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Women's Fashion

The Glamour of Italian Fashion

Ahead of the V&A’s new show, Charlotte Sinclair talks exclusively to the museum’s director about what makes Italian style so seductive, how 1960s films gave it global allure – and why the only Italian word Elizabeth Taylor was said to know was Bulgari

March 04 2014
Charlotte Sinclair

Of the many qualities that define Italian style – the gilt and glamour, the sense of profound and reassuring luxury – perhaps the most important is a question of attitude. “Sprezzatura. It means nonchalance,” says Sonnet Stanfill, the curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s forthcoming exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014. “It’s the way in which clothes are worn – a mood, an attitude. If you go to the financial centre of Rome on any given morning, you can watch this sense of easy elegance in action. It’s a fashion parade.”

A parade that Stanfill hopes will come to life in the V&A’s show, which traces the emergence of Italian fashion as we know it, from its earliest days in postwar Italy to the cultural and economic powerhouse it has become. “There have been very few comprehensive overviews of Italian fashion,” says the museum’s German director, Martin Roth. “And with factors like a shifting emphasis on production, and the establishment of new generations of designer talent, we felt this was a pivotal moment.” The show’s sponsor is Italian jewellery brand Bulgari; I meet with its multilingual French CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin, along with Stanfill and Roth, in the latter’s book-filled office. Our conversation is accompanied by the sound of violent drilling from outside the window, the V&A’s £41m basement extension in full voice. “We think of it as music,” says Roth, with Teutonic understatement.

Even when it didn’t have a fashion business, Italy has always had a fashion industry. “In Italy you can either go to a big label for your suit or to your sartoria – the local dressmaker or tailor that exists in every small city, where your father went to get his custom suit, and your grandfather before him,” says Babin. In a country distinguished by a rich tradition of textile production and networks of skilled artisans, family-run businesses are everywhere, specialist makers clustering in specific locations: Como for silk, Tuscany for leather, Valenza for goldsmiths. Italian style is similarly distinct. “If you look at central and south Italy, the way of dressing is very much influenced by the Roman Empire, the Popes, the proximity to the Mediterranean, the sunshine,” Babin continues. “While the colder north, which was traditionally under Austrian influence, is more austere and minimalist in aesthetic.” Think of the differences between Armani’s sober, structured tailoring – Milan – versus Dolce & Gabbana’s ultra-feminine and exuberant Sicilian-inspired point of view.

A history of fine dressing is inherent even in Italy’s political structure. Babin explains, “In the 11th century, the cities of Venice, Rome, Milan and Florence were driving the Middle Ages towards the Renaissance. Power was held by different families from north to south; each were patrons of their own guilds of makers. Already the Medici family was very famous for the richness of the fabrics they wore.“ By the end of the 16th century, he continues, “the dress of the royal courts of Europe was influenced by those wealthy families that reigned in Italy”.

In the intervening centuries the country lost its status as fashion leader to France, specifically Paris, the crucible of haute couture. In the first years after the second world war there were few, if any, star designers in Italy to rival Balenciaga or Dior. “There were shows during the fascist period,” says Stanfill. “There is even a film showing Mussolini attending a show in Turin. But Italy was quite poor. The economy was in disarray after the war; most Italians couldn’t afford to buy high fashion.”

Postwar, an unexpected boost arrived in the form of Roosevelt’s Marshall Plan, offering financial support to Italian industries as a diplomatic and economic imperative, and in 1951, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, an entrepreneur and buyer for US department stores, launched a challenge to French fashion dominance. “He pulled together all the Italian designers of note across the different cities and organised a show in Florence to which he invited buyers and press,” says Stanfill. “It was Italy’s first internationally attended fashion week.” The designers – Emilio Pucci, Simonetta, Fontana, Carosa and Schuberth – showed couture but also informal wear such as Capri pants, beach outfits and pyjamas that might have been aimed squarely at the American casualwear consumers, the emerging buying force of the postwar world. In the V&A’s exhibition, the moment is captured by way of a Pucci beach ensemble. (French couturier Balmain reportedly sniffed, “Let the American buyers go and play with baby bonnets in Florence. They’ll come to Paris for the real fashion.”)

Italian style quickly became synonymous with lifestyle. “It was all about being glamorous and chic,” says Martin Roth. “People couldn’t travel because of the war, and then suddenly they went to Venice and Milan, and the first thing that they saw was the dolce vita. It was so seductive.” This specific, notional glamour at work in Italy was launched upon the world stage during the 1950s and 1960s. Films such as Roman Holiday, Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, all shot at Rome’s famed studios, Cinecittà, meant photographs of Audrey Hepburn shopping at Salvatore Ferragamo and Elizabeth Taylor wearing Bulgari caught the public imagination. “The only word in Italian Elizabeth knows is Bulgari,” said Richard Burton. Taylor herself told The New York Times: “I used to get so excited that I would jump on top of him and practically make love to him in Bulgari.” The necklace Burton bought for her at the Via Condotti boutique will be on display in the exhibition.

“Imagine,” says Babin, “these famous actresses had had their tastes in jewellery framed by Cartier or Tiffany – then at Bulgari they saw coloured gems mixed together, precious stones set next to semiprecious. It became word-of-mouth, it made the company a global player.” Stanfill comments, “A whole generation of designers benefited from the natural affinity between celebrity and fashion. It was the birth of Made In Italy, a marketing campaign that went across a range of goods, from fashion design to cars, speedboats and cinema. It began the worldwide enthusiasm for Italy as a producer of fine things.”

As the success of Italian fashion grew in the 1960s and 1970s, Krizia, Missoni, Armani and Valentino came to the fore. One of the world’s best-dressed women, Lee Radziwill, chose to wear a gown by Italian couturier Mila Schön to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, anointing both the designer and Italy’s style currency. Fashion week moved from Florence to Milan, the new fashion capital, and a new way of dressing was born: ready-to-wear. In the 1980s – the era of the super-brand and the power suit – Italian ready-to-wear, as proposed by the likes of Armani, Krizia, Romeo Gigli, Gianfranco Ferre, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, exploded in popularity. Richard Gere, louche and suited in Armani for American Gigolo, was the pin-up for the age. (The impeccably dressed Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was an equally dedicated Armani fan.) “Maybe the French were chicer in their Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche,” says Stanfill, “but what the Italians did was to focus the same energy on the style and the material and the quality of the manufacture, even if it was made by a machine.”

Italy fast became the home of fashion behemoths. Profits for individual houses are now in the billions of dollars, while the country’s designers have become celebrities. “The Italian fashion system, perhaps more than any other geographic area, has supported the notion of the cult of the designer,” says Stanfill. “It’s Versace walking down the catwalk with the supermodels. It’s designers extending their brand from fashion to hotels to furniture.” Stanfill cites Tom Ford, the former creative director at Gucci, as another example. Ford helped to revive the fortunes of the company established by Guccio Gucci in 1921 by propelling a new vision of amped-up sexuality and decadent luxury for the house that seemed to reflect the flashy, look‑at-me years of the late 1990s and early millennium. A slinky white dress from Ford’s tenure, featuring flesh-exposing cutaway details, is part of the exhibition.

Yet as Italian fashion becomes evermore popular, the manu-facturing industries upon which it has relied – the literal and symbolic heart of the country’s style – have shrunk. Years of recession in Italy have led to widespread closures and the outsourcing of production networks to countries such as China. “The world of fashion has changed a lot over the years,” says Giorgio Armani. “New markets have emerged, which have brought a lot of investment. But people’s tastes have also changed. Today’s rhythms are faster and the industry has been asked to churn out ideas and collections at great speed, when invention and quality actually take a lot of time. Perhaps what we need is a return to a more authentic, human pace, and I hope to see a change in this direction in the years to come.”

“Italy can never go back to the go-go years of limitless opportunity in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Stanfill. “But what makes the fashion industry viable is the fact that the emerging-market consumer still wants the Made In Italy label as a mark of guarantee.” This labelling, however, does not always tell the whole story: garments are often manufactured abroad – a porous definition of provenance not quite reflected on the label. “But consumers – including those from new markets such as China – are becoming increasingly savvy about the origin of the things they’re buying,” says Stanfill.

Authenticity is also at the heart of concerns regarding the ownership of Italian brands by foreign corporations. Between them, French conglomerates LVMH and Kering own Bulgari, Fendi, Pucci, Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Brioni, while the Qatari investment group Mayhoola acquired Valentino in July 2012. Stanfill is optimistic. “These parent companies have usually made that purchase because of the specific ‘Italian-ness’ and the quality of the brand. It’s in their interests to protect and nurture that identity.” Meanwhile, Jean-Christophe Babin’s Bulgari offices remain in Rome, and Fendi is moving its headquarters to the city’s imposing Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, on the brand’s 90th anniversary in 2015. For Babin, Bulgari’s jewellery couldn’t be designed anywhere else than Italy: “Every morning, these artisans would pass by the Colosseum on their way to the workshop. You can’t think small when you live in Rome.”

Fashion editor Gianluca Longo – a consultant and contributor to the V&A’s exhibition – says, “All brands are driven by commercialism, but the message every season at, say, Prada, Marni or Dolce & Gabbana, is more visual and imaginative than about simply selling.” (Though, it must be said, none of these labels is owned by a conglomerate.) There is certainly a freshness of spirit at work in contemporary Italian fashion. At Valentino, the brand’s latest design duo, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, have added interest to the esteemed house. “They’ve been adept at taking an established brand that’s so associated with its founder and managing to bring the customer along with them in a new direction,” says Stanfill. Not least in menswear, where, for spring, couture meets street style in toile-printed chinos and dark-denim blade-sharp suits.

Nevertheless, the scarcity of emerging fashion talent has meant Milan has, in recent years, lacked the excitement of the new. Longo says, “There have always been great young designers in Italy, but they’ve been squashed by the big names. For a long time the Italian fashion chamber was more interested in giving space [for catwalk presentations] to established designers. In London, you have Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art and there are great relationships between designers and students. In Italy there isn’t an equivalent.” (Givenchy’s Italian creative director, Riccardo Tisci, studied at Central Saint Martins.) “It’s also a matter of credibility. A young designer might approach a factory in Naples [to produce their collection], but they would be at the very end of the order queue, behind Prada or Gucci. In London, students make a collection at home. But Italians are all about the detail; you would never show anything that isn’t well made.”

Change is afoot, however. In 2007 the Florentine fashion college Polimoda appointed a new director, Linda Loppa, who previously taught Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Talent contests have given vital exposure to emerging creatives, such as menswear designer Andrea Pompilio  – who took part in AltaRoma and Vogue Italia’s Who Is On Next? – and womenswear designer Fausto Puglisi, recently plucked to become creative director at Ungaro. “Puglisi’s work is a capsule of the best of Italy,” says Stanfill. “We’re showing a printed-silk mini and a leather jacket. The leather, embroidery and stud-work showcase a whole mix of traditional skills.”  

The latest sensation is half-Italian, half-Haitian designer Stella Jean, who blends African textiles with a ladylike silhouette, creating wasp-waist dresses (about £449) and long or flared skirts (from about £215) that, in their precision, colour and sense of spirited chic, recall the best of Marni or Prada. In an unprecedented move, Armani offered Stella Jean his show space for her catwalk presentation in Milan last season, an unspoken validation of her designs. Armani says, “I think she has talent and a vision of fashion that, though different from mine, is fresh and original. Italy is a country that has neglected the generational change that happens naturally elsewhere, and this applies in every field. At this difficult time, I thought we all ought to send a strong signal of innovation and improvement.” Her work is represented in the exhibition by a man’s suit that is a vibrant clash of print and tailoring.

All of which points to a dynamic time in Italian fashion – and a potentially blockbuster exhibition, a history lesson in the life lived well and stylishly (and without appearing to try too hard). As Longo says, “Fashion is so instinctive in Italians – it’s like breathing.” Thankfully, the rest of us can dress our way into the part, just as we have since 1945.

See also

Bulgari, Exhibitions, V&A