The Spirit Moves:
Atlantique Ascoli Looks to Martha Graham

Written by Stephanie Murg
Photographed by Hanna Tveite
Archival Photographs by Philippe Halsman

Dancer Martha Graham did not go quietly from the stage. Age and illness dragged her from it, suddenly and finally, in 1970. She was 76. Darkness ensued, but rather than surrender to it, Graham resolved to “bloom again” and soon returned to the studio—and her eponymous dance company—as a choreographer and teacher. She went on to create ten new ballets and many revivals. It was footage from this period of Graham’s life, after she had learned to create work for bodies other than her own, that recently caught the attention of Parisian fashion designer Atlantique Ascoli. “I saw a documentary in which Martha Graham was speaking to her students, and you could sense the mix of determination, truth, and grace she was imparting to them,” she says. “This is what I always try to do in my clothes—imbue them with a spirit.”

Click/tap image to shop the items pictured. Atlantique Ascoli Enfant Blouse and Jupe Amazone, J.W. Anderson Ballerina Flat

It is Graham’s spirit—powerfully pure, tenaciously vulnerable—that animates the latest Atlantique Ascoli collection. “Movement was everything to her, and she encouraged her students to ‘move through life’ with integrity,” says Ascoli. “With this collection, I imagined Graham moving through her own life. What would she wear as a schoolgirl in Pittsburgh and later in Santa Barbara, as a dancer rehearsing and teaching in New York?”

The answers are revealed in a series of “overblouses” (tops designed not to layer beneath a sweater or jacket but to stand on their own, spanning settings and seasons), dresses, and skirts that mirror the “simple, direct, open, clean, and wonderful life” that Graham described as her lifelong desire. Ascoli pictures the young Graham riding a horse in a denim wrap skirt, playing badminton in a ruffled-collar blouse of sky blue cotton poplin, and later presiding over her studio in a longer skirt of navy al prato cotton and linen, a slub-woven textile custom-made in Italy.

Erick Hawkins (foreground), Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham in a 1946 performance of Every Soul Is a Circus, a comedic ballet performed by the Martha Graham Dance Group to music by Paul Nordoff. “The circus she creates is one of silly behavior and ridiculous situations, its theme, the desire of woman to be the apex of a triangle, the beloved of a duet, who, as the spectator of her own actions, becomes the destroyer of experiences necessary to her essential dignity and integrity,” wrote composer and critic David Diamond in his 1939 review of the work. “It represents the fullest consummation of Miss Graham’s conceptions. She has unified her entire dance vocabulary into a simple and direct theatrical means of projection and communication.” (Photo © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos)
I’m very attached to details, but I don’t want the details to be seen. It’s similar with dance. The best dancers are the ones that make everything look easy, but it takes a lot of work.Atlantique Ascoli
Click/tap image to shop the items pictured. Atlantique Ascoli Anemone Blouse, J.W. Anderson Patchwork Gathered Skirt and Ballerina Flat
Click/tap image to shop the items pictured. Atlantique Ascoli Enfant Blouse and Jupe Amazone

“Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful,” wrote Graham in her 1991 memoir, Blood Memory. “But the path to the paradise of achievement is not easier than any other.” The hard work of concealing hard work is something that Ascoli embraces. Born into a “fashion family” in Paris (her parents are model-turned-fashion designer Emmanuelle Khanh and inflatable furniture inventor Quasar Khanh), she began her career as a singer and songwriter and is the mother of three children. “I try to make clothes that don’t overpower you but instead take on your personality,” she explains. “Martha Graham was very chic but not obvious. You didn’t see her clothes—you just saw her.”

Born in 2013 as “a little project” inspired by Ascoli’s personal collection of Victorian blouses, the line continues to develop organically. She likens the designing of each collection to writing a song: a way to both explore and express what is on her mind. Her silhouettes are free of darts (“I think they take away the purity of the line”) and their crispness is softened by calibrated flourishes such as ruffles (according to a 1947 New Yorker profile of Graham, the dancer’s great-great-grandfather, a Virginia farmer, “insist[ed] on wearing his best ruffled shirt when he plowed, as a token of his belief in the nobility of physical labor”). “I love ruffles, but modern ones, where it becomes like a sculpture, not especially girly,” says Ascoli. “When I’m working on a blouse, I want to feel the spirit but I don’t want to see it.”

Martha Graham in a 1946 performance of Serpent Heart. Later renamed Cave of the Heart, the work was inspired by the story of Medea and set to music by Samuel Barber. In the background is a seat by Isamu Noguchi, who also designed the sets for 21 other Graham productions. “When I present something on the stage with music and with costumes and with settings,” said Graham, “I expect those to be part of the drama, not decoration.” (Photo © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos)
In work, you do what you know. You experiment with the movement until you find some little secret language which speaks for your body and for your heart.Martha Graham
Click/tap image to shop the items pictured. Atlantique Ascoli Enfant Blouse (worn back to front), J.W. Anderson Ruffled Hem Full Skirt and Ballerina Flat