Sybilla is still searching for answers

Text by Aitor Salinas
Photography Luis Venegas

With a retrospective exhibition in Madrid, several environmental projects, and even flirting with a return to fashion, Sybilla Sorondo is once again in the public spotlight. The Spanish designer, though, has never stopped working. To celebrate her comeback, Spanish editor Luis Venegas, a Sybilla employee from 1999 to 2005, recovers these images from 2002 starring Bimba Bosé, an unpublished relic that invites us to reflect on the last two decades.

Bimba Bose Wears Sybilla

Sybilla, born in 1963, started in fashion by sitting on the kerbs of Madrid’s flea market pavements, rummaging through boxes of old buttons. 

She was 19. The year was 1983; ‘La Movida’, the city’s countercultural phenomenon, was at its height, and Sybilla had already embarked on a year’s work experience at Yves Saint Laurent the year before. She had moved to Paris at the age of 17, where a chance meeting with Anne-Marie Muñoz—Yves Saint Laurent studio manager—led to a job sewing with the Spanish seamstresses in the designer Couture atelier. Now, she was back in the city. She had a humble makeshift business selling custom-made shirts in bars, and she had her own vision. Unlike the excesses that dominated the 1980s, her approach was romantic and delicate, naive and ingenious, focusing on small details and making noise with her quietness. But Sybilla also had a bright future ahead of her. A kind of future that would take her brand to catwalks, stores and museums in Milan, New York, Paris and Tokyo. A rollercoaster ride far more intense than she could have anticipated. And, at some points, even desired.

Forty years later, a lot has happened along the way, and a lot has changed, but somehow, something remains the same. Sybilla still has a vision, which has now become such an idiosyncratic and distinctive visual language that the Community of Madrid has decided to celebrate it with ‘Sybilla. El Hilo Invisible’ (‘Sybilla. The Invisible Thread’), a retrospective exhibition that brings together her entire career to date. She continues to work assiduously in Japan, although she has never really stopped working on projects parallel to fashion. And, at 59, she still has a future ahead of her.

Still, the girl who once wore shells in her hair, who once relied on her clothing to make friends when shyness truncated her words, still asks herself the same questions. The only thing that has changed are the answers. And, with forty years of experience behind her, Sybilla is still eager to answer them all.

A BARRIER TO THE WORLD

Sybilla Sorondo describes clothes as a barrier between us and the world. “Clothes serve both to attract attention and to disappear, to protect and to seduce.” she says, “I am especially conscious of what gives me strength, what I want to wear in emotionally intense moments when there may not be much time to dress up or think about clothes. In those moments, a garment can be the friend that saves the day. The truth is that as women, we need to like ourselves first, which is not always easy.”

Women have always been at the core of Sybilla’s creations. When the Italian group Gibó bought her brand in 1986, her clients grew from close friends to potentially every woman worldwide. The first person she saw wearing one of her garments in the street was in Milan, where she presented her theatrical shows. “After the fashion shows, very different people would show up, sometimes wearing the same piece, each one wearing it in a very personal way. It was fun!” she recalls. A couple of years later, she made her debut in Japan, the most important market of her career, where she is still active today: “I saw a lot of people wearing my clothes there. I can’t say I particularly liked it, but I was very impressed.”

THE GOLDEN CAGE

In 1990, after her collection “Good Girls, Bad Girls”, Sybilla, exhausted, left the catwalks she had helped revolutionise in search of alternative business models. She left behind the naivety of the 1980s and began to seek purity of form through more complex patterns, fuller shapes and cleaner lines, without ever abandoning the softness and lyricism that characterised her. 

As of 1990, Sybilla had climbed the industry ladder in less than a decade. Those sleepless nights spent sharpening the heel of a shoe or wrestling with garments she sold to friends had given rise to a multinational. Her sudden capacity to produce quality products at a large scale had become what she now defines as a “golden cage”. And, as she reached the peak, “everything stopped being fun”. The 1990s were a quiet time for Sybilla, who gradually rebuilt the infrastructure she had been forced to abandon. 

In 1998, she created Sybilla Noche in Madrid, a line of made-to-measure demi-couture dresses and a bridal line, which allowed her to achieve her longed-for closeness with both her work and the women she dressed. “I love the direct contact with the clients,” she explains. “As well as the affection and friendship that often arises with them. They are a source of inspiration and learning”. Her happiest years ended with a new retirement in 2007 and new adventures away from fashion, enabling her to let her creativity flow in ways she hadn’t anticipated through eco-social activism.

“The truth is that all our work periods have been very productive,” Sybilla reflects. “I’ve always done a lot of different lines, and I’ve got into a lot of trouble because I like to design several things simultaneously. Our years at the Nave (in reference to the headquarters founded in 2001, an old industrial building reconditioned through a bioclimatic and ecological project), in which 100 people were working in the business, must have been the years in which we did the most things. Not only garments but also projects, adventures, images and parties…various crazy things!”

ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF LIVING

There was a common thread behind all these stages: the vision of a woman who dressed many others, all as unique as she was. “There is no single Sybilla woman. There are millions of types of women to whom I hope I can adapt to bring out their personality,” explains the designer. “That’s what I would like, and that’s what I tried to tell in my fashion shows with models who represented themselves, with their particularities.”

Her work, however, remains a reflection of herself. In a way, her pieces act like self-portraits: “I make the things I would like to see, to wear, to feel. My only reference, or compass, is what I feel. It is not an intellectual reflection. Not even aesthetic or commercial. It’s a sensation. I’m looking for something that I don’t know what it is, but I recognise it when I find it”.

That’s why today while living in Mallorca surrounded by her olive trees, she is interested in designing for pleasure and for holidays. “Resort, underwear, bath, home. Back in the day, I made the ‘Airport’ collection in my world of frenzy. Today, I would like to design clothes for moments of calm and enjoyment.” 

Sybilla has also spent decades exploring projects beyond fashion, looking for alternative ways of living and consuming: “Now I’m mainly interested in designing spaces, communities and projects related to health. It’s something I’ve always done parallel to my fashion work, but now it’s becoming more relevant.” She is no longer fulfilled with designing a woman’s wardrobe. Sybilla wants to design her whole world in the hopes she can make it a better one.

BIMBA’S ATYPICAL BEAUTY

“I like women who are not afraid to be different and show their individuality and personality,” explains Sybilla. “Both strong and very fragile. Women with a beauty that goes beyond the established canons. It’s something inner that radiates strength and excites. Bimba Bosé (Rome, 1975 – Madrid, 2017) was one of these women.

Throughout her life, Bimba was associated with many significant names. She was the niece of singer Miguel Bosé, granddaughter of bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín and actress Lucía Bosé, and close friend, professional partner and muse of designer David Delfín, whom she met dancing at the El Morocco nightclub when he was 18, and she was 23. 

But, as journalist Boris Izaguirre said in 2017, “Bimba was always very independent, very much her own, without her family name being a burden to her”. Eleanora Salvatore Dominguín was, above all, faithful to her own name, not to her surname (which, humorously, she always acknowledged taking advantage of). “Bimba”. True to herself.

“Ugly? Me, ugly? Perhaps rare or special. Androgynous. But ugly? This country doesn’t understand atypical beauties,” she proclaimed in the short film ‘Run A Way’ (2012), created with Delfín to present his spring 2012 collection. “She had a very strong look,” recalls Luis Venegas. It was super androgynous, super masculine. She also looked a bit like her uncle, Miguel Bosé, when he started singing in the early 80s. She was very modern for the time, with her hair shaved on the sides.”

“Long hair makes me look like an old lady, and besides, I don’t have the patience to let it grow”, Bimba would later say in 2012. “Being thin is not synonymous with elegance,” she once said. In a characteristic personality remark, she concurred with Sybilla: “Elegance comes from within”.

Many were able to see that beauty. Bosé posed for Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Craig McDean and starred on a Vogue Italia cover photographed by Steven Meisel with her face in the foreground, unadorned and undressed. For a few years, she was everywhere. In a Gucci campaign alongside Kate Moss, parading around in a fern-adorned box headdress at Alexander McQueen, or doing the legendary wink on the cover of i-D. 

But, through it all, there was one place where she felt most at home: on stage. “When I sing, I have to reach out more and reinvent myself. As a model, you’re there for whatever the designer tells you,” she said in a 2008 interview. Determined to prioritise being herself, she only worked as a model for friends. 

“I look back and am very proud of what I have achieved. Some people will say I haven’t done anything. I don’t care. It’s been hard to get there and stay there. Even though I’m almost 40, I still feel like I’m 15: I like to surprise myself,” she said in 2015. “I have a lot of resolutions for the future. I want to be a dancer, ride horses, travel, and get my yacht skipper’s licence. These are fantasies that I would like to do, but I’m going to go for the near future, little by little.”.

In January 2017, two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Bimba sadly passed away. She may not have become a yacht skipper, but she went on to become an icon, one of the most beloved Spanish figures of those years. One of her many tattoos said: ‘El cambio es la única constante’ (‘Change is the only certainty’). To her, change was vital. And she was constantly evolving. But she always remained unique.

THE ‘BOMBSHELL’ PACKAGE OF LUIS VENEGAS

Luis Venegas (Vitoria, 1979) met Sybilla Sorondo in front of the equestrian statue of Philip III in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor in early 1999. They sat in one of the bars surrounding the square in the centre of the capital and ordered drinks. He, who met “a fundamental piece of (his) cultural and visual sensitivity”, ordered a Bitter Kas. She, who met a “student, asking for information for a project he was preparing on (her)”, ordered a manzanilla (chamomile tea in Spanish). That meeting, motivated by mutual curiosity, was not the result of chance but most likely of an old fascination that we can trace back to 1988, when, at ten years old, Luis Venegas received a record by the Spanish artist Ana Belén for Christmas. 

“My uncle gave my sister and me a mini deck with three records,” Venegas explains. “One of them was ‘Géminis’ by Ana Belén. The cover was a photo by Javier Vallhonrat, and the graphic design of the record was by Studio Gatti. That was the first time I remember looking at the credits of an image. From then on, I became increasingly interested in images and their authors”. 

The duo of photographer Vallhonrat and art director Juan Gatti was also responsible for much of the visual identity of a young designer called Sybilla, “the only Spanish designer doing fashion shows in Milan and Paris,” Venegas recalls. Together, the trio created some of the most spectacular fashion catalogues of the decade between 1987 and 1992, full of images where Sybilla’s garments shone under the evocative light and vivid colours of Vallhonrat. “I’d see those images and be like, ‘Wow, everything this girl does is so cool.’ She was mysterious, making her a very seductive character because of that duality between her elusiveness and her enormous success.”

“From then on, as I bought more and more magazines, I saw this trio of people doing things I loved everywhere: Sybilla, Vallhonrat, Gatti. It was the first thing that really got me excited about fashion, and it was what made me, in a way, want to dedicate myself to doing things related to that world: the Sybilla campaigns, shot by Javier Vallhonrat, with the creative direction of Juan Gatti”. 

His enthusiasm materialised in a project during his university years which, through friends, ended up in the hands of the designer. “Instead of doing a little essay of three or four pages, I made a very big book about the world of Sybilla”. That book, which Venegas still keeps in his library, was the first of many publications he has edited throughout his career. It was the seed for magazines such as EY! Magateen, Fanzine137 and the transgressive C☆NDY, which have given him international recognition throughout the universe of independent publications. “That was the first time I felt like an editor and, luckily, a friend who worked within the company brought it to her as a favour. Then, about two weeks later, she called me at home in Barcelona”:

– “Hi, it’s Sybilla.”

