By  on May 12, 2010

Giuliana Coen Camerino, the designer who in post-World War II Italy revved up fashion with her colorful Roberta di Camerino bags, died Monday in the civil hospital of Venice after being taken ill on the nearby island of Ischia. She was 90.

Born Giuliana Coen, she began creating handbags in Switzerland during World War II after having to flee Italy during the Mussolini era because she was Jewish. She married Guido Camerino and established her company in Venice, her hometown, upon her return from Switzerland.

In 2008, Sixty Group acquired the company for an undisclosed sum as an entry point to the luxury goods arena. The denim manufacturer is still in the process of relaunching the storied brand.

Coen Camerino blazed her path by shifting the focus from hats to bags. “Before the war, the hat was an element of style, a must-have which conveyed a special touch of elegance,” said Coen Camerino in 2000, describing the early stages of her career. “The war changed our lives. I had always had a passion for handbags and thought these could replace the hat.”

Time proved her right, but her creativity didn’t end there. Restricted by the scarcity of leather and its limited color options, the designer turned to Venetian silk velvets, most commonly used to upholster church benches or royal palaces.

“Leather simply did not allow a complete color palette at the time,” said Coen Camerino, who during her career befriended the likes of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and Giorgio de Chirico.

Coen Camerino fashioned the fabric into elegant rigid framed handbags and applied studs and closures manufactured by gondola brass specialists. The logo is a belt shaped as the letter “r.”

Her bold use of color — initially bottle green and wine red — brought a sense of joie de vivre to a depressed, post-WWIIItaly, where bleak colors dominated the fashion scene.

Roberta di Camerino followers have included Madonna, Elsa Maxwell, Paola di Liegi, Elizabeth Taylor, Isabella Rossellini and Gina Lollobrigida.

Her most successful and iconic style, the Bagonghi bag, became famous when in 1956 Grace Kelly was photographed clutching the designer’s rendition of a doctor’s bag. That same year, Coen Camerino received the Neiman Marcus Award and in 1963 showed her clothing line at Palazzo Pitti in Florence. In 1980, the Whitney Museum of American Art dedicated an exhibition to the designer.

“I owe my success in the U.S. to Stanley Marcus, who believed in me from the start and introduced my handbags there in the Fifties,” said Coen Camerino in 2000.

A funeral will be held Thursday in Venice. Survivors could not be learned by press time.

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