The Genteel
March 9, 2021


Photograph courtesy of Roberta Camerino.

High fashion brings to mind opulence, glamour and lavish billows of rich fabrics and décor - from shop windows on Fifth Avenue to the runways of Paris. But the story of the Roberta di Camerino brand is rooted in the struggles of a monumental time in history. Despite these circumstances, through the decades, Roberta di Camerino blossomed into a prestigious fashion house, whilst also putting the international fashion spotlight on Venice.

It is a timeless saying that the best inventions come from necessity, and although the brand's founder, Giuliana Coen Camerino, wasn't responsible for inventing the handbag, the Venetian-Jewish fashion icon certainly played a vital role in its modern reinvention. 

Giuliana con borsa Santa Fe
Giuliana Coen Camerino with one of her designs. 

Photograph courtesy of Roberta Camerino.

Coen Camerino was forced to flee Mussolini's Italy in 1943 with her husband, settling in Lugano, Switzerland as a refugee. When she couldn't afford to buy a new purse, Coen Camerino sewed herself a leather handbag. A Swiss woman on the street liked it so much, she bought it there and then - directly off the young designer's shoulder.

When the war ended, the future businesswoman returned to the Venice she loved and began building her empire. She named it after the 1935 Fred Astaire musical, Roberta; "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from the production was the last song she danced to before fleeing her native country - an ode to memories of happier times.

Thus began a complete reinvention of the handbag - at a time when most designers only crafted them in brown or black leather, Coen Camerino's designs were a total aberration. She didn't use traditional colour palettes (to say the least); her purses featured graphic patterns, cloth and brass buckles, using rich fabrics that were - up until that point - most commonly seen in clothing. 

These designs arguably launched the handbag from a mere utility object to a status symbol and fashion staple - the classic Bagonghi bag rested on the arms of some of the most iconic figures of the 1950s, including Grace Kelly. These were the first designer bags; Coen Camerino had brought colour back to postwar Italy. 

"I was lucky to know Ms. Giuliana in the last two years before she passed away," says Ercole de Cesare, CEO of Roberta di Camerino, from the brand's headquarters in Milan. "She was an unbelievable woman. When I knew her, she was around the age of 80, but was always thinking about the future to develop the brand. To me, it was amazing the energy and power she had at the end of her life," he continues.

[Giuliana Coen Camerino] was an unbelievable woman. When I knew her, she was around the age of 80, but was always thinking about the future to develop the brand. To me, it was amazing the energy and power she had at the end of her life.

De Cesare recalls sitting in meetings with the entrepreneur and being astounded at the progressive ideas Coen Camerino brought to the table during his first few months with the company. "We were studying the new website and she proposed a fashion show on YouTube. I was thinking - she's 80 years old and thinking about this. She's amazing." 

The designer's daughter, Roberta Camerino, says her mother's success can be attributed to a few main attributes: "She was a good businesswoman. She worked full time, and for long, until she died. She loved her work."

Without the artistic direction of the designer herself, de Cesare says it took the company a bit of time following its founder's death (in 2010 at age 89) to hone the vision and next steps for the brand. "At the beginning, it was very complicated to think about the future because she always had very good ideas, innovative ideas."

With a classic statement design steeped in history, decision-makers at Roberta di Camerino realised that to continue being successful, they needed to go back to their heritage. The most distinguishable features of the handbags - the use of bright colours, rich textures and distinct shapes - were, after all, original ideas introduced by the brand.

The iconic branding and designs that made the brand so successful in the first place are back at the core of its current success. "When you see a lady on the street wearing this little bag, they can immediately be recognised a Roberta di Camerino bag. They are iconic products," says de Cesare. The lattice of monogrammed R's adorned her collections in the 1940s whilst woven leather was introduced in the '50s. The purses signed off with bright, clean patterns, purses with flaps and were constructed in the well-known doctor's "medicine bag" shape. Subconsciously or not, Coen Camerino influenced other designers, like Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Prada, to create pieces that would go on to become known as their "signature" designs.  

Guiliana di Camerino Italy Handbag
Borsa Bagonghi Purse. 
Photograph courtesy of Roberta Camerino.

Although the brand continues to sell accessories such as scarves and wallets, it is best known for its innovation in handbag design. The leather-crafted, brightly coloured bags grace the displays of 100 shops around the globe, bringing in about €2m in revenue worldwide, according to the company's CEO. The company still keeps to its age-old business model - less about commercial distribution, and instead, chooses to keep business at "eye level," says de Cesare, "It isn't a commercial brand." For purses that average between €500-1,500, it's a concept that is sustainable as they serve clientele ranging from boutiques in Tokyo to Barneys New York.

The company even creates couture pieces using materials such as velvet from their archives - materials that aren't reproducible today. As a result, vintage Roberto di Camerinos are coveted heirlooms. Designers like Anna Sui are avid collectors and Madonna was seen carrying around her Caravel in the 2000s. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology displayed them at the turn of the millennium, while a little closer to home and shortly after her death, Trieste's Museo Revoltella paid tribute to the "Signora of fashion" with an exhibition dedicated to the brand and its history. 

Roberta Camerino told The Genteel that her mother was most fondly revered and remembered after her death. "It's always the case. It's not easy to remember people when they're alive. When she died, [Venice] did a special celebration for her." Fitting, considering how Roberta Camerino describes her mother's signature purses: "All her life, all her designs are full of Venice."

These were the first designer bags; Camerino had brought colour back to postwar Italy.

Italy has exported some of the world's best-loved labels, but few are from Venice; of them Roberta di Camerino is one of the most successful. Save for Pierre Cardin (who moved to France from his native Venice at age two, and who also recently received rounds of dissension for his proposal of a glass addition to the Venetian skyline), the Roberta di Camerino brand has become a metonym for the decadent, gilded opulence of Venice, whose image has been reinforced and highlighted by hosting the world's oldest, and one of the most prestigious film festivals.

De Cesare attributes much of the ideas of the label's founder to this very fact. "She had a very strong personality that, in some part, came from the city. The city is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is very particular. It helped her develop her style." Her daughter echoes that sentiment, saying her mother's signature pieces and personality are inextricably linked. "She was the first that designed bags in colour. She was the first to [use] the trompe l'oeil design. I can tell you thousands of things she did. My mother was also a very particular woman. Full of life. She was full of personality and full of ideas."

It was Coen Camerino's ideas that captured the attention and admiration of her contemporaries, such as Coco Chanel. But, it is perhaps the artist, and Coen Camerino's dear friend, Salvador Dali who described her best: she first conveyed art into fashion. At the very least, the Signora was a woman who dared to challenge conventionality, and succeeded in turning utility into artistry.



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