– “Wait, the actual Sybilla?”

– “Well, yes. It’s just that I have received your package. Your bombshell package.”

In the end, that call resulted in a date at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid a few days later. And that Bitter Kas and the manzanilla, beside helping them get to know each other better, landed Venegas a job at Sybilla, which he held from 1999 to 2005. “It seems Luis was very insistent,” Sybilla recalls. “They finally talked to me about him. I saw his project on me, then I met him, and he came in as an assistant in the workshop. ‘Luisito’, as we called him, generated a lot of scepticism at first because of his youth. As I gave him more responsibility in the image campaigns, some people doubted my choice, but to my happiness, he soon proved to everyone that he was worth it and what he was capable of doing. He was always very professional even when he didn’t know the profession, always with a lot of enthusiasm and energy.” 

Bimba Bose Wears Sybilla

THE PHOTOS OF THE ENVELOPE

Sybilla, Bimba, Venegas and the images that unite the three of them, published here for the first time, came about by chance in the midst of creating a campaign in 2002, at a time when Sybilla was comprised of its evening and bridal lines, in addition to the line it marketed in Japan. 

From the beginning of her career, Bimba had a very good relationship with Juan Gatti, with whom Luis, then recently named Sybilla’s Image Director, worked assiduously. Gatti was in charge of photographing all the collections and decided to choose the Spanish model as the star of the campaign, who, at that time, was beginning to accept fewer and fewer projects.

“In the same two days, we had to shoot the Japan collection, the evening collection and the bridal campaign, all three photographed by Juan Gatti,” Venegas recalls. The campaign’s concept was the same for both the Japan and the evening campaigns: a line of women standing, including Bimba. The bridal campaign, however, starred her alone. “Before shooting, we needed to decide on the dress we would put on Bimba, so I met up with her and took those photos for Juan to see and choose one.”

“Then I remember that Luis Arias (director of Sybilla between 1985 and 2003) said to me, ‘well, they look great’, and I replied, ‘well, I’m going to keep them’. And he said, of course, as they were mine after all. I kept them in an envelope at home, and now, looking at them, I see they have acquired a new value. They have become something else. It’s been eight years since Bimba passed away. And Sybilla has greatly expanded her work area, going well beyond fashion. That’s why, in a way, these photos are like a relic of another era. It’s even strange to me that something I did is 20 years old. They look like photos taken by someone else. But that’s the way it is.”

For Luis, 20 years have passed, but when Sybilla reflects on the passage of time, she does so on a career that began rummaging through boxes in 1983. “I have seen that in the last 40 years, there have been many Sybillas, and each one creates differently. The Sybilla in love is not the same as the Sybilla who was exhausted, the one who did yoga every day, or the one who made vegetable gardens. It wasn’t the same when I made clothes when I was 20 years old, being very shy and using clothes as a flag, as when I left fashion and dedicated myself to other jobs. Then I understood women’s real need for clothes that support us and help us in our work, and I came back with the desire to create what I couldn’t find.” 

“Fashion, moreover, is not made to be in museums. It is something created for the times in which we live. The Sybilla of today is different in many ways, and I would create very different things. I have other needs, priorities, and concerns. Although, despite all these differences, there is much that is similar deep down. From what people say about me, perhaps it is stubbornness, perseverance, and the ability to improvise.” 

She also admits that she still has ideas for garments that she has not figured out. “I have not been able to solve them yet, and I see them often. They are good ideas, but they are not quite finished. Some of them, in fact, have been there for more than 20 years, patiently and quietly awaiting their moment.” Time goes by, but after forty years of work, Sybilla is still searching for answers.

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TEXT BY AITOR SALINAS
FROM DUST #22