Sofia Balestra opens the doors of her archive, telling of her love for her grandfather’s fashion house and the passion behind her new collections
Marco Nicosia in conversation with Sofia Balestra
Renato Balestra was a master at narrating the beauty of Rome most of all, in the years when the Capital was at the centre of worldwide cinema and Fellini was filming ‘La Dolce Vita’. His career began almost by accident in the 50s: because of a lost bet, his friends sent one of his sketches to the Italian Fashion Center and, on that occasion, he was recognised for his talent and was invited to participate in an Haute Couture show. He has since started working for the Sorelle Fontana and in the end he opened his own atelier. His first collections debuted in 1958 in the United States.
After more than sixty years of career, Renato passed away in November 2022. Just a few months before, in February of the same year, he had entrusted the maison to his daughters Fabiana and Federica — its shareholders — and to his granddaughter Sofia Bertolli Balestra, who is now at the creative direction of the brand, managing the activities of research, design and brand identity. “I’m proud to be part of one of the few fashion houses which are run by a family and by women,” Sofia explains to us. “I give more importance to merits, but it’s good that women can take on challenges. It’s something I like to claim, because women were actually important to my grandpa’s career and they were the ones who kept him going.”
Sofia welcomes us in the hall of her office, in the centre of Rome: a big lounge surrounded by hundreds of dresses, from the archive to the latest collections. It could not be otherwise, since “Rome is home,” as she says: “I go back and forth, from Rome to Milan, but it’s great for me even so.” As a host, you can suddenly feel the sacredness of the place: there’s a great view from the windows and, just next to you, there are the clothes that made Italian fashion history, many of which were worn by movie stars like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Yvonne Furneaux, Tina Louise.
Obviously, Sofia is already familiar with that space, which she personally reorganised, and apparently she can’t wait to introduce us to her own world. She defines herself as a bookworm: after studying Journalism and Art History, indeed she wanted to tidy up his grandfather’s gowns and conduct research on them. It was so that she gave rise to the Balestra Archive, which was declared of historical interest by the Italian Ministry of Culture in 2019. “When I arrived here, the Archive didn’t exist yet and I felt the need to create it, also for my personal culture, in order to understand why my grandpa made certain outfits,” she states. “It’s still in progress and I think I will never finish it completely: a man’s life cannot be catalogued in a definitive way, you can always discover something new. Till now, I managed to recover lots of American magazine articles from 1958 to 1975. Also, I always look for our long-standing customers, so as to have more testimonies of the past collections.”
After a brief foray into the historical part, we move to the side dedicated to the new collections. Sofia Bertolli Balestra debuted at Milan Fashion Week 2022 with a capsule collection, “which was a way to get started.” She explains that her first two collections, ‘Upload’ and ‘Reload’, “were a sort of break with the past, even if not a sharp interruption. Mine is rather a continuity with tradition: the line is simply evolving, by including new kinds of products. We want to be respectful of our history.”
Since she studied his grandfather’s collections carefully, she says it’s almost natural and spontaneous for her “to reprise traditional elements.” The same new logo, blue and minimal, is actually a drawing made by Renato in 1972. So the new fashion designer decided to propose the distinctive features of Balestra House: “We started with Blue Balestra, which is the historical colour of our brand, it’s our DNA and family. We also resumed Giovan Battista Piranesi’s etchings, where he depicted the magnificence and the dream of Rome, like the Capitoline Wolf’s or Romulus’ and Remus’ portraits. We wanted to bring them back in a pop way, including them in some blouses, bodysuits and leggings.” Obviously, the renowned “Embroidery Painting” is another signature that cannot miss, now realised on semi transparent dresses, so as to render a water effect, where light is refracted as in a prism.
For now, Balestra is focusing on ready-to-wear, working towards products of excellent craftsmanship, considering the great high couture history behind them. “Taking high fashion into account is still premature for us. We also look at red carpets and music, but what we want to create above all is something that women can take pleasure in wearing everyday. That doesn’t mean we don’t make occasion wear anymore, we’ve never abandoned our historical customers. Our brand has more than sixty years of history behind it, so there’s no rush to skip the steps, we want to have another 200 years in front of us.”
Dresses are realised with care by young tailors mostly, just got out of academies, at their first experience. Sofia affirms she truly appreciates their desire to get involved, as well as she’s putting herself in the game, too, with her first collections. The fabrics are entirely made in Italy and produced by embroidery centres between Lazio, Umbria and Emilia Romagna, which makes the brand sustainable. “The nice thing is to have a personal relationship with workers: I like to meet the tailors and know who is making what at that moment. Furthermore, there are no wastes: all that is ordered, it is used.”
Before leaving, in the time we have left, Sofia comes back to the archive, showing us his grandfather’s dresses and sketches in chronological order. We start from the 60s and the typical oval silhouettes. At that time Renato was using his favourite colour already, which was defined “Blue Balestra” by journalists just after one of his first fashion shows at Pitti Palace. Then we switch to the 70s, “when Renato began to comprehend that women were breaking the mould: it was just after the protests of 1968 and the feminist movements.”
Sofia loves to talk with the older customers, so as to understand who the women of that time were and why they adored certain outfits. “They say Renato was a pioneering man, because he was one of the few in Rome who had sensed what was happening in other big cities like New York. He began to make very low-necked and transparent dresses. Claudia Cardinale was wearing this type of gowns, and I found a series of articles where you can understand how it caused a lot of scandal at the time, since they defined the necklines as dizzying and bottomless.”
She shows us a pic of Cardinale wearing the 1974 collection “Linea Italiana”, with those necklines and transparencies. Then we glance at the sketch for empress Farah Diba’s chiffon dress, along with the fabric samples. And finally there are the drawings for Liz Taylor’s gowns, all iris shaped and rigorously violet, her favourite colour. There are around 40 thousand sketches in all, which Sofia managed to rearrange and date with great effort, also thanks to the editorials she caught up over time. But she also discovered some funny anecdotes. “When Renato was working for the Fontana Sisters in the 50s and he had not yet opened his atelier, he became friends with Anita Ekberg, who was a faithful customer. She found out that Renato went crazy for prawns, which were very expensive at the time, so when she came back from her luncheons on the Roman coast she would always bring him a loot of prawns.”
What Sofia wants to underline is that her grandfather cared about dressing all kinds of women, passing from flamboyant princess gowns to skinnier dresses. “One of the questions I hate the most is: Who’s the ‘Balestra woman’?” For me the Balestra woman is many women. A woman can wear any outfit and can be any age, what matters most to us is that the product is well made and that it can have a story. It’s a world that is rarely told today, but actually it’s a beautiful story.”