These days you can’t set foot on a red carpet without wearing a mask, but no rule says your protective gear has to be boring. At the 2020 Venice Film Festival, guests have been good about shielding their faces, yet no one has approached the task with the wit of Tilda Swinton. The actor, who received the event’s lifetime achievement award for her prolific career yesterday, has been attending parties in her usual lineup of Chanel and Haider Ackermann, accented by the week’s most intriguing accessories: a series of custom masks by designer James Merry.
Reminiscent of the identity shielding masks worn during the annual Carnival of Venice, Merry’s creations draw inspiration locally. On Instagram he cited “stingray skeletons, seaweed, orchids” and the aquatic sculptures etched into the columns of the city’s Rialto Fish Market as influences. Fittingly extravagant—Merry combined pearls and gold to make the handheld conversation pieces—they aligned with Swinton’s festival milestones. The first, worn by the actor as she collected her Golden Lion, was comprised of intricate metal swirls. At today’s premiere of La Voz Humana, her short film by Pedro Almodóvar, Swinton unveiled the second, a sculptural number that fanned across her face and featured two curling antennae.
As the co-creative director for the Icelandic pop icon Björk, Merry has lent his embroidery art skills and design talents to numerous masks over the years. Always pushing the concept further with abstract audacity, he helped to make the idea of covering up your face palatable long before it became mandatory. While Merry’s masks don’t provide protection against COVID-19 (when wearing his bejeweled work Swinton still relies upon a traditional cloth mask) they send a socially distanced message and make for an incredible visual. Given their unorthodox tastes and willingness to experiment, the Merry and Swinton collaboration feels like destiny; two days into the Venice festival, and they’ve already delivered a style moment for the ages.