Unless you are after a carnival mask or a Murano trinket, Venice is not a city in which to shop. Yet Fiorella Galleria, near the Accademia bridge, has earned itself a big – sometimes notorious – reputation and a passionately dedicated global following.
Fiorella’s painted, embroidered, specially treated velvet coats can be spotted at black-tie events worldwide, and though they are hugely popular with women, they are particularly sought after by men desperate to wear something more individual than a dinner jacket. Elton John was photographed in a Fiorella coat for Italian Vogue (David Furnish also owns many), Sting has a black coat adorned with white cockerels, and in-store there are photographs of fans past and present, counting Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Robin Williams.
Owner Fiorella Mancini first opened a shop near La Fenice Opera House in 1968 after she was sacked from a chemical factory for leading a strike. Using fashion as a political statement, she was soon shocking the Venetian establishment with her outrageous clothes and “happenings”, and today the shop, which relocated to its current site in Campo Santo Stefano in the mid-1980s, remains one of the city’s most iconic and controversial landmarks. Fiorella’s designs have been labelled surrealist, late gothic and post pop, but, essentially, she defies classification.
“Everything must be ironic,” she says, pulling out a tangerine and scarlet coat embroidered with gold-whiskered rats (€1,950), followed by another in green that is “encrusted” with earth and stones and decorated with red rats and embroidered flowers (€2,800). Rats have been a symbol in Fiorella’s designs since 1981 and in 1984, to protest against corruption, Fiorella famously paraded along Venice’s canals on a giant rat float, wearing a mask made of embalmed pigeons, which is still in the window today. “Clothes are like masks, they shelter us from reality,” she continues, handing me a breathtakingly beautiful floor-length crimson coat (€1,650), lined in lime silk and covered in purple, orange and green Chinese symbols. “Even shy people often long to be flamboyant.”
Age has not mellowed Fiorella, as her window display testifies. It includes a neon flashing pharmacy sign, high-heeled female mannequins with doges’ heads, and a male mannequin that’s naked apart from a jewel-encrusted G-string (€500). She relishes her ability to shock, and to not follow trends. “I’m always in front. Look at this,” she laughs, showing me a rubber corset resembling raw meat and bloodied ribs that she made long before Lady Gaga thought of wearing steak.
Don’t be deceived by Fiorella’s theatrically disturbing set pieces though; she is first and foremost an artist but, as her devoted customers know, most of her clothes are not only unique and exquisitely intricate, they are also eminently wearable.