By Alan Behr
NEW YORK, 8 DECEMBER 2015 — One of the mysteries that Italy presents to the world is how style seems to come so naturally and happen so easily in the nation’s disparate regions and within all walks of life. It is as if elegant design in clothing, shoes, accessories (and just about everything else) grows naturally in the surroundings, like grapes in a trusted vineyard.
Italian clothes are like California wines: world-class but once relatively unknown internationally until the occurrence of a singular event. For the wines of California, the moment came in Paris, at a blind tasting on 24 May 1976 (known to oenophiles as (the “Judgment of Paris”) during which New World wines beat their French counterparts in every category. The moment of clarity came for Italian fashion when the Florentine buying agent Giovanni Battista Giorgini invited the forces of international fashion to attend a group show held on 12 February 1951; the experience was new for all involved, so to create an appropriate venue, Giorgini simply opened up his Tuscan mansion, the Villa Torrigiani. Editors from the foreign media such as Harper’s Bazaar and, most important, buyers from foreign retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman came to have a look. What they saw in that unique group audition was something of a unitary vision—an interpretation of womenswear based on fine materials and artisanal workmanship, shown in designs embodying the Italian ideal of relaxed grace. Those clothes and others in the shows that followed looked not merely pleasing to the eye but eminently wearable—something of considerable value to the Americans, whose “house style” had always been more about comfort and ease than that of the French, who were, until that moment, undisputed as the leading exponents of Continental style and glamour in women’s clothing.
This story—now grown into a birth myth worthy of Genesis—has been told many times, and it is retold often in Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945, a fine coffee table book edited by Sonnet Stanfill and issued in conjunction with an exhibition first shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum (where the editor is a fashion curator) that later traveled to three different American museums. The book is a compilation of essays, all of them expertly illustrated, each placed within a specific topic grouping such as menswear and materials, along with more contemplative headings such as “Fashion and Image.” Overall, the writing has a British feel and perspective; you see the development of Italian fashion in its spread to America through the intermediation of British eyes. It all provides for a good narrative, one that is mercifully free of academic prose and artspeak. Indeed, for all you can say about it, fashion is not fine art and it certainly is not a system of philosophy: it is something pleasurable that you do with your clothing to make yourself look the way you feel, look the way you wish to feel, or look way you are or wish to be. Fashion is a collage of commercial products that motor past their nominal utilitarian destinations and move on toward bringing a bit of excitement and fun into your life. The writers wisely take that as their guidepost rather than attempt esoteric scholarship.
Dolce & Gabbana advertisement,
ready-to-wear, Autumn/Winter 2013/14
Photograph by Domenico Dolce
In offering the Italian point of view on all that, the book sums itself up in its opening words, which are contained in a quotation by Giorgini:
The fashion world is always eager for the fresh, exciting originals that Italy offers today. This demand has led to the rise of a new group of Italian designers, heretofore known only to those Italian aristocracy and fashion-wise foreigners visiting Europe.
Among the first to prove the point were Emilio Pucci, who participated in that key runway show run by Giorgini, and the master Florentine shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. Their good reviews—and resulting strong sales—provided two of the three propellants that typically launch luxury brands into new markets. Integral to the Italian method, the book reveals (again, on multiple occasions), were thousands of small, family-run businesses; many provided finished clothing but others supplied everything the expanding major brands needed, from silks to shoelaces to ribbons and bows.
The third propellant, however, is glamour, which Ferragamo had already affixed to his name and products. In many ways, the success of his brand is a case study for the way that Italian fashion took hold. Born in 1898 in a small Campanian town, Ferragamo studied shoemaking in Naples. By 1914, he had found his way to the United States, first to work in a boot factory in Boston. Quickly migrating to California, Ferragamo made footwear for Hollywood movies and soon became the “Shoemaker to the Stars,” the loyal customer base of which continued to visit and order from him following his return to Italy in 1927, there to set up shop in Florence.
Shoemaking is the hardest craft in all of fashion, requiring not merely a good sense of style but sound engineering. No one ever sat down in pain on a park bench or visited his orthopedist because his shirt did not fit well. To make sure he got it right, before leaving the USA, Ferragamo studied anatomy at the University of Southern California.
In 1933, Italy was hit with international trade sanctions over its invasion of Ethiopia. Ferragamo made use of what materials he could obtain at commercially viable prices, which is how shoes came to be made from canvas, raffia, cork and woven cellophane, proving again that, to a person of talent, deprivation is a catalyst, not an impediment.
Ferragamo died at the age of sixty-two, leaving behind a widow, Wanda, who was untrained in business, and six children. A widely held expectation is that the loss of key, brand-name talent will end a specialized family owned enterprise. In a twist that is a case study in where Italian fashion went next, Wanda took over and turned her husband’s shoe company into a publically traded international luxury brand. The moral of the story, gentlemen of Italy and beyond, is that, when you are a genius, it pays to marry a genius.
The writers chronicle the rise, in the 1970s, of the cult (a fair word in many cases) of the fashion designer. In 1978, Giovanni Versace launched his own fashion line, immediately demonstrating flair and showmanship that often took Italian style away from its comfort zone of refined wearability but never away from aesthetic credibility. The yang to Versace’s yin was Giorgio Armani, a late bloomer who started his own line while in his early forties but who quickly established himself as the leading champion of Milanese minimalism and refined good taste, delivered in muted colors and draping, loosely woven fabrics. To put it more simply, if what you are looking for is tie dye or a colorful sari, in the case of either designer’s look, you have come to the wrong shop.
The story about how the Richard Gere film American Gigolo (1980) cast the light of fame upon Giorgio Armani is retold throughout the book. The writers may be academics and fashion professionals, but all but one is female, and it does seem as if any excuse is made to discuss the film’s dressing scene, in which a shirtless Gere lays out multiple Armani outfits before donning his selection.
In a short entry in the menswear section, Glenn Adamson succinctly contrasts “structured and sculptural” Savile Row tailoring, illustrated by the work of the oldest house on “the Row,” Henry Poole, with the draped Neapolitan style, which is characterized by pouch-shaped pockets and ruched sleeve tops, illustrated by the work of Rubinacci. As Adamson correctly observes, the differences are in part due to climate—canvas lining and eleven to thirteen-ounce fabrics are body armor against a London winter—but also to differences in style. London and Naples do not look, act or do business in the same way, and those distinctions appear in their respective fine tailoring.
To many Britons and Americans, how postwar Italy is among the top makers in so many product categories remains a mystery. This is a country that wears its troubles on its sleeve, a country that has had sixty-four governments in sixty-nine years and where tax evasion is an international spectator sport, reported in the world media as if covering the World Cup. It begs that question asked by the English-speaking world of both Italy and France: how do they seem to live so much better even when they have not much more and often quite a bit less than do we? The Italian answer, Anglo-Saxons, is that life is an art, pursued daily with style and seemingly effortless good taste, actually ultivated with courage and (often hidden) discipline. Nothing better describes the Italian approach to fashion. American design is solid on the basics, with practicality taking the lead at all price points. French fashion is tailored, correct and yet, when worn by the woman who knows how to do it right, incomparably alluring. When a woman or a man walks by, however, in something beautifully made, the fabric alternatively hugging the body and giving way, creating a swaying cadence of grace—you can be pretty sure you are watching Italian style at work. At so many times in all our lives, that is just what we need to see on others and wish to wear ourselves.
Headline image: Tom Ford for Gucci, white silk viscose dress with gold dragon brooch, Autumn/Winter 2004/5.
Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945
Edited by Sonnet Stanfill
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Victoria & Albert Museum (October 2014)