Built for a Russian princess in 1830, it has seen Vatican cardinals, Gestapo officers and British diplomats pass through its imposing doors, but never, until now, a model with an afro.
Villa Wolkonsky, the home of Britain’s ambassador in Rome, was set to host its first fashion show on Saturday night – but with a twist on the usual parade of willowy, pale-skinned models.
It is the first catwalk show in Italy to celebrate the idea of diversity, featuring 16 models of varying sizes, physical abilities and ethnic backgrounds.
They included a Brazilian-born model in a wheelchair, a model with a prosthetic leg and another whose hair was a testament to her mixed-race heritage.
The unusual fashion show was the idea of Jill Morris, the British ambassador, who since being appointed in 2016 has made her mark on the job by promoting British fashion – and sometimes modelling it herself.
Britain’s first female ambassador to Italy, she organised a charity fashion show a year ago in which she was photographed on the terrace of Villa Wolkonsky wearing gowns designed by Vivienne Westwood.
“It’s the very first diversity catwalk in Italy. I wanted to put on an event that brought together the themes of diversity and fashion,” the ambassador told The Telegraph.
“I’ve always been interested in fashion. But when I became ambassador, with the role of promoting British business, it enabled me to combine a personal passion with a more serious trade and investment objective.”
She pointed out that the British fashion industry represents six per cent of the UK’s GDP.
More than 200 guests will watch the models show off clothes designed by Sadie Clayton, a young British designer whose creations have been seen on catwalks in London, Berlin and Shanghai.
Originally from Mirfield, W Yorks, she only graduated in 2013 but already her designs have featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar US, Elle Italia, Grazia and Wallpaper.
She is known for incorporating copper into her dresses, hammering patterns into highly polished sheets and then blasting them with a blow torch, a technique which she says brings out “incredible colours – blues and greens and wonderful reds”.
Ms Clayton, herself sporting a pink hairdo, has made one dress that is entirely made of copper. “I smoothed the edges very carefully so that it could be worn next to the skin,” she said.
“I’m a fusion of races and places so for me this event was a perfect fit,” said Ms Clayton, 27, the daughter of a Jamaican father and a white British mother.
“I went to school with white Caucasian kids. I had afro hair, I had fuller lips, I had freckles that I wanted to scrub off. But as I got older I started to embrace it all.”
Fired by an interest in fashion, she started buying clothes from charity shops and wearing “beads and 80s stuff and leopard-print leggings.”
That evolved into making her own clothes. “I’d make outfits out of Ikea fabrics and vintage buttons.” Infectiously enthusiastic and energetic, she has a studio in Dalston in London.
Decorated with tapestries and oil paintings, Villa Wolkonsky provided a historic backdrop to the fashion show.
In the 19th century it became a focus for writers who were passing through Rome, including Stendhal, Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and Gogol, who wrote part of Dead Souls in a grotto in the garden.
The garden, shaded by immense umbrella pines inhabited by lime-green parakeets, is delineated on one side by a stretch of well-preserved aqueduct that was built under the emperor Nero.
During the Second World War the residence was used by the Gestapo as their headquarters in Rome, before being given to Britain in 1946 after the British embassy was blown up by Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary group.
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