How can we understand more about the history of Venice through the analysis of women condition across the centuries? This is the question that the conceptual fashion designer Jo Cope asked herself, when she was invited to be part of the Venice Design Biennial 2021. Can the answer be found in the path that crosses shoe craft, female habits and the special Venetian way of life?

A moment from Walking on Water performance on Fondaco dei Tedeschi's terrace, next to Rialto bridge. Ph. Veronika Mutulko

An inspirational source for her to answer these questions was the book “Working Women of Early Modern Venice” by Monica Chojnacka: this excellent read offers a multifaceted picture of Venetian women in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries. It gives a great deal of space to widowed, married and single women who, thanks to their independence and social importance, overturn roles and expectations, taking on challenging positions, which are not traditionally attributed to these figures. It is surprising, as Jo Cope notes, to realize how those women exercised control over their own lives. Many of them even owned their own homes, were self-employed and supported other women or their families. It was common for them to move freely in the city to conduct business. Substantially, Venetian women worked, travelled, and overcame obstacles in ways that made the city their own, and that’s what makes the idea around which the project is built so interesting and topical.

Over the years Jo Cope has developed an artistic research focused on shoes as a narrative tool for the evolution of society. In this way she has managed to overcome the boundaries of fashion design as we commonly mean it. Thanks to the experience made with the MA in Fashion Artefact at the London College of Fashion, she was able to deepen her skills, learn the rules of the world of art and fashion, and eventually overturn them by devising extreme and original objects, which have become part of a new chapter of conceptual fashion.

Looking at her past projects, this path is clear. In "Looking for love" the theme of desire and attraction predominates through the study of the interconnections between walking, non-verbal language and our heart; "Twisted stiletto" deals with the feeling of inadequacy that arises when you meet a new person, and even in "Death of love" the artist faces the sense of loss and death through the exposition of an unworn red dress placed on the floor.

In this gallery:
"Looking for love"; "Twisted stiletto"; "Death of love".

Following this narrative thread ranging across psychological, social and experiential themes, we reach her most recent project, created for the opening days of the Venice Design Biennial. The performance was held on the breath-taking terrace of Fondaco dei Tedeschi on 21 and 22 May 2021. The relationship between the artist and the city of Venice is deeply rooted. In 2018, on the occasion of "Why-What-Who: 10 years of Fashion Artifacts" she created the work “Walking in circles”, where she used both the foot and the shoe as a vehicle to materialize life experiences. This work gives the feeling of being poised, without a precise direction and suspended in time. Only when the circle is broken it is possible to regain peace and the steps become safer. However, the goal is always to overcome a practical vision of fashion, going towards a more abstract, visual and conceptual design.

An aspect that perhaps differentiates "Walking on Water" from her previous projects is the need for human presence: if in other cases the works can also be considered autonomously and statically, here we are faced with a real exhibition, alive and dynamic, which involves the union of various artistic disciplines. Ranging from dance, to singing, to craftsmanship, Jo Cope staged an engaging performance with great emotional impact. “Walking on Water” in fact included the presence of four professional dancers, the soprano Lieta Naccari and an artisan placed at the centre of the scene, intent on sewing the famous velvet slippers, called Furlane due to their origin from the Friuli region.

A frame of the performance by the soprano Lieta Naccari.
Ph. Veronika Motulko

The conceptual designer wants to convey a message of cooperation and unity among contemporary women based on the value of work, which is still inherent in Venetian society, characterized by a diversified female community. The performers, selected to embody the cross-section of today's society, are of different ages, ethnicities and social backgrounds, and in their diversity, they become the spokespersons of an inclusive world. The freedom and emancipation of women described in "Working Women of Early Modern Venice" is transferred to the performance.

Ph. Veronika Motulko

The protagonists of this project for the third edition of Venice Design Biennial are a special type of shoes, now internationally associated with the city of Venice: the Furlane. The performance therefore aims to be a praise of Venetian women’s history through the narration of the role played by these historical slippers.

On the left: Furlane, details from the performance.
Ph. Veronika Motulko

Talking about Furlane's origin, is very old. They have always been seen as the symbol of an economy of survival, full of female strength and dignity. They originated in a poor Friulian context, where women artisans, precise and patient creators, for centuries would make this shoe for a varied clientele: children, adults and only later also for gondoliers when, in the post-war period, a Friulian family made them land definitively in Venice. Walking on Water enhances the value of a centuries-old artisan production, carried out with a slow production. The project also satisfies a personal desire of Jo Cope: being able to relate the artisan practical realization with a conceptual thought in the strict sense, creating a whole that acquires meaning in our daily lives.

Video credits: Kinonaustudio