Dolce and Gabbana at Agrigento
Fashion shows are performances; as such, they need pleasant surroundings and good mis-en-scène. The conventional runway show held at some typical exhibition or conference centre does not seem to work anymore; designers are always on the lookout for exciting locations where they can hold their show.
Back in 1998, Calvin Klein requested permission from the Greek Archaeological Council to hold a show at the Acropolis in Athens. The application was rejected. More recently, Gucci tried in 2017, and that application too was rejected. The Acropolis is far too precious to the Greeks, and the fear of damaging it rules out such interventions. It is also likely that the Greeks would prefer, for political reasons, a homegrown designer/brand to hold such a show in what is the pride and glory of Greek culture.
This year there were two events that linked fashion directly to archaeological sites: the Dolce and Gabbana show at the Valley of Temples in Agrigento, Sicily, and Fendi's show in Rome at the Temple of Venus, a celebration of 'Romanity', with the splendour of the Colosseum in the background. Both shows took place in July and were spectacular.
Such events at archaeological sites can be quite beneficial to the sites: Dolce and Gabbana built a platform inside the Temple of Concordia, and as a result, visitors are now allowed to go inside the temple, whereas earlier they would have to limit themselves to going round it. Fendi, on the other hand, has pledged £2.2 for the restoration and cleaning of the majestic Temple of Venus. Archaeological sites are fragile and need constant attention; their upkeep is costly and not necessarily fully covered by state support. Not in Italy, not elsewhere, though some places may have better budgets.
An event such as a fashion show enables a renewed engagement with such sites which are part of a community and need to be seen not merely as monuments of a gone past, but still enmeshed in the present, alive and thriving.
Most of the main sites in Rome have received patronage from the fashion industry, specifically luxury brands. Rome is enveloped in its rich history which seamlessly merges with the present. Rome thrives on the income provided by tourism; it is only predictable that attractions should be well kept. It would be foolish to turn down the money offered by interested private companies, in this case, luxury brands, although everything comes at a price.
Writing for The Guardian in 2016, in the wake of the cleaning and restoration of the Trevi fountain achieved through another spectacular Fendi's fashion show, Eva Wiseman commented that "it seems apt that this city, its story so tightly wound with ideas of luxury and taste, can be propped up by fashion brands in a way that, say, London can’t. The idea of Topshop sponsoring a clean-up of Nelson’s Column is almost unthinkable." Fendi and Topshop are not quite in the same league, it must be said.
But do I detect here a sour grape sentiment in Wiseman's subsequent comments, when she wonders whether accepting money from fashion brands might eventually lead to the introduction of VIP only areas?
Fashion brands in the UK do not act as sponsors of known sites - I would love to see Victoria Beckham stepping up to the plate and investing into a British site (there are several that are languishing and desperately need to be renovated) but private money poured in the upkeep of places such as Kew Gardens is old news. So why feel somewhat outraged? It's called capitalism, and we live in a largely capitalist world.
Chihuly at KewI go to Kew Gardens regularly, as I am a member. It is a great place to visit, but it is not easily accessible to everyone. London parks are usually free and especially when it is sweltering, they are places where everyone tries to spend time. And not just in hot weather. Parks and green spaces are the lungs of this sprawled out metropolis.
Kew, however, is not free; getting in is a steep £16.50 per person, a little less with various concessions. A membership 'plus guest' is the best option if you really are committed to visiting regularly, as indeed I am.
A family outing to Kew is expensive and not for everyone. Who goes to Kew? By definition, Kew visitors are some kind of VIPs, in that they are people who can afford to pay to get in.
Within Kew there are many places sponsored by the companies that give money for the upkeep of the site, starting with the rather expensive cafes and ice-cream parlours (I went last Sunday with a friend and was shocked at the cost of a cone with a flake, a fiver for two). Then there are shops where merchandise is sold, and it is not cheap either.
One of the ponds at Kew
So why would Fendi and Bulgari offering money for the upkeep of Roman sites be seen as more threatening than say, Sackler, or any private company offering money to hire a venue within Kew for a corporate event?
As a fashion lover, I delight in fashion shows and would be thrilled to see them at beautiful venues. And if I walk in one myself, which I occasionally do, I would be thrilled to do it at the Valley of Temples or anywhere as grand as that. I love history too, what an excellent way to bring my two passions together!