HER OWN WOMAN. Giovanna Buzzi is a costume designer and fabricator. She is the owner of SlowCostume workshop for the creation of costumes for the theatre, cinema and television with her partners, Odino Artioli, Silvia Aymonino and Massimo Pieroni. They have done costumes for events including Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies, and Luzia for the Cirque du Soleil.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Giovanna Buzzi, you are the daughter of two architects, Francesco Buzzi and Gaetana “Gae” Aulenti. Why did you decide to enter the world of theatrical costumes?

When I was very young I was sure I was not going to be an architect. My idea was to make a change, because my mother is a very important architect. Actually I entered into this world of the theatre, drawing sketches and assisting Gae when she worked for the theatre, because she was an architect but she was also a designer and theatrical set designer. I was very happy to have begun this work with her. I was also happy that my last name was Buzzi and not Aulenti, because it was very difficult for me to be considered as “the daughter of Gae Aulenti”.

Who were your mentors in your career?

I am very happy to have had four fantastic “maestri”. The first was Luca Ronconi, the Italian theatrical director, who brought me to La Scala in Milan. I was very young, and was in a group of young people who worked on the costumes for Don Carlos in 1977.

Did you then work with Luca Ronconi?

Yes, in the beginning as a young assistant. My meeting with him was very timely for my life and my work. It was the first time I put my nose in the theatre. It was fantastic and I decided that it would be my job, my world. I went with him to the Laboratorio di Prato, (Prato is a small town near Florence), where they made three very important shows: Hofmannsthal’s La Torre, Pasolini’s Calderòn and Euripide’s Le Baccanti. The first costumes of my own that I designed with him were for La Serva Amorosa by Goldoni with Anna Maria Guarnieri. His last opera production was Rossini’s Armida in 2014. It was very nice to work again with him and do the costumes for this fabulous Rossini opera.

“This is a job that you learn by doing, not from a book.”

Giovanna Buzzi

Giovanna Buzzi, who are the other three maestri?

The second very important “maestro” of my life was the costume maker Umberto Tirelli in Rome. Rome is the cinema city where all the ateliers for costumes are, and all the artisans of wigs and shoes and this kind of things. Tirelli had the most important and beautiful theatrical workshop and for 20 years I worked with him and for him. He was a very strong and good maestro because he wanted everybody to start from scratch, for you to pay your dues in the most humble jobs and slowly grow, doing everything.

Umberto Tirelli created the costumes for some important English and American films and theatre. Didn’t he work with Luchino Visconti on many of his films, operas and theatre productions?

Yes, in the most important opera houses in Italy. I don’t know why, but my own work never interwove with the cinema. I always worked for live performances; theatre, opera, ballet, even circus. 

Did you meet famous singers by doing opera costumes?

Yes. I was happy to work with the most famous singers of this period like Lucia Valentini Terrani, Katia Ricciarelli, Cecilia Gasdia and all the others.

Did you also work with Luciano Pavarotti?

Pavarotti no, but I did Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo with Daniel Barenboim in Berlin and then in La Scala.

Is it difficult to make great performers happy with their costumes?

It depends. Often the most important performers are very easy to work with because they are very professional. They are sure of what they want, of what we can do together, and it’s easy. It is sometimes more difficult with people that are less secure.

I was asking you about Umberto Tirelli. What did he teach you?

From Umberto Tirelli I learnt how to make costumes and to

love the company you work for. Over time all the possibilities of shirts, accessories, costumes, materials, colour, passed under my eyes. This is a job that you learn by doing, not from a book.

You cannot learn costume making at school?  

When I entered this factory after university I learnt everything with my eyes and with my fingers, because it’s really a job that requires you to touch and look. You look at the proportions and at the little differences between one cut and another, the differences between many different kinds of costumes. There is this one which is the best for making one thing and that one which is best for another.

Who were the two other maestri?

Another one was Pier Luigi Pizzi, the famous opera director and costume and set designer. Tirelli introduced me to Pizzi and I became his assistant for costumes for twenty years. He is a very hard worker, and together we made fifteen or twenty shows every year. From him I learnt beauty. The beauty of the style is another aspect of my job.

Which productions that you made with Pier Luigi Pizzi do you remember as being the most important?

The first one was Handel’s Rinaldo in Reggio Emilia, with horses. All the costumes were about flowers and fruits, with reference to Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings. This production was made again and again for years and years in different theatres, in La Scala too. We worked in Paris, in many theatres in Italy, and with the Rossini Opera Festival. In one year we made three different productions of Rossini’s Tancredi. One was like Gothic windows; the other was like a Tiziano painting with a patchwork of different colours in silk; and the third was a medieval tournament with a real horse and real grass. So it was three different ways to make the costumes for the same opera.

“In my family women are very strong.”

Giovanna Buzzi, who was the fourth maestro?

My mother.

Your mother the architect Gae Aulenti who built the museum of the Gare d’Orsay in Paris and many other museum interiors like the one in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. She was one of the very famous Milano architects such as Renzo Piano and Vittorio Gregotti. What did she teach you?

We loved each other a lot. She was a very curious and intelligent and open person. I hope to be like her.

But you didn’t want to have her name. You wanted to have your own name…..?

I went to live in Rome because I wanted to do everything by myself, but we were very close, and very happy to see each other.

What did you learn from your mother?

I learnt to be curious. To be open. In my family women are very strong, starting with my grandmother, my mother, me, my daughter and my granddaughter. It’s not easy to explain. I suppose it is a mix of character, education, curiosity and interests.

Your mother was known for working very hard. Did you also work very hard?

Yes, it’s normal for me. I learnt this from my mother. In the morning I get up and go to work.

The legend goes that your father Francesco, left your mother because she was working too much?

