and art. She began making her own clothes because she was so thin she found it difficult to find anything that fitted her. At the time she was most inspired by Mary Quant and Biba. Then Vogue decided to photograph her and people wanted to buy them. She showed her first collection, which was made in part of old dyed curtains, in the early 1980s in an art gallery in Milan at the age of 20. Three years later, she married Lucio Bonaccorsi, a Sicilian aristocrat, and two years after that, when she was 25, she opened her first shop, also in Milan, where she started to sell her now legendary romantically styled clothes: the sort of designs every girl grows up dreaming of wearing.
In 1991 Beccaria showed her haute couture collection in Rome. Then came an invitation, along with Valentino and Versace, to take part in the haute-couture collections during Paris fashion week. In 1998 she was offered a job at Chloé as creative director and designer when they were looking to replace Karl Lagerfeld. But she decided she would rather stay in Italy and develop her own line. Stella McCartney eventually took the job that Beccaria turned down, but she has no regrets, saying it just wasn't the right move for her because she would have had to spend two weeks out of four in Paris away from her family. It turned out to be a wise move. Luisa Beccaria is now one of Italy's leading fashion designers with annual wholesale revenues of more than Dh 47million.
Beccaria is in the UAE to scout for a location for a shop and to show off her collection in a Davidoff-sponsored fashion show. We meet at Dubai's Desert Palm Hotel, where she has rented a private villa with pool. The sitting room is filled with gorgeous clothes and shoes. Her trademark full-length evening dresses hang on rails along with other items from the latest collection. Beccaria tries on several outfits during our interview. An occupational hazard? No, she tells me. She has an important meeting to go to afterwards. Her daughter runs around looking glamorous in a skirt from the spring/summer 2009 collection which has the Beccaria romantic almost Pre-Raphaelite look. It is strange to think that this is Lucilla, the daughter Beccaria was expecting when she opened her first shop in Milan.
It looks as if her business is turning into a family affair. Her eldest daughter is already working as a co-designer with her and has stated her hope to follow in her mother's footsteps. Her second oldest daughter, Lucrezia, is studying design at St Martin's College in London and her youngest, Luna, models her children's wear collection. I ask her what brings her to Dubai. "Women in the Middle East love dressing up," she says. "They also love the feminine touch and I think our clothes can be very successful here. We are thinking of establishing the brand more and more in the area, possibly with a store in Dubai Mall."
Beccaria is famous for her ultra-feminine style, her romantic aesthetic and elegant lines. She dresses women to look like women, for which she is totally unapologetic. "Women are no longer scared to be graceful," she says. "This is like a revolution. Women have had to fight to do well and they thought that beauty or grace would somehow stop them. Hence the big shoulders in the 1980s. "Now that women are able to show their value more and more they want to take advantage of those extra values that men can't use; grace, femininity, being strong and tender at same time."
In the year 2000, she launched a prêt-à-porter line, which has been described by the fashion press as "young couture". Her decision was, in part, inspired by a desire to spend more time in Milan with her family as opposed to travelling the globe. Beccaria insists it still retains the core values of the haute couture range. "All the detailing is the same as the couture, the exclusive palettes, the patterns and shapes and there is always something that is finished by hand, even if the line is in the main produced industrially.
"I keep the spirit of the label through the two divisions. In the prêt-à-porter line the formality of the couture collection is often reduced but the fabrics are never acrylic. And also I try to retain some of the dynamism and spirit of the 'younger' range in the couture one." Beccaria has managed to combine family life and work. Does she think she compromised either? "I do everything with a lot of passion, dedication and love," she explains. "Granted, it has probably not been easy for the children, but as my first daughter is now in the family business I guess she didn't suffer too much. Another one of my daughters is studying interior design. Interiors are one of my absolute passions.
"I think all women find it difficult to live the different aspects of their personality. They have to fight for it more and more but their primary role in nature is to be a mother and, if you are lucky enough to be able to be one, then you should never renounce your own family and life for a career. "My career progression would have been faster if I had been more single-minded and not had a husband and children, of course. Trying to combine all that is not easy and sometimes it feels like everything is about to collapse all at once."
she feels it is now time to consolidate on all she has achieved and take the business to another level, to use the credibility she has created globally and open more "concept" stores to add to the ones in Milan and Moscow. These stores incorporate lifestyle as well as fashion, selling furniture and fabrics, as well as clothes. Beccaria explains the thinking behind them. "I want to achieve a harmonic world, a positive reality inspired by nature and art. I want to reproduce beauty in my creations in order to help people to live well," she says.
"I believe that it is very important to live in a harmonious environment with beautiful colours and that being with the elements is really important. Everyone at the moment is talking about crises and collapse, but we still have so many beautiful things around us. There is so much that inspires me, so much that I take from nature and art to put in my dresses. Two seasons ago, for example, I took all my colours from an El Greco exhibition."
Her aim now is to increase her brand's visibility in the right cities, among clientele looking for a lifestyle brand. "I am going to mix fashion with lingerie and interiors," she tells me as she rushes out of the villa wearing her third outfit in 30 minutes and a shock of red lipstick. "I love the idea of bringing our aesthetic to objects other than just clothes. But, of course, my core business will always remain fashion."