Mila Schon: from a boat to a ball


Mila Schon Spring/Summer 2013 collection via via
"The perfection of workmanship is between Mila Schon designs and extraordinary fabrics as if a magic wand has woven each garment on a special loom to fit each individual body by the sorcerers... I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life as the way her clothes caress and in tune with the body." Diana Vreeland / November 1968

On 28 November 1966 at 10 o'clock the Plaza's Grand Ballroom filled with 540 most glamorous people. The music was playing, masked couples dancing and Taittenger champagne - flowing "like the Nile". Hosted by  Truman Capote the party not only became the event of the year, but went down the history as "the party of the century". Known as The Black and White ball, the setting and dress code were inspired by My Fair Lady's Ascot Scene beautifully costumed by Cecil Beaton and took several month to organise, so the end result was "like a painting" that reflected the changes in society and created a mix of people from different circles "blending the unblendable" tycoons and brokers with artists, editors and models. 

Truman Capote Black & White Ball via Vogue US January 1967 via
Nobody wanted an old and dusty princess frock and even the obligatory masks had to be special. There were velvet and silk, bird feathers and rhinestones, organza and silk, all - the epitome of beauty captured in monochrome. Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Castillo, Kenneth Jay Lane, Frederico Forquet, Elizabeth Erden, Balmain, Alfred Dunhill, Galanos, Betsey Johnson, Norman Norell, Bill Cunningham and Gene Moore. 

Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli in Mila Schon designs + original sketches /  Truman Capote's Black & White Ball in 1966 via
And Mila Schon was among them, too. She designed two ensembles. The first one, a long tunic dress, a combination of a simple sheath and a layer of light grey chiffon decorated with lurex three and ebroirered borders was worn by Lee Radziwill. For Marella Agnelli Schon created "a very pale caftan, embroidered in circles and lines with silver beads and sequins".

Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli in Mila Schon designs + original sketches /  Truman Capote's Black & White Ball in 1966 via
The lightness and minimalism yet elegance of these looks stood out among the evening gowns and both ladies ended up as number 1 and 3 of the WWD's Best dressed list instantly making Mila Schon one for the most sought after designers in America next to Valentino.

Such a brilliant introduction to the US market was simultaneously accompanied by fashion reports, Vogue spreads, Neiman Marcus Designer of the Year Award followed by The Martha Award "for outstanding achievement in the world of fashion".

Bendetta Barzini wearing Mila Schon in Vogue US 1968 (photography: Henry Clarke)
Back in Milan, the list of Mila Schon clients also kept on growing. She was now custom-designing for Anna Bonomi Bolchini, Enrica Invernizzi, the Angelli family and Ira Furstenbergh. The atelier also began receiving orders from foreign clients, some of whom even came to Milan from Paris, just like Mila did ones, only in an opposite direction. There was a moment when American fashion magazines even dubbed her as "Italian Coco Chanel". 

Mila Schon design inspired by Alexander Calder's Mobiles photographed by Ugo Mulas
Despite such a glorious comparison Mila Schon was now firmly associated with her own, signature "Schon style". The Parisian couture and its influences were just a memory. Instead, "signora dello stile" as the Italian press referred to her, was turning to art and her favourite paintings experimenting with colours, fabrics and patterns. Her first ideas appeared in January 1969 when she presented a few looks inspired by the architecture of the Bauhahus, Alexander Calder's Mobiles and Lucio Fontana's "Spatial Concept".

 Mila Schon design inspired by Lucio Fontana's "Spatial Concept: Waiting" photographed by Ugo Mulas
Following her intuition Schon kept the simple geometric lines of the garments - small and narrow at the shoulders, fitted at the waist and widened towards the knee - and instead infused everything with colour to reflect the change of times and tastes. 

Marisa Berenson wearing Mila Schon in Vogue US and Mila Schon designs in various Italian fashion publications via
Those beautiful and special designs were later captured by Ugo Mulas or "my Ugo" as she called him. It was Mulas who introduced Mila to some of the art works that served as the points of inspiration and later the photographer Schon chose to capture her designs that became the image of the house. 