Perhaps, but I was three years old so I don’t remember. I do remember my father coming every morning to take me to school. He didn’t live with us but I was very happy, because my parents were very friendly in their separation. This was very important.

In 2006 with your husband and two friends you created your own company: SlowCostume Laboratory for the creation of theatrical costumes. You worked on the big shows at the end of the Turin 2006 Olympics and then Sochi in 2014. Is work like that completely different from theatre or opera?

Yes, it is. I discovered a completely new world with the Olympics closing ceremony, because they had to have two thousand costumes. I discovered a different way to organize things, but with the same artisanal necessity. We tried to make little differences in all the two thousand costumes, the volunteers who wore this costumes each needed to be seen as an actor.

What other large scale productions have you done?

The biggest production that we made with SlowCostume was the 2019 Fête des Vignerons, a festival in Switzerland. In this case there were six thousand costumes. The event is recognized for intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO and is held every twenty five years. For one month in the summer the whole town of six thousand people dresses up and puts on the show. They stay in costume all day long.

Did your experience of doing the Olympics help?

SlowCostume divided the work between many small Italian factories. Italy is very strong and very good for making these kinds of job.

What happened about your work for the Cirque du Soleil in Canada?

With Covid that is a real catastrophe. Cirque du Soleil had 20 shows every day all over the world, and last spring they had to close. I made Luzia for them in 2016 with the director Daniele Finzi Pasca, and I stayed in Canada for a year and a half because they have a big factory in Montreal where they realised all the costumes for Luzia. It is a really big job.  When they had to stop last year Luzia was in London, and they were about to begin the European tour.

Giovanna Buzzi

SOGNO D’UN MATTINO DI PRIMAVERA, a tragic poem by Gabriele D’Annunzio. Directors: Sandro Lombardi and Federico Tiezzi

Giovanna Buzzi

Cirque du Soleil’s show LUZIA, a waking dream inspired by the richness of the Mexican culture. Director: Daniele Finzi Pasca

Giovanna Buzzi

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s CALDERÓN. Director: Federico Tiezzi

Giovanna Buzzi

Aristofane’s GLI UCCELLI (The Birds). Director: Federico Tiezzi

Giovanna Buzzi

Costume designs for the Vaud wine fair FETE DES VIGNERONS 2019 held at Vevey in Switzerland. A population of just under 17,600 people welcomed up to 400,000 visitors over the course of the 25-day Fête.  Director: Daniele Finzi Pasca

Giovanna Buzzi

The Vaud wine fair FETE DES VIGNERONS 2019 held at Vevey in Switzerland. Director: Daniele Finzi Pasca

“You must ask the young people that work with me to find out if I am a maestro or not!”

Giovanna Buzzi, is it different to work for Cirque du Soleil?

They are more like an industry, very precise and there are many steps, whereas we here are more about fantasy and improvisation. For them, in one week you control the form, the week after you control the colour, and so on. With this system you can be sure that for 10 years you can make the same costume again and again, because they change the performers very often.

It is not only Cirque du Soleil but all the productions that have now been postponed or cancelled. What are you doing?

We wait. I have a big opera to do in China and we can’t go to China. We wait one year, two years. Don Giovanni with Mario Martone and Daniele Gatti in the Rome Opera House is stopped. In Liège we made a little theatre show with Alessandro Baricco, “Smith and Wesson” with four actors. We had just played the premiere and then the lights were turned off and everybody went home. The piece is ready for if and when they will reopen the theatre. I am trying to do work for Turandot in Torre del Lago for next summer with Daniele Abbado.  It is an open air theatre so perhaps instead of three thousand people in the audience we can do the performance with one thousand people. We don’t know.

Did you work abroad much? 

With Daniele Finzi Pasca we did operas in St. Petersburg with the conductor Gergiev. We made Aida and Verdi’s Requiem at the Mariinsky Theatre. I have worked more in Switzerland and France and Spain and Canada than in England or America. I went to Los Angeles to take a prize for LUZIA, but not to work in theatre.

Is the SlowCostume workshop now closed?

We have to do some period costumes for El Cid for a new big theme park that is supposed to open in the summer in Toledo, Spain. But in this period, we are few people. 

Do you still not work with cinema?

I personally have less occasion to work with cinema as a costume designer, but cinema costume designers come to Slowcostume to work. In September Massimo Cantini Parrini, who has recently had an Oscar nomination for the costumes in Matteo Garrone’s 2019 “Pinocchio” film, was here to make all the military costumes for the Cyrano de Bergerac movie that the English director Joe Wright will shoot in Sicily when possible.

Are you very worried by the effects of Covid in the entertainment world?

It is catastrophic. Cinema and fiction work again, but in the theatre there are people who haven’t worked for one year. Many, many theatres are closed. We never could have imagined something like this. I don’t like to see empty streets, all the people shut at home watching television, but I hope that audience will come back when we can open again.

Will Cirque du Soleil ever be able to reopen?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Do many young people want to have this kind of job?

Young people are all around us asking to work, though with Covid we must be careful not to have too many people together.

Are you now a maestro for young people?

You must ask the young people that work with me to find out if I am a maestro or not!

With all your experience, what do you teach young people?

I teach them love for this job. I teach high quality. I teach organization. I teach them to open their minds. I teach that practical work is more important than theoretical studies, because this is a job that we really learn with eyes and with hands. Computers can help, but hand-made artisanal costume is very important for theatrical shows and ballet.

Giovanna Buzzi, are you still passionate about your job?

Yes, this is for sure. I love my job.

Thank you very much for your time.

Main Image: The Opening Ceremony of the PARALYMPIC Winter Games, Sochi 2014. Director: Daniele Finzi Pasca