This article was originally published in Domus 1013 special edition, May 2017.
In summer 2016, Denise Bonapace, a designer and teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology, was invited to the Locride area of Calabria by Gruppo Cooperativo Goel, where, she met and collaborated with the people of Cangiari (Calabrian dialect for the verb “change”). Cangiari is the first luxury ethical fashion brand in Italy, founded by Goel several years ago with two ambitious missions. One is to retrieve and inventory the precious oral tradition of the old women weavers. The other is to deliver the region from the Calabrian mafia known as the ‘Ndrangheta, along with its Freemasonic branches that have infiltrated the political, social and cultural fabric there.
From her encounter with Cangiari came the Cirò collection of cushions sold by Internoitaliano. The cushions feature Bonapace’s personal approach to a pattern that Cangiari is employing as its distinctive weave, called a pitteja. This type of fabric is hand-woven from threads of different types and thicknesses. With the cushions, Cangiari harks back to ancient implements that are one step beyond clothing, belonging to the home, such as table linen and other items that have all but vanished due to changed mores and the loss of old craft techniques. The indignation about this loss felt by several young Calabrian women, together with the social figures of yesterday who detain the secret instructions to the complex traditional looms, allowed Geol to trace, decrypt and transcribe the algorithms contained in the old chants sung by the often illiterate women in order to remember the thousands of different steps to interlace the yarns on the loom. Geol’s mission has utopian contours. It wants to give the possibility to keen new weavers to learn and transmit a craft, and also see the results on the catwalk.
Vincenzo Linarello, the president of Gruppo Cooperativo Goel and of Cangiari, says, “We were already working in the agri-food business and tourism, challenging the murky procedures that people have always had to bow to in these parts. To augment the consensus in our surroundings, we needed to find a potent means of amplification, whether we wanted to or not. We chose fashion. The Calabrian people endure the stigma of the ‘Ndrangheta. The symbolic image evoked by the pride of the catwalk is not relayed in any other ambit. With Cangiari, we want to communicate that ethics is not for a handful of heroes who sacrifice themselves to the cause or make compromises with reality. We want to say that ethics are competitive, sustainable and beautiful. We also want to show that the Mafia is not only unjust, but useless and counterproductive,” says Linarello.
Let us now travel 2,500 kilometres to the north, to the Imperial College in London, where in November 2016, Luca Alessandrini, a student from Urbino, Italy, received the International Student Innovation Award for having designed a violin using spiders’ silk. His project has brought important technological innovation to an instrument that has not been updated for decades. Besides the spiders’ silk, which comes from a hatchery of Australian golden orb spiders in Oxford, Alessandrini uses pure silk made by Taroni, one of the oldest silk mills of Como. He is exploring silk’s incredible resilience and elasticity, which rival carbon fibre. This is an example of design looking beyond the navel of its elective realm of furniture and products. Alessandrini is reviving and enhancing raw materials and techniques of which Italy has been the cradle for hundreds of years. The story of Cangiari brings us back to the era of Byzantine Greece: Magna Graecia, where early artefacts of woven wool and cotton were found. The current Locride area was the heart of this district. The history behind Taroni’s silk brings us back to Europe and the area around Como. Taroni’s origins begin after the Wars of the Roses toward the end of the 15th century, conflicts that had the littleknown secondary effect of a relevant decrease in the availability of wool. “Those were the days when Gian Galeazzo Sforza gathered around him in the duchy of Milan some of the most illuminated minds of the times including Leonardo da Vinci. He asked da Vinci to study the art of silk in order to substitute the decline in wool production,” says Michele Canepa, who belongs to the second generation of one of the most important silk producers of the area, with roots in the 18th century. After having left the family business at the end of the 1990s, Canepa bought the Taroni factory, which in turn is now seeing the generational passage as his son Maximilian is entering the business as the creative director. Maximilian exudes enthusiasm and knowledge of his trade as he leafs through his collection of centuriesold books illustrating the Chinese art of growing silkworms. More recently, the silk weavers around Como became a consolidated centre, taking over from Lyon at the beginning of the 20th century.
For one century, Taroni has cultivated a production that has become unique in its kind. Maximilian explains, “We still produce a crêpe georgette that is richer than any others on the market. Still today we make silks that respect weaving techniques from the early 20th century. In addition to advanced machinery, we still work with looms that are over 60 years old, and we are busily experimenting with processes to introduce variants and explore the fabrics beyond their apparent limits. Our company is famous all over the world for its colour range and the highest possible quality of silk, which for decades now has been arriving raw from China. We are focused on favouring quality at all costs, and making a product that does not have overly rapid processing or too little rigorousness, as might be dictated by a certain type of fashion. Our silk is devised to last and last over time. This is the reason of our success, which represents a countertrend compared to the more generic market of prêt-à-porter.” Maximilian trained in photography and art in different parts of the world. Now, from his office in Grandate, Lombardy, he sees in art, design and a new type of fashion the road toward maintaining the Taroni mill active.
What cannot be told
Then there are the intriguing, less anecdotal secrets kept by companies such as this one, meaning that Taroni cannot reveal the names of the haute-couture fashion houses that its supplies, or the costumes for famous movies it has made, or the VIPs it has dressed – although such information would help them to become better known. It’s one of the rules of the game, one that runs against the former trend, when the big fashion designers boasted about their collaborations with local artisans and experts: Roberto Capucci, Fendi, Mila Schön, Valentino and Saint Laurent, to name but a few venerable ones.
What must be told
Just like Cangiari’s archive is being constituted with intellectual heritage nursed back to life generously and meticulously through ordering, interpreting and transcribing the past, Taroni’s archive “is being preserved and made appreciable under a far-sighted and long-term outlook that has required a long effort and specialised personnel,” says Margherita Rosina, a fabric historian who is studying the Taroni case. To have an idea of the numbers, over 6,000 articles have been filed and digitalised. The archiving of about 3,000 large swatches in all their colour variants in still underway. Then Rosina turns to Maximilian Canepa. “Signor Canepa, I saw Capucci yesterday. He asked me to tell you that everything is just perfect, but that he’d like a purpler shade of purple. He said to just say it like that, and you would understand.”
There is the secret.
© all rights reserved