I have always been a proud alumna of The Graduate Center of The City University of New York: its outstanding professors and world-class researchers have shaped my education beyond the years of my doctoral program in Comparative Literature. Their stimulating work has continued to engage scholars like me with new intellectual and artistic learning experiences.
On Halloween night, The City University of New York and Queens College offered an exceptional treat to the city (and me) during the second edition of the Academic Festival IC-CUNY (Italian Cinema CUNY) at the Graduate Center. In a special collaboration with The Academy of Italian Cinema David di Donatello, the university presented a master class on The Crafts of Cinema with Italian and American award-winning costume designers.
Professor Eugenia Paulicelli, Founder and Director of IC-CUNY, an educational project created to foster a deeper understanding of Italian cinema and a dialogue between Italian and American cultures, and Massimo Mascolo, David di Donatello Awards Consultant and IC-CUNY 2019 Associate Director, worked together to bring on stage internationally renowned costume designers: Oscar and Tony winner Ann Roth (Midnight Cowboy, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient, Mamma Mia, The Hours, Julie&Julia, Angels in America, and Cold Mountain); Emmy and David di Donatello nominee Carlo Poggioli (assistant designer for The Name of the Rose, The Voice of the Moon, The Age of Innocence; and costume designer for films like Silk, Brothers Grimm, Divergent, Cold Mountain, Youth, Loro 1, Loro 2, The Young Pope, and The New Pope); two time Emmy winner Donna Zakowska (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Kate and Leopold, Original Sin, Romance and Cigarettes, and the TV series like John Adams and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel); and four-time Oscar winner and David di Donatello winner Milena Canonero (Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire, Marie Antoinette, Grand Budapest Hotel) was also supposed to attend, but was forced to cancel at the last minute.
Professor Eugenia Paulicelli, a distinguished scholar of fashion and film, opened the night with remarks on the ongoing involvement of CUNY in the fields of fashion and cinema, two industries that, according to Paulicelli, “have always had a synergetic relationship insofar as they both use the technology of the camera, as well as that of the body and performance.” Film costumes, she explained, have not just borrowed from fashion and haute couture, but have inspired the production of fashion, and have been vital to cinema from its very birth by becoming “a virtual shopping window for clothes.”
Italy has played a key role in the field of design and innovation, and the relationship between Italy and America has a long history of collaboration that started during the period of silent film and continues today. It is precisely this bond that the opening night wanted to celebrate by hosting masterclass award winning costume designers.
On the stage with Paulicelli to discuss the relationship between American and Italian cinema and the work of Ann Roth, Carlo Poggioli, and Donna Zakowska, was Piera Detassis, President and Artistic Director of the Academy of Italian Cinema David di Donatello Awards. Detassis talked about the history of the David di Donatello Awards, and the special bond between Italy and the United States. She also offered one of the most emotional moments of the evening by showing a video of Marilyn Monroe receiving the David Award at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York in 1959. In the clip, another legendary actress, Anna Magnani, presents Monroe with the David; Marilyn asks Magnani for the translation in Italian of the words that she wants to say, then reaches for the microphone to share her thoughts: “sono commossa, grazie” she says in Italian, almost whispering.
Special guest Monica Branetti from BVLGARI was then introduced on stage. For this special occasion, Branetti brought to New York the David statuette that was originally awarded to Gina Lollobrigida for her best performance by an actress, in the film La donna più bella del mondo (The World’s Most Beautiful Woman). The David di Donatello, completely made of gold, was crafted by BVLGARI in 1955.
Costume designers Roth, Poggioli and Zakowska later engaged in dialogues concerning the role of costume designers, the problems they encounter, and the rewards their work offers. Zakowska believes that “clothes are words” and costume designers write “visual poems” through their work. She evoked the excitement and the “magic moment” in which a designer understands that a character is born thanks to the costume. Roth stressed the importance for an actor to find his or her character: some actors just want to be themselves, but in a film “it’s not about them, it’s about the character!” she exclaimed. According to Poggioli, a costume designer must know how to cut a costume and dye fabric, but also how to be a psychologist. The ability to communicate with directors and actors is a key factor to create characters that are in synch with the setting and the story.
Both Roth and Zakowska addressed the disappearance of craftspeople like tailors and seamstresses, a phenomenon that now threatens the profession. The problem, however, is not just in the shortage of specialized craftsmanship, but in the number of films that are now massively produced, so the time to prepare costumes, as Poggioli explained, has been drastically reduced. Both Roth and Zakowska also lamented the conflicts that sometime rise with producers: as “artists in business,” the designers claim that it is better not to engage in any conversation with producers. The two female costume designers also stressed their commitment to turn down offers to work on films and series whose settings and stories are degrading to women.
The guests gave the audience some unforgettable memories: Poggioli’s encounter with Anthony Hopkins and his work on Fellini’s last film The Voice of the Moon; Roth’s recollections of finding clothes for Dustin Hoffman, and her purchase of a red fox coat for Brenda Vaccaro in Midnight Cowboy; Poggioli reprimanding Zakowska because you “cannot make a costume with the computer!” were just some of the gems of the night.
Clips of the designers’ work were also shown, and the evening continued with an illustrated conversation between Professor Paulicelli and film producer Roberto Bessi, who talked about the history of Annamode, its role as one of the greatest cinematic and theatrical costume workshops, and the launch of “Annamode1946” a new fashion brand.
The evening ended with the American Premiere of a short film by Maria Tilli about a project and workshop funded by Louis Vuitton on a modern reinterpretation of a 1780 dress, featuring costume designers Maurizio Millenotti and Piero Tosi.
The next appointment for this second edition of the Academic Festival IC-CUNY (Italian Cinema CUNY) is scheduled for November 13. This time he focus will be on Contemporary Italian Cinema. Eugenia Paulicelli, Massimo Mascolo and Claudio Napoli will introduce the screening of The New Made in Italy Series on Cesare Attolini: Made in Naples; the event will also screen Stolen Caravaggio (2018), directed by Roberto Andò. Both screenings will be followed by discussions.
The final masterclass “Hybrid Intersections: Fashion, Costume, Cinema and Television” will be held on December 5. It will feature a discussion with Professor Deepsikha Chatterjee and Siobhan Nestor, principal women’s draper at the Metropolitan Opera; a screening of The New Made in Italy Series showcasing the story behind Italian excellence in Fashion, Costume Design and Cultural Heritage by Massimo Mascolo, Claudio Napoli, and Eugenia Paulicelli. The night will conclude with a conversation with two time Donatello Award winner costume designer Daniela Ciancio and Costume Concept Artist Christian Cordella.
During the opening night of the Academic Festival, the Italian American actor John Turturro was in attendance. He has worked closely with Donna Zakowska since they were both in the Theater program at Yale. He remarked that his mother was a seamstress, and he grew up surrounded by fabric. A perfect ending to a perfect evening! I am certain that the next two master classes will be as memorable as this one.