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Basel dusts down fashion eccentric’s creations

Spillmann designed elegant dresses with unusual touches.

Fred Spillmann was perhaps better known during his lifetime for his outlandish appearance and flamboyant lifestyle rather than for his fashion designs.

But a new exhibition in Basel shows he was a master of haute couture, letting his imagination rip in outfits spanning half a century of fashion.

“He was immensely creative and had a great sense of fun, so his outfits were sometimes very extravagant,” curator Margret Ribbert told swissinfo.

Dozens of Spillmann’s dresses, drawings and accessories are on show at Basel’s historical museum, alongside a collection of oversized rings and glasses which the designer wore around town – long before the likes of Elton John or Karl Lagerfeld.

“Spillmann was a legend in Basel and was instantly recognisable,” said Ribbert. “He also had a devoted clientele of wealthy women who for decades attended his twice-yearly fashion shows.”

Spillmann created dozens of elegant evening dresses and bizarre accessories, such as his “shark’s head” hat and satin pumps in the shape of dragons. He also launched fragrances and dabbled in art.

Fashion icon

Spillmann was born into a wealthy Basel family in 1915. From an early age, it was clear that the young dandy would not take up the reins of the family business and would chose an altogether more unusual route to riches.

“He was a very exuberant young man and was lucky enough to have the financial backing of his parents to follow a career in haute couture,” said Ribbert.

Spillmann trained in fashion design during the 1920s in Basel and Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1933, when he arrived in France to work with the Parisian fashion icon, Elsa Schiaparelli, that his career really took off.

“Spillmann at last found someone who reflected his own style and who was also heavily influenced by the Surrealists,” explained Ribbert.

His Parisian stint gave him a taste for glamour, and Spillmann spared no expense when making his creations. He used expensive fabrics and elaborate designs which required a high level of craftsmanship.

But unlike his contemporaries, such as Coco Chanel or Christian Dior, Spillmann chose to stick exclusively to haute couture and he never branched out into ready-to-wear.

Sadly, the high price tag on his outfits and his limited output meant that Spillmann’s reputation never spread much beyond Switzerland.

The end of elegance

Spillmann enjoyed commercial success up until the 1960s. Thereafter, he struggled to reconcile his ideals of how women should dress – top to toe in tailored elegance – with the changes taking place in society at the time.

“Spillmann did get a bit disillusioned with fashion later on,” admitted Ribbert. “It changed enormously during the sixties when people hankered after casual, sporty clothes.

“So he increasingly used references to art in his designs, especially Pop Art.”

One extraordinary dress of that time looks as if an ashtray has been tipped over it, with cigarette butts made of fabric – a theme inspired by the artist Claes Oldenburg.

Another dress looks as if a row of black and white hands are clutching at the body.

“He always wanted women to have a quiet eroticism about them, but it was always understated – there was never anything as obvious as plunging necklines.”

The exhibition runs until February 29, 2004.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Fred Spillmann (1914-1986) designed haute couture for half a century.
He trained in Berlin and with the Parisian fashion icon, Elsa Schiaparelli.
He died a week before his 100th anniversary fashion show.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR