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Industry, Fashion and Prêt-à-Porter in Barcelona

18 September, 2013

Exhibition Barcelona prêt-à-porter / Núria Puentes / Palau Robert

The Palau Robert is showing half a century of the fashion industry in Barcelona in an exhibition that will bring together up to 300 pieces to narrate the origins of prêt-à-porter in the city.

“When you take a retrospective look at fashion, a lot of things suddenly make sense,” says the curator of the exhibition Barcelona Prêt-à-porter 1958-2008, Josep Casamartina.

The exhibition will run at Palau Robert until 30 March 2014 and for the first time “organises” the history of off-the-rack fashion in Barcelona. Visitors are invited to ponder the origins of the clothing labels that today abound in the main shopping streets of the Catalan capital. The exhibition raises questions while showcasing dresses by Teresa Helbig and Celia Vela and, on another scale, designs by Desigual, Mango and Custo Barcelona.

The questions find a resounding answer: at the end of the 1950s, a slow revolution began in the way that fashion was made and marketed which led to today’s mass-production market in which large brands coexist with smaller labels and many of the firms have the capacity to make sales around the world.

“Fashion is continually being invented and discarded and is always undergoing renewal. The show ends with a number of well-established and young and not-so-young designers who have their own firms and studios. However, above all the exhibition reappraises the industry and the designers and high-street firms that sell their own designs,” says the curator of this unique and singular exhibition which will evolve over the coming months when new pieces from the Antoni de Montpalau
Textile Collection
are added.

Born in the 1930s

But just what enabled the move from haute couture on the one hand and dresses and dress-making on the other, to the design of mass-produced clothing? This is another of the questions the exhibition sets out to reveal.

“The start of prêt-à-porter in Catalonia dates back to the 1930s, when a number of couture houses opened ready-made clothing sections following a trend the large department stores had begun some time before,” says Casamartina.

The historian acknowledges, however, that “it wasn’t until the 1950s when the design and production of off-the-peg clothing really began to take hold”.

Following the trend in other European countries and America, the major couture houses, dressmaking firms and low-cost clothing manufacturers, together with small studios, designers and boutiques, then slowly began to shape the prêt-à-porter fashion sector as we know it today, building it up over fifty years.

Progressive change

Despite initial resistance, big names in Barcelona haute couture, including Pedro Rodríguez, Pertegaz, Santa Eulàlia and Antoni Joamon, among many others, knew their future would also have to involve creating mass-produced clothes.

“Assunción Bastida was among the first couturiers to branch out into prêt-à-porter collections,” Casamartina says.

Bastida, who had a couture establishment in Barcelona’s Gran Vía, moved to Italy in 1939 because of the Spanish Civil War. There, sources from the Antoni de Montpalau Textile Collection tell us, she spent a year in contact with the major fashion houses of Milan and Rome and it was probably that experience, as well as her work with Dior and the French designer Jacques Heim, which allowed her to get a head start on the other Barcelona-based designers and become one of the first couturiers to throw her hat into the ready-to-wear ring.

“Designers with an haute background found it hard to adapt to the production demands of off-the-rack fashion.  Production times were shorter, as was the time to order textiles and many other things. Pertegaz was possibly one of the designers who adapted best to the new work patterns imposed by mass fashion,” Casamartina says, adding that Pertegaz brought out his first prêt-à-porter line in 1968, the same year his Diagonal boutique opened.

“Other designers actually started out in ready-to-wear,” Casamartina says, mentioning Josep Ferrer as a case in point. A Ferrer pantsuit from the late 1950s is on display at the exhibition. Another was Andrés Andreu, who struck out on his own after working with Pedro Rodríguez.

The industry that was the driving force behind the change

Textile companies warrant a special mention in the history of prêt-à-porter, the curator says.

In 1963, textile manufacturers joined ranks behind the Moda del Sol initiative. This was an early fashion show used as an excuse to demonstrate textile novelties in the form of clothing. “They had a huge success with the show they presented in Paris and which included designs by Josep Maria Fillol, who was contracted by the textile firms that formed part of Moda del Sol,” Casamartina relates.

The Golden 60s and 70s

This pioneering initiative enabled textile manufacturers, principally from Terrassa, Sabadell, the Maresme area and Barcelona, to make a name for themselves not just in Spain but internationally as well. “Between 1967 and 1974, Vogue magazine dedicated 17 special pages to Moda del Sol twice a year, coinciding with the new seasons’ collections. Both the 60s and 70s were the golden years of this initiative and the companies that formed part of it,” Casamartina recalls.

Indeed, these two decades were when prêt-à-porter fashion really expanded. Santa Eulàlia launched its Boutique line, targeted at a young public and designed by Jorge Olesti, in the 1960s. It was also when Sant Patrick opened its first Pronovias store in Barcelona and got its franchise system off the ground. Margarita Nuez opened a prêt-à-porter studio and Marisol Bofill began her line of off-the-peg clothing under the Carola label.

Major events in the 1970s included Toni Miró teaming up with a number of industrialists to create the ready-to-wear label Antonio Miró and launch his international expansion. 1977 also saw Antonio Balado, together with three other well-known designers of the time, take part in Top Spain in New York.

Small commerce

Finally, the exhibition aims to remind visitors that boutiques and small fashion studios were major driving forces behind prêt-à-porter in Barcelona. The exhibition’s curator says that some of the city’s streets also played a leading role in promoting ready-to-wear fashion in Catalonia: “Carrer Tuset, for example, was home to a large number of boutiques, including Josep Ferrer, Roura, Renoma and Carnaby Street”.

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