Mila Schon embroidery designs via
She also expanded her team to include Carlo Cremaschi and Pino Grasso, the Italian answer to Parisian Francois Lesage. While her daywear, especially the coats, became easily recognisable and some of the most photographed, no soiree or party would not be imagined without at least one Mila Schon embroidered caftan, also one of her signatures. 

If dressing high society wasn't enough, in 1968 Mila Schon turned to attention to Alitalia who approached the designer seeking a new look for their air hostesses. Not only Schon signed the contract that entailed the supply of six hundred complete outfits, but being Mila, she ensured that every single one of them - a suit in "Italian green" wool, a blue blouse and green cape - were made to measure. After triumphing the first design, Schon created two more - the "Manchuria red" suit for the airlines and an yellow version - for the ground staff. Her example and execution were so infections that other airlines were soon employing fashion designs to follow the suit. The TWA was turning to Valentino while Air France air crew was soon appearing head to toe in Balenciaga.

Mila Schon uniforms for Alitalia 1968 via
That very same year Mila Schon made a leap from her beloved couture for ladies of the high society and shifted her attention towards the young and space-inspired daywear presenting a collection that surprised quite a few. The Fall 1969 show was still focused on "structure and movement", but now included plain jackets with contrasting shiny buttons, cropped tourers and raised hemlines in every shade of pink and violet. It was bold and beautiful, something that really captured attention and generated headlines. It was also the first time Mila Schon included two new accessories - high boots and sunglasses, designed by Magli - another creative collaboration she started and kept for years.

    Mila Schon pink suit Fall/Winter 1968 via
Came the 1970s and Mila Schon was moving East, both literally and metaphorically. By the 1970 the Orient was the next big thing, more powerful than anything related to space travel and Schon found herself greatly inspired by the Chinese and Vietnamese cultures that allowed her to experiment with patterns and delicate embroideries without breaking her code and aesthetics. She turned to kimonos, 1930s shapes and introduced beautiful egg-shaped capes. Her next collection inspired by the colours of Chinese porcelain, pearly pink, black and white felt more delicated, with day dresses often closed with an Obi-like belt and the evening gowns - spotting shimmering Gobelin-style motifs. 

Mila Schon Oriental-inspired designs in fashion editorials via
In 1971 hers was the first Italian fashion house to establish business relationship with Japan where Schon designs gained popularity due to their austere lines and artistic colour palette. She also opened a store in Rome - again surprising everyone by its concept of different perception of space and light designed by Ugo La Pietra who based his design on a theory of inclined planes. 

Mila Schon store in Rome designed by Ugo la Pietra 1973 via
The light played a very important role in Schon's own designs of the decade, too. By the mid-1970s the house was creating more and more ready-to-wear high fashion rather than couture alone, which meant different techniques and approach as well as designs to suit the modern woman. The shapes were becoming fuller, floating, often resembling art work, but still precise and unfussy thanks to the elaborate techniques and new fabrics. Those were the clothes created by a process typical of the artisan methods of haute couture where every single step had to be approved by the designer herself before the work could continue... 

Mila Schon designs in Vogue Italia and fashion campaigns 1982-1988 via
When questioned about such a particular attention to details in ready-to-wear, Schon responded with: "Ready-to-wear high fashion, in a limited series, as it is usually produced, run the risk of losing like an out-of-date, second-hand couture. I started to produce pret-a-poter...{based on} a fairly unusual concept. We always create it in tandem with the haute couture, so {the clothes} have to have a taste and a line that are, I won't say indentical, but close. There's an exchange between the two. A very up-to-date vision. Out pret-a-porter is distinctive: a true ready-to-wear haute couture. And my fashion does not fade after a season."

By the end of the 1980s the Made in Italy was the second highest source of the country's income generating more attention, demand and publicity than any other industry. The fashion houses became something of a phenonenon with Versace and Valentino now showing in Paris and Ferre heading off to Dior as the first ever Italian creative director of the Maison. 

