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Art of Style

An ode to Italian fashion

Blouse, F.R.S. For Restless Sleepers; sunglasses, Fendi

Italian creativity is defined by its ability to weave together quality, beauty and function – in infinitely new ways. The rich history of the country is the conditio sine qua non (foundation stone) of Made in Italy, a creative industry that blends elements from the past and present to influence the future. CHIARA TRONVILLE celebrates the legacy of Italian design – from its homegrown artisans to the most spectacular Milan Fashion Week moments – and considers what the future holds for the country’s exciting new designers

Designer Emilio Pucci pictured with models wearing his collection in 1959

Let’s start in the 1950s, in the gilded surroundings of Florentine and Roman villas, where the Italian aristocrats are sharing their idea of beauty and function with the recent influx of Hollywood stars. Count Emilio Pucci mixes vibrant colors and geometric patterns to create blouses from a unique anti-wrinkle silk fabric that slips into suitcases and comes out ready to be worn – arrivederci to crumpled clothes – attracting fans including Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor.

Meanwhile, in Florence’s Palazzo Spini Feroni, Salvatore Ferragamo is considered the ‘calzolaio dei sogni’ (cobbler of dreams) and makes shoes that are sought-after by the stars. Marilyn Monroe is a loyal customer and wears his pumps in that iconic scene in Billy Wilder’s 1955 The Seven Year Itch, where her dress billows dramatically as she stands over a subway grate. Ferragamo’s shoemaking genius is clear but he is also a pioneer and innovator with many patents, including his much-copied cork-heeled wedge.

Film star Sophia Loren, pictured here in Italy in 1960, epitomized the idea of Italian glamour and la dolce vita

In the 1960s, Italy is the country of la dolce vita; the ultimate vacation destination for the new jet set. For every occasion, from Capri to Cortina, a carefully curated look is born. It is also a decade of change with a need for a faster and more democratic sartorial offering, which was made possible through the development of the Italian textile districts in the post-war period, where quality craftsmanship combines with a large workforce. The mills of Biella in northern Italy produce the finest wool yarns, while in lakeside Como they weave silk, and in the Tuscan town of Scandicci they stitch together Italian leather. Thus, Italy launches pret-à-porter, with factories producing quality clothing in standardized sizes for the first time. Even today, the self-sufficient supply chain of 65,000 small and medium companies create 40 percent of the world’s luxury goods, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Italy represents a revered location of skill and know-how, born from this manufacturing tradition.

We’re moving into a time of counter-culture and rebellion and, as always, Italian fashion is listening to – and influencing – society. “The desire to rethink male and female with no distinction: no longer two genders with different roles, but two attitudes to dress,” highlights the fashion critic and curator Maria Luisa Frisa. This is the radical sex revolution of the ’70s and is not a simple trend but a step change in the freedom of expression and individuality. From the office to aperitivos, the unstructured suit is the epitome of effortless elegance for men, yet also empowers women for every occasion; one solution for all that is still relevant today.

Our style and our way of making things gives our garments the power to endure, passing from generation to generation
Margherita Cardelli, co-founder of Giuliva Heritage Collection
Gianni Versace and supermodels (l-r) Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni and Naomi Campbell at the Versace FW91 runway show

By the 1980s, Milanese runways are unleashing glorious excess, and the world is paying attention. It’s the rise of big personalities, big shows, and big ideas. Franco Moschino embodies irreverence, mixing traditions and playing with symbols. He is opulent and even kitsch; the Italian tricolore corset gown with a giant printed cow is an outrageous salute to Made in Italy.

Versace, meanwhile, is an explosion of creativity and glamour, as the late Gianni Versace’s kaleidoscopic prints and iconic chain-mail metal mesh dress – immortalized in fashion history in the 1982 Richard Avedon-lensed campaign – enter fashion folklore. He is a man of extraordinary talent, but he also understands the power of publicity and embraces media attention. To this end, he fills his front row with celebrities, launches high-profile advertising campaigns and essentially invents the supermodel, permanently altering the presentation of fashion forever. Versace clothes celebrate women and its runways continue to be a march of audacious beauty and unfettered joy.

Made in Italy guarantees values that cannot be replicated. Those who buy one of our garments wear an extraordinary history and culture of know-how
Corrada Rodriguez d’Acri, creative director of Blazé Milano
Prada’s SS14 runway collection featured a strong artistic element

Italian style is a sophisticated language: most of the established fashion houses created their signature using a very detailed vocabulary. From Missoni’s vibrant knitwear to Etro’s exotic paisley print, and Dolce & Gabbana’s retro femininity to Bottega Veneta’s woven intrecciato leather technique, which has recently been refreshed in supersized proportions by current creative director Daniel Lee.

And, of course, there is Miuccia Prada’s intellectual and nonconformist ‘ugly chic’, which has had an enduring impact and influenced the way an entire generation of designers create clothing. She elevates utilitarian fabrics to create must-have nylon bags, chicly combines chunky heels with ’70s curtain patterns and makes socks and sandals cool.

