To Roberto Capucci, finales are more significant than beginnings, which is why the 80-year-old Italian clothing designer waited until now, the last week of Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibit in his honor, to make an appearance.

"I want to thank all of Philadelphia who staged this beautiful retrospective of my work," Capucci said Tuesday afternoon, after flying in from Rome the day before. "It's the story of my life."

And what a vast, vibrant, tantalizing story it is. "Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion," conceived and created by the museum's chief costume creator, Dilys Blum, features 83 of Capucci's signature pieces, beginning with his post-World War II tailored pieces and wrapping up with a flurry of fashion-as-sculpture gowns that blossom with pleats and dynamic color combinations.

In haute couture circles, Capucci is known as one of the first designers to put Italian fashion on the map in the 1950s. But he's virtually unknown in nonfashion circles.

Yet that didn't stop the masses from flocking to the exhibit. Since its March opening, close to 75,000 visitors have purchased tickets, about the same number who attended the museum's last major costume exhibit featuring the better-known Elsa Schiaparelli in 2004. And government officials, including Mayor Nutter and Pennsylvania first lady Susan Corbett, will attend a private closing event Thursday night, where they will tout Capucci's achievements.

Tuesday afternoon, Capucci, cloaked in a fantastic bright orange jacket, was continually stopped by museumgoers who recognized him from the exhibit's 10-minute video.

"Thank you," said Diana Perella of West Chester, who was attending the exhibit. "These pieces are all so beautiful, they make my head swirl."

He answered all questions humbly, his airy voice barely raised above a whisper.

As Capucci meandered through the collection, he offered up memories about individual pieces. He pointed to a purple gown that he gushed once belonged to an Italian princess. Then there was the bold red sheath with nine skirt layers (aptly named Nine Dresses), inspired after Capucci threw a pebble in water and watched nine concentric ripples form.

The muses for other pieces were equally unpretentious, ranging from the act of peeling an orange to turning pages in a book. There is even a black dress that looks like it could be made from film reel.

"The thing about inspiration is that it could be something as simple as a shadow," Capucci said. "It's about how you interpret it."

Capucci, who fell into obscurity in the early '70s largely because he shunned the concept of licensing, didn't have much to say about modern-day fashion except to mention the lack of craftsmanship in comparison to the mid-20th century. After all, there are pieces in this exhibit that Capucci wove by hand.

"These are things that people cannot do today," he said. "They are not committed to it."

While he remains committed to his love of fashion, will he ever stop designing?

"Absolutely not," he said, brows furrowing just a little. "I will do this until the end."