Giovanna Fontana

Fashion designer with her two sisters
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The Independent Online

Giovanna Fontana was one-third of the fashion design house Sorelle Fontana - "Fontana Sisters" - the other partners being her older sisters Micol and Zoe.

Giovanna Fontana, fashion designer: born Traversetolo, Italy 27 November 1915; married (one son, one daughter); died Rome 11 August 2004.

Giovanna Fontana was one-third of the fashion design house Sorelle Fontana - "Fontana Sisters" - the other partners being her older sisters Micol and Zoe.

Sorelle Fontana - the Fountain Sisters if you were to translate it literally (in fact they were affectionately known as the "fountains of Rome" by their illustrious clientele) - is not a name that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of the big designers of the 1950s and 1960s. But the Fontana label - with its wonderful white-on-black 1950s typography which survives on the shop awning to this day - caused a seismic change in Italian fashion.

Their first fashion show, which took place in Florence on 12 February 1951, and in which they showed with Emilio Pucci and four other designers, was also Italy's first official fashion show. Before then, Italy just wasn't a sartorial force to be reckoned with, as the world looked to Paris for fashion guidance. A small, select group of foreign buyers and press were invited and they were impressed. The orders flooded in.

There was already a flicker of recognition for the Fontana label. Almost exactly two years earlier, they had designed a pearl-encrusted lace wedding dress, with an ostentatiously long train, for the actress Linda Christian's wedding to Tyrone Power. It was the first picture of an Italian haute couture design to be circulated around the globe.

Wedding dresses were to remain a key feature of their couture business. They also designed Audrey Hepburn's wedding dress for her marriage that never was, to James (later Lord) Hanson. Two weeks before the wedding was to take place, Hepburn called it off, asking the eldest Fontana sister, Zoe, to give the dress to "the most beautiful bride you can find". In the event it went to a poverty-stricken young Italian girl called Amabile Altobella, coincidentally with the same Christian name as the Fontana sisters' mother.

The link with Hollywood continued, which guaranteed the Fontana sisters publicity. They went on to design for Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom at some time admired themselves in the famous three-panelled mirror that graced the Fontana atelier. Their signature style was OTT evening dresses and fitted suits with asymmetric fastenings.

Giovanna Fontana was born in 1915 in Traversetolo, deep in Emiglia Romagna country in the north-east of Italy. Her mother Amabile ran a dress shop, which had been founded by her own mother in 1907. Giovanna was the youngest of three sisters; Zoe was four years older, Micol two. Giovanna was always the quietest and " più timida" of the three. When the three sisters set up together, Giovanna worked very much behind the scenes, designing but also working on the finances. Years later, when the Italian gossip pages would show pictures entitled "one of the Fontana sisters" (they were never sure which one), it was invariably Micol (Zoe had died in 1979); she had always understood press and publicity better than her sisters.

However, it was Zoe who had been the first to leave home, in 1936, to find her fortune. She moved, with Micol, to Milan. Zoe then went on to Paris (Micol returned home) to study couture and headed back to Italy, and Rome, in late 1937. Her sisters joined her in 1940. Micol and Zoe went to work at a dressmakers which specialised in copying Parisian designs, whilst Giovanna worked from home for her own customers. In 1943 the three sisters started up their own studio with just 500 lire.

The 1950s saw the Fontana reputation at its height: they started the decade winning the commission to design the first Alitalia flight attendant uniforms. (Fifty years later, in 2000, they were still designing "first" uniforms, this time the "leisure" dress for the first ever women conscripts into the Italian air force.) In 1953 they started designing the costumes for Ava Gardner's role in The Barefoot Contessa: their most elaborate design can be seen in the "casino" scene; press cuttings of the time called Gardner "the world's most beautiful animal". She loved their designs so much she wore one to the Contessa premiere in 1954.

They also designed a " pretino" dress for Gardner, a black silk and wool cassock dress in the style of a Roman Catholic priest, complete with Monsignore hat and a large cross. This was a daring dress for them to make: the Catholic Church does not take kindly to such mockery. Federico Fellini loved it, and asked the Fontana sisters to make one for Anita Ekberg, which she wore in La Dolce Vita in 1960 (it is a common misconception that Fontana designed the famous Trevi fountain dress worn by Ekberg, but that was designed by Piero Gherardi who won an Oscar for best costume design).

As fashion got more democratic in the 1960s, Fontana decided to diversify away from haute couture into prêt-à-porter. They moved to the Piazza di Spagna (and have since moved to San Sebastianello) and sold bags, shoes, ties and a not insubstantial ready-to-wear collection. By then they employed 75 girls.

The 1970s saw their designs lose some of their strict structure and become more "flowing". In 1984 Micol and Giovanna donated their archive of dresses and sketches to the University of Parma.

Last year, to mark Micol's 90th birthday, the Capitoline Museum in Rome held a retrospective of Sorelle Fontana's work with dresses on show made from 1949 to 1991. Although Giovanna appeared with her sister, wearing her trademark large glasses and immaculately coiffed hair, it was Micol who gave the interviews, saying that "life began at 90".

Annalisa Barbieri