Mila Schon fashion show via
Mila Schon S.p.A., now a multinational group, included ready-to-wear lines for women and men, Mila Schon Pelle e Confezioni accessories, Mila Schon perfume, licensed Schontess scarves and ties, and was showing in Milan alongside Gianfranco Ferre, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Valentino, Krizia, Missoni, Laura Biagiotti, Luciano Soprani and Alberta Ferretti among others. 

Yet Schon always returned to Rome as one of hers and her mother's true loves and "the capital of pure style". She showed there twice a year and chose the glamourous destination as the only suitable location to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her brand. On 22 July 1983 she presented  collection that used every kind of material, diamond motifs, intarsia, embroidery and furs described by La Republica as "a homage to an extremely chic woman who prefers understatement... a woman who chooses like a respectable girl of the sixties, but who metamorphoses for the evening dreaming of and citing New York..." It was one of the last shows Mila Schon ever hosted in Rome. 

Mila Schon fashion shows in Rome and Paris via
In 1992, following other Italian designers as well as responding to her clients' requests, she and her son Giorgio decided to present their next collection in Paris. The "choice of the show in Paris was a something of  a "present" that Giorgio wanted to give his mother" and mark a deserved "farewell" on Mila's departure from the catwalk. The company was now sold to the Japanese firm Itochu and later acquired by Mariella Burani's fashion group that lisenced the brand from 1999 to 2007.

Mila Schon in Vogue 1998
She never thought of retiring and even after her official departure, Schon remained honorary president of the company leading, advising and inspiring the new creative forces who joined the house over the years following her ultimate goal, the idea that started it all, to preserve a thread of elegance and stay true to the great Italian traditions. One day she disappeared from the front row and then - the public eye. A few months later, on 5 September 2008 Mila Schon passed away in her country home in Alessandria.

Photo source: Mila Schon Spring/Summer 2013 collection via, Truman Capote Black & White Ball via Vogue US January 1967, Lee Radziwill in Mila Schon design at Truman Capote's Black & White Ball in 1966, Bendetta Barzini wearing Mila Schon in Vogue US 1968 (photography: Henry Clarke), Mila Schon design inspired by Alexander Calder's Mobiles photographed by Ugo Mulas, Mila Schon design inspired by Lucio Fontana's "Spatial Concept: Waiting" photographed by Ugo Mulas, Marisa Berenson wearing Mila Schon in Vogue US and Mila Schon designs in various Italian fashion publications, Mila Schon embroidery designs photographed by Giampaolo Barbieri for Vogue Italia 1967, Mila Schon uniforms for Alitalia 1968, Mila Schon pink suit Fall/Winter 1968, Mila Schon Oriental-inspired designs in fashion editorials,  Mila Schon store in Rome designed by Ugo la Pietra 1973 via Klat Magazine, Mila Schon designs in Vogue Italia and fashion campaigns 1982-1988, Mila Schon fashion show, Mila Schon fashion shows in Rome and Paris, Mila Schon in Vogue 1998, all collages by me, images via Mila Schon, Mila Schon official website, The Fashion Spot & personal collection


  1. How utterly fascinating - it seems strange to me that I can recognise so many of Mila Schon's designs but not have ever known who they were attributed to until now! But I'm so glad you've filled in all of this history for me, and it's so wonderful to see, on a rare occasion, a fashion designer's story with a truly happy ending :)

    1. Ah, my pleasure! I know the feeling of suddenly putting a face to a certain design, it's like completing a puzzle and suddenly learning something new. Personally, it's always that Black & White Ball gown that touches something in me because I "met" it in person at V&A. You know, the beading and threads are absolutely magical... x

  2. Wow, I get chills seeing those photos and reading the second and final part dedicated to Mila Schon. Her designs were so stunning, I mean how amazing is that dress that looks like a cut canvas?!


    1. They are one of my most favourite, too. I was stunned first time I saw those designs and then compared them to the original artwork they were inspired by. She was amazing, wasn't she? x