Suzy Menkes asks, ‘Is fashion performing art?’ at Rome’s Accademia Costume & Moda

The heroine was Mary Poppins. And although London’s Victorian age pearly kings and queens are somewhere between art and theatre, that intersection of the two elements was the point of creating these elegantly tailored jackets decorated with buttons.

They were displayed in Rome at the Accademia Costume & Moda – a rare school that melds designing for the performing arts with fashion.

Since haute couture – and all high-end design – switched from primarily serving clients to showcasing creative concepts, there have been earnest discussions about fashion as art. It started well before the new millennium when drama on the runway was normalised by defining fashion shows as theatre.

But in the current confusion of what is now haute couture and, on another fashion page, whether students should be encouraged to make exciting but unwearable creations, the academic and industrial projects from the students in Rome struck a chord.

With Alessandro Michele of Gucci as its shining alumnus (you can even see the noble Gucci building from the windows of the Accademia), the educational approach of this college makes an interesting study.

Is it a different context to the British or American schools that – especially in the case of the UK – have dominated design for the last quarter of a century?

Lupo Lanzara, Deputy Chairman of the Accademia Costume & Moda, explained that the family business he now runs with his brother, CEO Furio Francini, sets out to highlight three pillars of education: costume; fashion and accessories; and communications, which includes editing and styling. All three are treated as significant and important.

The first section was the world of Mary Poppins, but so much more, as students learned to create everything from clothes to face masks and even fake noses. Significantly, these are more than dreamy ideas, as student groups aim to create costumes for a specific show that brings their budding skills to the Italian stage, either for theatre or ballet.

I watched Andrea Viotti, Italy’s legendary designer of costumes and sets and also a noted historian of military dress, who explained that his aim was to teach his students to become ‘young professionals’ after studying techniques required for performance. They need to understand not just what was worn in past or present, but also to comprehend the social and economic background that gave birth to such clothes.

I was intrigued to see that while ‘costume’ was kept in this arena of the large 1925 building with its wide staircase, the concept of re-creating past designs popped up in other areas of fashion studies. For example, for a workshop with Rome’s Alta Moda, there was a line-up of bustiers of varied silhouettes from tightly laced, fin-de-siècle corsets to lighter body shapers.

Another Alta Moda project, this time with Rita Airaghi of the Gianfranco Ferré foundation, was to keep the late designer’s legacy alive via a fresh vision of his signature white shirts.

What struck me about the line up from graduating designers is that they were not pushing the barrier of what is credible as clothing. As if the theatrical option had creamed off those students who wanted to design costumes, projects for clothes and accessories were easily understandable.

Work for Diesel, Max Mara and Woolmark included knitting, tailoring and sportswear. Striking knits with bold patterns or decorations of pearls had been displayed at Florence’s Pitti Filati fair in partnership with 35 Italian knitwear companies, melding the personal with the industrial.

Was it really so different from the college shows I have seen over many years? Perhaps not. Yet, I came away from the Accademia Costume & Moda feeling that there was something in the approach – the separating of costume and clothes – that defined what fashion should be in the real world: imaginative, but within the realm of wearable clothing.