How dressmaker Erdem was inspired by certainly one of Britain's last great duchesses

The British-Turkish designer Erdem Moralioglu is thought for being inspired by courageous women and successfully analyzing their personalities to create elegant fashion that’s recognized worldwide. His newest muse for his spring/summer 2024 collection was Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1920–2014).

The Duchess of Devonshire, known in her family as “Debo”, was the youngest of the famous Mitford sistersborn in London in 1920. In 1941 she married Andrew Cavendish, the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, who became heir after the death of his brother and succeeded to the title after the death of his father.

Debo was referred to as the Lady of Chatsworth House and was a lifelong champion of it. She played a key role in its restoration and helped develop the home and grounds right into a successful business operation. As well as being a famous society beauty, she enjoyed country life and caring for her chickens.

Erdem's collection is under no circumstances a comprehensive portrait of Debo's style, but quite a creative reinterpretation of the passions and fashions of a muse the designer never met in person, but got to know thoroughly through her possessions and surroundings.

Debo’s archive and Erdem’s reinterpretations are actually the topic Imaginary conversationsa brand new exhibition at Chatsworth House, the family home in Derbyshire.

Erdem's respect, admiration and maybe even affection for Debo are evident from the moment one enters the exhibition. The same goes for the themes that shape it: passions torn between a rural and an elite lifestyle, a deep passion for Elvis, a group of jewels and, after all, Chatsworth itself, a surprising English baroque-style mansion that may be a hugely successful visitor attraction.

A serious looking young man, dressed in a black sweater and black glasses.
Tom Mannion / Wikipedia

The first exhibit is an unpicked tweed suit, symbolizing Debo's love of gardening outside of her royal duties. “I like to imagine the raw edges of this suit being ruffled by her chickens,” explains Erdem. Unfinished edges appear throughout the exhibition, including two damask opera coats with plucked edges.

A displayed skirt, printed with motifs borrowed from Devonshire hunting carpets, symbolizes the strong connection between Debo and the home. The tapestries, now within the Victoria & Albert Museum, were donated to ascertain the Chatsworth House Trust through the financial difficulties after World War II. For Erdem, they represent Debo's commitment to preserving the home and its collection. This skirt – and the exhibition itself – honor her legacy.

A wealthy palette of distinctive style

A pair of grey velvet shoes with Elvis on them.
Debo loved Elvis.
India Hobson / Alamy

Another section is inspired by Debo's collection of beetle jewelry. Every 12 months on their anniversary, her husband, the Duke, gave her a brand new beetle. In Erdem's designs, the beetles are translated into applique and embroidery. Debo's collection of beetle brooches – dragonflies, butterflies, spiders, beetles – reappears later within the exhibition, surrounded by a 1952 portrait of Debo by Cecil Beaton, amongst other creations by Erdem.

The Duchess's passion for Elvis is reflected in a silver suit with a sequined hem harking back to a disco ball and a blue leather cowboy jacket with fringes and sequins. Next to it’s a display case with a few of Debo's most treasured items, which incorporates a small purse with “Elvis” written on it in silver rhinestones. Her favorite Elvis slippers lead us into the subsequent room.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a novel tulle dress produced from certainly one of Chatsworth's old chintz curtains. It was embroidered by none apart from Cecily Lasnet, Debo's great-granddaughter.

A selection of women's fashion outfits against a floral wallpaper background.
Part of Erdem's S/S 2024 collection, displayed at Chatsworth.
India Hobson / Chatsworth

Unpicking textiles in historic collections mustn’t be done irresponsibly. In this case, Chatsworth House's textile curator, Susie Stokoe, only allowed the piece for use because other curtains in the identical fabric were available.

She has also acquired newer reproductions to further expand the home's collection. The unique embroidered dress is surrounded by other designs which might be similarly composed using mixed fabrics – on this case, reproductions and reinterpretations of historical textiles.

Overall, they reveal Debo's constant reuse of materials and symbolize a post-war attitude of improvisation and repair. In a way, in addition they embody fashion design, which starts with a source of inspiration and requires designers to actively transform it into latest creations that feel fresh and unique.

A beautiful bedroom in an English baroque house, complete with four-poster bed and floral wallpaper.
The exhibition is an important opportunity to go to Chatsworth House.
India Hobson / Chatsworth

Fashion scholars often compare fashion designers to quilt makers, who use old fabrics to create something latest – just like the unique, but still different. This process is illustrated in a recreation of Erdem's studio that is a component of the exhibition: visitors are involved in the method, from finding inspiration, sketching designs, evaluating fabric samples, cutting patterns, creating prototypes and assembling the ultimate collection.

Through their work, fashion designers also turn into vital mediators between the past and the current, as fashion theorist Caroline Evans explained when she compared fashion designers to ragpickers. Far from being a peddler, Erdem's elegant creations reveal the work of a master of translation.

A model wears a strapless dress with a yellow satin skirt.
A dress by Erdem inspired by Debo's style.

A mixture of a portrait of Debo by John Ulbright, certainly one of her high fashion lingerie pieces and a corset dress by Erdem illustrates his ingenuity. “I was inspired to bring something that you never see outside,” he explained. Underwear particularly creates a way of intimacy that becomes especially priceless when the objects are on display.

A young noblewoman in an evening dress.
Debo in 1952, photographed by Cecil Beaton.
Condé Nast.

But the sensation of intimacy goes beyond the conversation between the Duchess and the designer and permeates the complete exhibition. During this excellent exhibition, conversations arise between visitors, curators, designers and Debo herself concerning the house and her objects.

Overall, these conversations illustrate the circular nature of fashion design and embody a vibrant and thoroughly engaging interpretation of a lady of spirit and determination. It can be encouraging to see such a completely realized example of successful collaboration between fashion and cultural institutions.

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