Pietro Zambello is the artist/provocateur behind the Berlin-based dancewear brand Maldire (Mal-DEAR-ay)—an old Italian word meaning to bitch. He used the name as an artistic pseudonym once upon a time, and when he decided to launch a line of leotards three years ago, it seemed to fit. Maldire is now known for their bold, exotic prints and has been seen on some of the most famous bodies in dance; StaatsBallett Berlin principal dancer Iana Salenko is a fan.
Zambello, 29, from Veneto, Italy, describes his relationship with ballet as a tempestuous one. He started dancing at an early age, and trained at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London, UK, before joining Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett in Germany. “I’m a little bit hot tempered,” he says with trademark candor. “It would always end in conflict. I still think a lot of directors value their dancers on not questioning the tasks they receive. If you are a good corps de ballet member, you must not ask questions—you must do what you’re told.”
After Dresden, he did a stint with Ángel Corella’s newly created company, Corella Ballet (later known as Barcelona Ballet) in Spain. “It was a bad time for ballet in Spain and a bad time for Spain in general,” Zambello says. Struggling for support, the company decreased in size to a touring group of some twenty dancers before folding in 2013. Zambello moved to Germany to dance with Staatsballett Berlin under the artistic direction of Vladimir Malakov. “Berlin is a cursed city when it comes to ballet politics,” Zambello remarks.
The company might not have been for him, but the city was. After a final, unfortunate fling dancing with Vienna State Ballet, Zambello decided to pursue a degree in biology in Berlin.
The break from dancing also allowed Zambello to explore his passion for fine art and design. The first collection for Maldire was launched in 2014. “I think there’s a lot of Berlin in the line,” he notes. “It’s an amazing city; there’s art everywhere—not necessarily only good art, but there’s a constant artistic input,” he said recently, speaking via Skype from his Berlin home. From his desk he casually picks up a taxidermied hummingbird, reassuring me the bird is over 200 hundred years old. “I have a room full of frogs and chameleons—I’m a bit creepy, but it’s ok,” he grins.
A little bit creepy—Maldire’s signature evocative prints place dancers “somewhere between an animal and a superhuman,” and go against ‘ballerina’ stereotypes. It was a controversial move, Zambello says, to photograph the first collection on androgynous models in graffiti-ridden warehouses in Berlin: “Then comes Maldire with the tomboy scratching herself, which is a statement against the standardised body culture divulged by the ballet world.
“It’s your body and you can only do this much with it. Leotards are a weird medium to be political, but it’s ok to be open and political, I think.”
The brand has quickly become a cult favourite for dancers all around the world, and not only for its playful design. Each piece is made to order, with the entire production happening in Italy, from printing to cutting and finishing. “The print is done on paper, and then transferred to the pre-cut fabric at 200 degrees,” he explains. “Then it’s put together. The production is split in four different locations; it’s a very complicated process.”
The process, high quality fabrics, and production times pay off, with a leotard designed “for the day you feel like sh*t.” Zambello explains: “Aposematism, general techniques that animals have in nature to break their own silhouette, if you combine these things with what people want—a thinner waste, my collarbones to be open, this kind of thing, then you can really manipulate how it looks.”
Each collection has a personal history, too. Still Life, the first collection, features imagery from nature; ferns, wings, and flora. “It’s called ‘Still Life’ because I wanted to prove that there is life after the theatre, because nobody tells you that. You grow up being a dancer and they all tell you that that’s it—you either make it as a dancer or there’s nothing else for you.”
The second collection is Fortuna, subtitled, ‘Wish me luck’ on the website. “Fortuna is Italian—I thought, ok, I took the right direction, and now I’m going to make my good luck. I worked with a lot of Wunderkammer, everything that means a good deal to me, all these corals and little animals and things. They are so intimate, and are in a way what defines me, and what made my good luck.”
“Ambush is complicated actually,” Zambello explains the third collection featuring a decadent pomegranate print referencing American artist Michael Hussar’s painting Daddy’s Girl. “It’s partly a reference to a love story; it’s about being ambushed with kindness when you are trying to hurt someone. It was a strange time for me and I remember trying to hurt this one person, and he just reacted inhumanly kindly to me, and I just collapsed.”
Then came Empty House, created while listening to the The Virgin Suicides’ soundtrack by Air. “It’s about me. Me, me, me,” he says, playing the enfant terrible. “It’s about me being alone in the house here. I have a huge connection to my house. Everything is very handpicked, very proper. The house also has a funny history, there’s always some weird things happening. Glasses that fall, or tremble. At first I hated to be alone here, but now I reached a point where I’m really comfortable with this. It’s an upgrade of Fortuna—still objects that are connected to me and the house, only the things around me have changed, so have I.”
Most recently, inspired by a Victorian butterfly collection, Zambello created a line of skirts, Lepidoptera, emulating butterfly wings folding around the dancer’s hips. The design created considerable headaches for Zambello. “Now we finally seem to have it,” he says with a sigh. He sought Italian bridal chiffon for the final cut. “I just thought the shape of wings was fitting around the hips so well. And I think they look amazing with plain black or crop top, not necessarily with the leotards I design.”
The brand has evolved to include shorts and unitards for men, and a new line using illusion mesh, selected to flatter dancers of all skin tones. But the silhouette still rules. “A woman’s torso is so symmetrically beautiful, it has to be created on the body. It’s different from working on the legs, for instance.” There’s a slight hitch: “I cannot try on the things I make which I think is a crucial difference. On the other hand, I always try to make things that are not so bad for the boys. All my low back cuts are finger-proof for when you’re partnering somebody.”
“People are extremely touched by the presence of a dancer and they change the way they perceive you,” Zambello says, reflecting on the fetishization of the so-called ballet body.
“I’m very pro ‘everyone has their body and everyone is beautiful,’—some people are not beautiful but it’s because they’re not smart. Everybody can look beautiful with a bit of character, so to say.”