“She was an anti-fascist who fought against racism...a journalist, poet, muse; completely ahead of her time.” Erdem Moralioglu is speaking about Nancy Cunard, the heiress to the cruise line, whose portrait he came across with Robin Muir at the “Cecil Beaton: Bright Young Things” exhibition, now hanging locked in at London’s National Portrait Gallery. After being thrown on the violent switchback of time and events, this pre-fall collection has now landed with unforeseeable prescience in the summer of 2020. “It’s so weird” Moralioglu said, “because I designed it last winter.” Weird, because long before the pandemic and the last week’s explosion of outrage against racism, these lovely, delicate, floral clothes—Watteau-backed here, flounced there—were inspired by a woman who chose to use her immense white privilege and wealth to oppose the rise of fascism and support the work of black artists and writers.
Well, Moralioglu has a record for submerging complex, rebel women and subversively timely histories amongst his fil-coupés, airy organzas, and rose prints. In fall 2017, at the outbreak of the migrant crisis in Europe, he reminded people of his half-Turkish heritage; last summer he spoke about the artist and communist activist Tina Modotti. Whatever drew him to Cunard, via Beaton, might have been what the photographer saw: her strong, wraithlike style, her turbans and bangles, her graphic-visual originality. Really, beyond the echo of a few jeweled aviator bonnets here, you wouldn’t connect the dots back to Cunard.