When international fashion editor Sara Maino attended a lavish gala dinner in Jeddah last April, she chose to wear a streamlined black and gold brocade kaftan by NN Couture. For many of the guests attending the dinner that evening, held in the gardens of Princess Adelah bint Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s elegant beachside palace, few would have been familiar with the discreet Tunisian/Italian label, which has gained a steady following through word of mouth ahead of its launch for next season.
“We wanted to create a sense of mystery and intrigue around the collection,” confides Elio Ferraro, the Italian designer who was tapped to conceive NN Couture by Neyla and Chekib Nouira, two Tunisian entrepreneurs with decades of experience in the textile and manufacturing industry. In Elio they found the perfect partner to create a contemporary label with a mission to bridge cultures and expose the world to Tunisia’s storied heritage of textiles and embroideries. To launch their debut collection for autumn/winter 2016, they chose to stage an elegant presentation last February during Rome’s Alta Moda. Guests were invited to a cocktail reception at the Palazzo Ferrajoli, an 18th-century palace that looks out onto the Piazza Colonna. Its atmospheric gilded rooms served as the perfect backdrop for a constellation of mannequins artfully arranged amongst glittering antiques. Each sported Elio’s designs for NN Couture, which included contemporary interpretations of traditional Tunisian costumes. Beneath a large crystal chandelier was a group of modern cocoon evening coats cut from luxe brocades in graphic stripes, zigzags and dot patterns. Most came edged in fine gold and silver embroidery, while another mannequin sported a sleek sleeveless evening vest, its deep velvet surface embellished with three-dimensional hand embroideries in gold thread.
NN Couture's launch collection
“Focusing on Tunisia’s heritage was a natural starting point for us, as the country has an incredibly rich tradition of costumes that has yet to be fully explored as a source of inspiration,” says the designer, who was also inspired by Tunisia’s traditional architectural details such as the nail-studded doors of Sidi Bou Said and the distinctive ceramic tiles of Nabuel. “The most surprising aspect of launching this collection was the positive response we received from European editors and clients, who immediately placed orders,” adds Elio, 55, who believes that part of the brand’s early success lies in its interpretation of traditional Tunisian lines and motifs through Western eyes.
Although based and produced in Italy, Elio looked to Tunisian craftsmen to execute NN Couture’s exquisite embroideries. “Tunisia has produced some of the best embroiderers in the world,” says the designer, who divides his time between Florence and Palermo. “There is also a tradition of weaving textiles here that goes back centuries, and we wanted to tap into these age old crafts and revive them to appeal to a contemporary audience,” adds the Italian designer, noting that embroidery techniques have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. “There are cities such as Nabuel, Moknine and Raf Raf which specialise in very distinctive embroidery techniques, and keeping these skills alive is part of what we are doing at NN Couture,” says Elio, who is also inspired by the way chic women in Tunis are reinterpreting traditional garments. “As a designer it’s fascinating to see a woman pairing a traditional embroidered vest or hooded cape with a sleek pair of trousers and a turtleneck for a thoroughly modern look,” observes Elio from his antique- and art-filled home in the centre of Florence.
Born and raised in Sicily, a region that has enjoyed centuries of cross-cultural encounters with North Africa, Elio moved to Florence in the early 1980s to study architecture. From the 1950s-1960s Florence was the centre of Italian fashion, long before Milan assumed the role in the ’70s. In 1951, a group of Italian designers showed together for the first time in the Sala Bianca of the Pitti Palace, in an effort to revive Italy’s textile industry after WWII. It was a world Elio dreamed of since childhood and hoped to be a part of someday. “While I was in college, I realised I didn’t want to pursue a career as an architect, so I entered a competition to join Ferragamo’s design studio,” recalls the designer who landed a position at one of Florence’s leading fashion houses. “I was 21 when I came to Ferragamo and it was the best training I could have hoped for,” says Elio, whose next stop was Japan, where he was hired as a creative consultant at Takihyo, a textile manufacturer with over 250 years of history.
“I lived in Tokyo for four years, and during that time I learnt a great deal about textiles and collaborating with designers. One of my most memorable moments was working with Issey Miyake, who is a legend in Japanese fashion,” adds Elio, who eventually returned to Florence to work at Emilio Pucci, after spending a number of years traversing the world.
NN Couture's launch collection
“Travelling has always been an important part of my creative process and as soon as I became financially independent I wanted to discover and immerse myself in different cultures,” explains the designer, who counts the Middle East and Asia as favourite destinations. Over the years the designer collected an impressive selection of textiles, ornaments and crafts that continue to inform his creative process. Upon his return to Florence, he opened his namesake gallery, displaying an eclectic mix of luxury-vintage fashions, furniture and art. It quickly became a destination for fashion and interior designers in search of inspiration. “When I first opened my gallery, I wanted to bring together everything I loved from my travels, while serving as a kind of personal archive to inspire my designs,” notes NN Couture’s designer, who has since closed his gallery to focus on his new fashion venture.
For those with an acute sense of fashion history, Elio’s passion for Tunisian craftsmanship may also recall that of Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer who made her first trip to Tunisia at the age of 13 with her father, a noted scholar of Oriental studies who translated ancient texts from Arabic and Persian. In her 1954 biography, Shocking Life, she recalled her aunt Lillian, who lived in Egypt, sending “beautiful materials... wonderful exotic things that brought dreams to my severe surroundings. Perhaps she awakened the love of Eastern things which I have retained throughout life,” wrote the Italian designer, who in the late ’30s built a house in Hammamet, Tunisia, where she spent her days entertaining, collecting and studying local sewing, embroidery and draping techniques that would find their way into her couture collections.
“We like to say that NN Couture is made in the world, because it was born out of a cross-cultural collaboration,” says Elio, who will be introducing his collection in the Gulf during an exclusive Ramadan pop-up shop this month at Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage Resort.
NN Couture's launch collection
“The women I design for are sophisticated global nomads in search of luxuriously crafted clothes that are the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. We wanted to reflect that sensibility in our retail strategy as well, which will include a series of pop-up boutiques in inspiring locations such as Portofino and Ibiza,” notes the globe-trotting designer, as he prepares to take his collection on a world tour that will include stops in Tunis, Cairo, Dubai and Bombay. “From the start we wanted to present NN Couture as a demi-couture line produced exclusively by order,” explains Elio, who is often inspired by the style-savvy Arab women he encounters during his travels. “Neyla Nouira is probably one of the chicest Arab women I’ve ever met in addition to others who serve as a source of inspiration for me,” says the designer, confiding that there is one style icon he looks forward to dressing one day. “I’ve always been fascinated by Farida Khelfa, and recently heard that she liked my designs, which was the best compliment I could have received for this first collection. It would be a dream to collaborate with her, so who knows… maybe one day.”
– Words by Alex Aubry. Styling by Sofia Guellaty. Photography by Francesco Scotti. Hair and make-up by Manuel Losada. Model: Anna at MMG. This article first appeared in the June issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia