The fashion week whirlwind that begins next month takes in New York, London, Milan and finally Paris – but during Italy’s formative years as an epicentre of style, Florence was the city where international buyers gathered to see the latest Italian designs. The man behind the Tuscan capital’s genesis as a serious fashion destination was Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a marketing whiz with no prior experience in apparel but a keen understanding of commerce, having been an exporter of luxury Italian crafts to the US since the 1920s. His aim was to boost Italy’s postwar economy by cultivating the export market, and he believed the best way to do this was by targeting buyers from the new department stores surfacing in the US.
Earlier this year I visited the Giorgini Archive, now housed inside Residenza Il Villino, a charming hotel owned by Giorgini’s grandson and president of the collection, Neri Fadigati. Centrally located, its rooms (€80 per night) have views of the Duomo, and breakfast is served in a peaceful, leafy courtyard. Framed prints of models wearing dresses by Antonelli are on the hotel walls, and a technicolour Capucci butterfly-wing gown is on a mannequin in the lobby. On request, Fadigati is happy to reveal more from the collection, which includes books, photographs, letters and catalogues from this determinative period in Italian culture and industry; and staff can arrange for bespoke city tours, from an exploration of the secret symbols hidden in Florence’s medieval architecture to an afternoon indulging in its finest ice-cream parlours.
One souvenir that caught my eye was the stiff invitation from July 1951 to the first fashion show at the Grand Hotel. The first day of the three-day event began with alta moda from Rome, followed by a cocktail break at 7pm, with guests later reconvening to see the work of designers from Turin and Milan. Days two and three featured sportswear and boutique fashion, and it all culminated in a ball at Giorgini and his wife’s imposing villa, where guests were requested to wear gowns made by Italian designers. The archive also contains remarkable video footage of all the shows, capturing the slick presentation style that Giorgini devised to appeal to buyers.
Life magazine, which then had a circulation of around five million, published an article in August 1951 that profiled Italian fashion for the first time, and in the same year the New York Times declared, “Italian-designed clothing, with its excellent fabrics and prices that are half those of its French counterpart, seems destined to win the hearts of buyers. There is no doubt that Florence is about to replace Paris.”
Italian glamour was entering Hollywood around the same time, with Federico Fellini’s films receiving multiple Oscar nominations – his breakthrough movie I Vitelloni was filmed in Florence – and actresses Giulietta Masina and Sandra Milo were seducing audiences with their ultra-glamorous aesthetic and the allure of the dolce vita.
In 1952 the shows moved to the Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti, a 20-minute walk from the hotel, where its opulent interiors provided a magnificent backdrop to the dresses on display. A past exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, dedicated an entire room to the Sala Bianca and its influence on the history of fashion, and Giorgini is rightly credited with fostering Italy’s uniquely vibrant couture landscape. Dipping into Fadigati’s archive at Residenza Il Villino illuminates Florence’s heritage as a city of style and his hotel is the perfect base to explore its museums and boutiques, including Fusion Boutique by Raffaella on Via Matteo Palmieri and Via dei Pepi, which has a remarkable collection of vintage silk kimonos, and Il Mago Merlino, a wonderfully eccentric tea house on Via dei Pilastri that serves exotic blends.
Rebecca Rose is a specialist in vintage fashion and owns London-based online boutique Juno Says Hello: www.junosayshello.com.