In our fast-changing world, there is something reassuring about visiting a grand old city like Venice. With its Gothic architecture and stripe-sporting gondoliers, the city feels frozen in time, as if captured in an oil painting. Countless artists, including Mariano Fortuny, have contributed to this picture, lured by the centuries-old gateway between East and West.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Fortuny’s death. Today, his textile business is a global brand sought after by designers, decorators and other arbiters of fine taste. With one of the last factories still operating in Venice, the company has become a symbol of the floating city.
Mariano Fortuny was born in 1871, in Granada, Spain. Shortly after his father’s death, the family moved to Paris and later to Venice in 1889. From a young age, Fortuny steeped himself in the city’s luminous history, and he stayed for the rest of his life. While best known for his textiles and clothing, Fortuny was also an inventor and an accomplished stage lighting designer. In addition, he worked in painting, engineering, photography and chemistry. In 1901, he patented a system using indirect light, known today as the Fortuny dome. He also devised and patented an early form of the dimmer switch, among other inventions. It wasn’t until 1906 that he began working in textiles and fashion, creating classics like the Knossos scarf and the pleated silk Delphos gown.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, when silk and velvet grew scarce, Fortuny began experimenting with cotton, using a secret printing technique to create a similar visual outcome. “In every art form he pursued, Fortuny was devoted to the process as much as the final result,” said Mickey Riad, the brand’s creative director and owner. “He invented techniques and manipulated materials in his own way.”
Mariano Fortuny lived and worked in the 15th-century Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei with his wife and muse, Henriette Negrin. Every year, numerous tourists visit this palace — known today as the Palazzo Fortuny — but the center of the company lies on the neighboring island of Giudecca.
As the demand for his work grew, Fortuny looked for a place to establish a factory and expand his production. The designer was friends with Giancarlo Stucky, owner of the Molino Stucky building in Giudecca, which was then one of the largest flour mills in the world. Stucky also owned the neighboring property (an ancient convent), which proved to be an ideal space for Fortuny’s factory. Fortuny bought the building, and it opened as a factory in 1921.
“The Fortuny factory in Giudecca is the heart of our production where every Fortuny fabric is still produced on the original machines, using the same secret processes and techniques as developed by Mariano Fortuny a century ago,” said Riad. Today, there are 30 people employed there, and the company has one of only two flagship showrooms in the world (the other is in New York City).
Unbeknownst to many, you can visit this property, which is located just south of central Venice via water taxi or vaporetto. The showroom, open to the public on weekdays, is stocked with shimmering bolts of Fortuny fabric, in addition to pillows, notebooks and small souvenirs available for purchase. The flowering gardens and swimming pool — one of only four in-ground pools in Venice — are also available to tour by appointment. Walking between the red-brick buildings, blooming wisteria and fragrant fruit trees, it’s hard to believe that this is the only place in the world where Fortuny fabrics are made. While the showroom and gardens are available to tour, the factory itself is not, due to the company’s tightly guarded trade secrets. On a recent visit, glass windows were concealed by folds of Fortuny fabric, enhancing the allure of the heritage within.
When Fortuny died in 1949, the brand’s traditions were carried forward by Elsie McNeill Lee, a New York interior designer who first discovered Fortuny’s work in 1927 at Paris’ Carnavalet Museum. She became the exclusive U.S. distributor for his fabrics and dresses and is responsible for bringing the Fortuny brand into American homes. Elsie — who later went by Countess Elsa Lee Gozzi or “La Contessa,” after marrying the Count Gozzi — revitalized the brand, actively participating in the production and marketability of the Fortuny name, while honoring the founder’s intentions. By the 1980s, she began looking for a partner to carry the traditions forward, and she entrusted her lawyer and confidant, Maged F. Riad, with the job. Today, Maged’s sons, Mickey and Maury, are leading Fortuny into the 21st century.
“We are working on expanding our techniques, adding more colors and patterns, and finding interesting ways to collaborate that allow us to celebrate our illustrious legacy and bring more beauty into the world,” said Mickey. In addition to managing the Giudecca property and production, the brothers also recently founded Fuigo, an innovative platform giving interior designers access to project management software and trade-only market resources.
"One can usually tell an authentic Fortuny fabric just from the look of it."
In order to shape Fortuny’s future, the Riads regularly refer to a vast design archive, looking to it for artistic direction and pulling inspiration from myriad eras and influences — be it Persian, Peruvian or East Asian. In their latest collection, The Gatekeeper, the brothers used designs from the 1930s and 40s, including TZIN, a pattern inspired by the gates and scrolls of the Tao. Other patterns draw from nature and the gardens at Giudecca, such as Melagrana, with its Persian pomegranate motif. Every bolt of fabric glimmers with the brand’s original color combinations, like faded rose and gold, oxblood and spice, and plum fog and aluminum, all of which evoke the shifting of light and time.
“One can usually tell an authentic Fortuny fabric just from the look of it,” said Riad. While the production process is shrouded in mystery, Riad shared that the work is conceived like a painting, with layers of color adding depth. The metallic stamps and colors are made with an artisanal process involving natural pigments, and they age gracefully, giving the fabric an antique look over time. “You look into a Fortuny fabric, not at it,” he remarked. Indeed, every piece of Fortuny fabric has a soulful sensibility, a light within.
While the Giudecca factory and the Palazzo Fortuny are two separate entities, they work closely together to preserve the legacy of their founder. Fortuny’s wife, Henriette, donated the palazzo, its library and all of her husband’s collections to the city, making it a landmark in the Venetian cultural landscape. Today, visitors can see Fortuny’s studio, with his tools and projects virtually as he left them. A short water taxi ride away, another Fortuny landmark carries the tradition forward, cloaked in secrecy, alchemy and century-old tradition. Like Mariano Fortuny, who steered his own boat between the two places, you too can do the same on your next trip to Venice.