Stefano Nicolao was born in Venice in 1954. After attending the art school, he engaged in an acting career in Venice's “L'Avogaria” Theatre, run by Giovanni Poli. Meanwhile, he started working as an aid to a theatrical, cinema, and TV tailor shop. In the 1980s, he opened his “Nicolao Atelier” shop, also devoting himself to a philological study of historical, mostly Venetian costumes, and their accessories.
Tell us about your story. What was your training pathway?
In 1971, when I had nearly completed my art studies, I had a chance to enter Giovanni Poli's school, at Venice's L'Avogaria Theatre. This event started my theatre training, followed by a professional engagement with several theatre companies. My love for the theatre and my artistic background attracted me backstage, where I could watch how scenes and costumes were prepared. In 1977, I decided I wanted to become a professional costume designer, and I became the tailoring director of Teatro Stabile Friuli Venezia Giulia. In 1980, costume designer Enrico Sabbatini asked me to follow him as his assistant in the TV film “Marco Polo”, and I curated the scenes and costumes for the Tibetan part between Persia and China and over the Himalayas.
How did your atelier develop?
In 1981, when the Venice Carnival was revived, I decided I needed to create a city reference point hosting theatre and stage costumes for theatre performances. My good relations with the RAI network, the Municipality and Teatro La Fenice allowed me to settle in the heart of Venice where I could establish my Atelier Nicolao, which quickly developed into Venice's official supplier of stage costumes.
When did you realise you wanted to devote your life to craftsmanship and produce costumes for the theatre and Venice Carnival?
Acting did not trigger the same emotions as when I was dealing with costumes, matters, colours, textiles, “needle and thread” things. My artistic soul, the beating heart of my creativity only came out behind the scenes. Although I had received enthusiastic reviews and worked for major theatre companies or the cinema, I felt a lot more attracted to the backstage. Costume design became my passion, my life, and my profession.
Creating costumes so close to the original ones requires a long research. How do you do it and how do you combine it with costume designing and making?
Nothing can be improvised: this applies to all crafts. In my case, study and research play an essential role, especially for historical costumes, based on entirely different tailoring techniques from modern clothes. I have a collection of original antique garments from the late 18th century to the 1960s, which I use as a point of reference for ancient tailoring techniques. This knowledge is fundamental in remakes, where a new item may achieve such credibility as to look like an original period costume; sometimes an aging treatment is also used to create a veneer of “truth”, especially with cinema apparels.
What are the features of an authentic garment?
An authentic period garment shows me the way to be followed in making a new garment as close as possible to the original one. The artisanal product I create is an authentic work in itself and is often a one-of-a-kind item. When a garment leaves my atelier, my heart goes with it, not only as a part of my skills in making it, but also with my love for this craft and the symbiosis between matter and feeling, which is enriching me day after day.
Your production is very much tradition-bound. Are there any contemporary or innovative clothes? Which ones?
Opera gave me a chance to create contemporary, or at least stylistically close to timelessness costumes, so I could meld antique techniques and modern tailoring in a stylistically clean compromise. In the “Farinelli” film, for example, the film director had imagined the singer as a contemporary pop star launching a new trend. The action was set in 1750 and Stefano Dionisi, who played the main character, was wearing costumes and accessories belonging to the following two decades, mingling 1750 with 1765 in a difficult balance. As if he was way ahead, and anticipating new trends.
Which is the most special costume you have created? And the most challenging in your work?
Alessandro Mendini and Anna Gili, two outstanding designers, asked me to create a very original project: a "Resounding Outfit", conceived as an origami. The outfit was supposed to follow the rules of the Japanese tradition, therefore starting from a geometric shape, made of bendings without any cuts or sewings, and should be worn by a dancer who would animate it. Finding a suitable fabric proved to be very challenging, so we tested it several times to make sure it would behave like an origami. Keeping the bendings in shape, as they were to make up a large tail, while the costume-sculpture was over a metre tall, was another problem. I made a structure of small aluminium tubes mutually connected through joints which I made on a potter's wheel, thus creating a skeleton to be concealed inside the costume. With other elastic devices meant to retract the tail, the work came to an end, with all pleats in place, and without losing the butterfly-dragonlike shape. It was a great success: it featured in all major design magazines, it was taken to Pitti and showcased at Triennale.
How far does your territory go in influencing your production?
Venice is unique and it is the only city inspiring my works, besides being my birthplace. Its colours, atmospheres, quietness, and its history constantly make me wish to work on costumes. My relationships with the great Veneto’s theatres: La Fenice, Verona's Arena, the Teatro Stabile, and with private tourism and Carnival connect me more and more to my territory every day.
Do you remember any specially moving moment?
Yes, I remember my emotion in New York when, at the end of my show entitled “Riflessi Veneziani” with Master Footwear Manufacturers from the Brenta Riviera and the “Mestieri della Moda” exhibition, I was asked by the director of the Metropolitan Museum of New York Costume Institute to donate one of my costumes to the Museum, thus making it an item of this precious collection. Although other museums would showcase my works, I felt deeply proud and honoured, because this one was connected to the show and had been specially conceived for New York, which made me deeply proud for the privilege.
Many young people have come to your atelier to learn this craft. What would you like to tell these people who want to approach the world of haute couture, specifically theatrical and stage tailoring ?
Many young people attending fashion and costume schools are hosted in my Atelier. I also teach Fashion Design and Historical Cutting at Venice's Accademia di Belle Arti. I always tell my students that, apart from an unrelenting passion, they need to approach learning with humility and dedication, in order to absorb and “steal” whatever comes in front of their eyes, without leaving anything behind, as everything will be useful one day. Manual skills grow with practice and by listening to the teachings, but there must be a burning fire in the soul that cannot be taught or learned unless it is deeply felt inside. First and foremost, this craft is a matter of heart.