From the Archives: A Celebration of Emanuel Ungaro’s Work in Vogue
“The '60s were free, innocent, without pressure. I did what I wanted to do. Remember when I was mixing prints. I started that in 1969 and '70,” Emanuel Ungaro once recalled. The designer, who passed away Saturday at the age of 86, was indeed an audacious mix-master of patterns and polka dots, ruches and ruffles.
The 1960s and ‘70s, the decades when Ungaro flourished, was a wildly eclectic era in fashion—a time when the old rules were smashed, and you could suddenly wear whatever you wanted: Fringe and feathers! Torn denim and thrift shop nightgowns! But there were, of course, thousands—maybe millions—of women who still wanted to look polished and who embraced Ungaro’s artful combos, clients who wanted nothing more than to swan around in one of his divine silky dresses.
Despite his commitment to old-fashioned elegance, Ungaro had a real feeling for the times in which he lived. When he opened his couture house, in 1965, he refused to show evening dresses, announcing: “They are not my style. I am a man of this age and I will design for women of this age.”
The designer was born in Aix-en-Provence, where his Italian father had fled ahead of the fascists. His dad gave him a sewing machine when he was three; by the time he was 23, he had fled to Paris, where he worked with the legendary Cristóbal Balenciaga, from whom he said he learned, “rigor and perfectionism.” It was this strictness of execution, the cool strength that informed the ruffles, that made clients, including Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve, frequent visitors to his atelier.
But like so many names in fashion, so many once-important maisons, unfortunate business decisions can come to sully a great name. In 2005, Ungaro sold the business for $84 million, and thus began a series of house designers including, most notoriously, the actress Lindsey Lohan. Ungaro was an outspoken critic: “Lindsay Lohan's collaboration was a disaster. I am furious but I can't do anything about it," he said. That happens to a lot of designers. We were the creators and patrons, responsible for the creation and destiny of our houses. But when we gave up our houses, we gave up our souls.”
But souls are funny things. They can dim, perhaps, but their light is never entirely extinguished. Ungaro will be remembered not for things that happened that were beyond his control, but for the beautiful frocks he created, and how they delighted and flattered the women who loved to wear them.