Prada’s cultural exploration is often collaborative – she is an artist who has worked with film director Wes Anderson and architect Rem Koolhaas – but perhaps her most compelling joint venture will be her next collection, for which she has invited Raf Simons to join the brand as co-creative director.

Shirt and pants, Blazé Milano; scarf, Giuliva Heritage Collection; earrings, Leda Madera; bag, Valextra;

Italian fashion, it should be remembered, thrives not only because of the big brands, but because of the thousands of workshops across the country, making Italian fashion global. It is these artisans who proudly create, with care and attention, clothing and accessories that are in harmony with the philosophies of slow fashion and sustainability. Quality over quantity has always been the motto for Italy, the ideal of bello e ben fatto (beautiful and well-made), and now with the increasing awareness of the harmful climate impact of the fashion industry, there is a focus on localized production, waste reduction and engaging with social responsibility. Italian companies are perfectly placed to take the reins on this global change for the industry.

There are the timeless garments of Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana, the minimalist bags of Valextra, and the exquisite embroidery of Loretta Caponi. But also, there is a whole new generation of small businesses following in their footsteps, like the Instagrammable Milanese looks of The Attico and F.R.S. For Restless Sleepers’ pajama-inspired eveningwear. F.R.S’s founder, Francesca Ruffini, explains that her brand is “inextricably linked to Como’s silk DNA. The city, its laboratories and printing houses are a perpetual source of inspiration for the research, development and aesthetic of my collections.”

Further south, Giuliva Heritage Collection’s refined tailoring, handmade in Naples, preserves the local craftsmanship while bringing a feminine touch. “Our style and our way of making things gives our garments the power to endure, passing from generation to generation,” says co-founder Margherita Cardelli, who highlights that almost every piece is made entirely by hand. As do the elegant blazers of Blazé Milano: “Made in Italy guarantees values that cannot be replicated, because these values and the rich aesthetic they foster are rooted in the complex past of our country,” explains the brand’s creative director Corrada Rodriguez d’Acri. “Those who buy one of our garments wear an extraordinary history and culture of know-how.”

I feel the urgent need to change a lot of things in the way I work [] This crisis has somehow amplified such transformative urgency
Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci

Pierpaolo Piccioli, Valentino’s creative director, never misses an opportunity to thank his workers. For him it is about the collective; while on stage at the Teatro alla Scala to collect the Art of Craftsmanship Award, at the first edition of the Green Carpet (the Oscars of sustainable fashion), he invited his whole haute-couture team to join him on the podium, where tears flowed.

Every Gucci show is profoundly emotive, too. The house’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, continues to astonish, not only with his ideas, but with the way he conveys them. Michele’s most recent show, which was staged on a carousel, revealed the rituals of backstage and all the people that make it happen. His latest revolution was communicated via Instagram, in his Notes From The Silence. The pandemic has caused him to reflect while looking ahead to the house’s future and collection format: “I feel the urgent need to change a lot of things in the way I work. I have always been professionally inclined to change, after all, bringing with me a natural and joyful creative restlessness. But this crisis has somehow amplified such transformative urgency, which can’t be deferred anymore,” he writes. “Now that we are still apart, my love for fashion burns. Our species, after all, is like that: we love like crazy in the throes of what is missing.”

Fashion can no longer be a monolith concept and will only be relevant if it reflects the diversity of cultures, lifestyles and individuals around the world
Paul Andrew, creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo
Religion and scholarly uniforms were among Alessandro Michele’s influences for Gucci’s FW20 collection

Pressing pause on the whole industry due to the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging, but it has also provided a moment to reassess, and with that an opportunity to change for the better. “We must adapt our creative endeavor to a new present,” says Marni creative director Francesco Risso. “To grasp a new essence guided by dreams that last through time.” Dreams about identities, of course, but also intangible dreams – setting new goals on a sustainable path, giving support and a voice to all the communities of our planet, defending nature and creating a better world.

“Fashion is a reflection of society, and society is rippling,” says Paul Andrew of Salvatore Ferragamo. “So, fashion is in flux too, and it is changing for the better. It can no longer be a monolith concept and will only be relevant if it reflects the diversity of cultures, lifestyles and individuals around the world.”

Despite global rhythms and commercial needs, the Italian fashion industry feels that it is time to change. While trusting its heritage, it bets on the future.

Discover the Italian Collective: 11 exclusive capsule collections from some of Italy’s most loved designers – plus, 20 percent of the profits* from the sale of products in this list marked ‘Exclusive’ will go to the Associazione della Croce Rossa Italiana – Organizzazione di Volontariato (Italian Red Cross) to support their work on the front line of the global health emergency

*Italian Red Cross is a registered charity in Rome, Italy (charity number 1157/2016 and VAT number 13669721006). “Profits” means the sale price of the product less operational and landing costs, including transportation fees, customs, duties, taxes, insurance, currency conversion, crating, handling and payment fees.

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