I’m facing a dress which is as close to a miracle as I’ve ever seen. It’s a composition of geometric and curvy black pieces, apparently held together by nothing but air. In 2022, with the desire for skin-baring cutouts sweeping fashion, this incredible piece could easily contend as a dress of the year. The only thing is that it was designed in 1991, by the brilliant, quixotic, mysterious Sybilla, the then 28-year-old woman who put Spain on the map of avant-garde fashion.
And now, finally, her work is getting a close-up viewing by a new generation at “Sybilla: The Invisible Thread,” a retrospective at the Sala Canal de Isabel II in Madrid. I made the pilgrimage there for the one-off chance to meet the elusive woman whose work made such a quirkily entrancing mark in the 1980s, a young female independent designer in the then almost all-male dominated fashion scene.
“Invisible Thread”—the title most obviously refers to the technique Sybilla invented to suspend her impossible-looking floating abstracts. How did she do that? Her technique defies detection even if you press your nose up against the museum vitrine—I tried. “Well, first of all,” she smiled, “I stitched them together with fishing line. Then my factory in Italy invented special ribbon which did it for me.”
Sybilla was sold in American department stores and the emerging concept boutiques of the ’80s and into the early ’90s. When the curator Laura Cerrato Mera put out a call for owners to lend to the exhibition, women contacted her in droves; and customers who never parted with their Sybillas turned up to the private view with their daughters, who were wearing their moms’ dresses.
No wonder why—Sybilla’s range is astonishing, delightful, funny, and chic, and all of it completely relevant now. There are shapes with wired hems and padded curlicues; dresses which look like seed pods, runkled organic vegetables, or rocks. A fishing-net ‘sea-shawl’ has a haul of starfish stuck in it; a couple of flying birds cut in metal fasten a coat instead of buttons, and spiraling bra cutouts on a black dress look almost like a pair of snail shells.
Then there are her stately, caped shapes in black or splashes of cardinal red. An elegantly dynamic twist of a skirt somehow turns into a sari-like scarf draped over one shoulder. Many of her forms are simply inexplicable, and they are never explained technically in the exhibition’s captions. The closest Sybilla comes to describing her ingenious drapes and geometries—some of which are convertible—is that she’s “carving in cloth.” As a woman who’s always hated to be pigeonholed, or stereotyped, perhaps she’s resisted laying all her mysteries out.
She claims to design almost automatically, almost unconsciously, while doodling. “While I’m on the phone,” making garments that are “a joke, a wink—clothes conceived amid gales of laughter.” With seriously sexy results, though, too. One famous dress was worn by the Spanish dancer and choreographer Blanca Li, in an image from 1996. Its cutouts, says Sybilla cheerfully, “symbolize all the Spanish cliches—bull’s horns, the cross like Catholic religion, sun, and sex. But I didn’t see that until after I’d made it.”