“Could you imagine American Gigolo without the Armani costumes? What would the devil wear if it were not Prada? How could you listen to your fave old school Hip Hop without having Moschino and Gucci name-checked in the lyrics?!” Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott is talking about what Italian fashion has brought to the world, and one thing is for sure – it doesn’t stop there.
Maybe you picture Audrey Hepburn’s Fifties ensembles in A Roman Holiday, Anita Ekberg’s voluptuous gown in the Trevi Fountains in La Dolce Vita, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Ischian wardrobe in The Talented Mr Ripley. What about the immaculately dressed nonnas at early morning markets and the impeccably pressed cool crowd after dark? Versace’s Medusa head and Valentino Red? Gucci’s horse bit and Dolce & Gabbana’s sun-drenched celebration of Sicily? How about Fendi’s Baguettes, Bottega Veneta’s Intrecciato weave, Max Mara’s camel coats and Missoni’s zig-zag knits?
Whatever your mind’s eye conjures, it’s no exaggeration to say that Italian fashion’s influence and creative output has been – and continues to be – prolific. What more would you expect from a country for whom the concept of la bella figura (directly translating to “the beautiful figure”, but meaning “to make a good impression”) is as ingrained in its culture as Aperitivo hour?
Culture is the best place to start when unravelling what makes Italian fashion unique. Taking pride in aesthetics; enjoying a history of excellence in art and design; having access to master craftsmanship all over the country; and indulging in the vibrancy that reflects the notion of la dolce vita, it is a celebratory sum of many parts which are all integral to its appeal and success.
“This idea of presenting your best self – the way you dress, the car you drive, the food you eat, what’s in your home – Italian fashion is all about that,” says Max Mara’s long-time creative director Ian Griffiths, who, as an Englishman in Milan, is well-placed to identify the country’s tics. “It’s not for nothing that Italy is a world leader in architecture and furniture, too – the concept of really good design down to the last detail is approached with absolute rigour. It’s never about making one perfect thing that can’t be replicated, but a series of things and making each one perfect each time.”
This tension between productivity and creativity is what makes Italian fashion stand out, says Griffiths: “When you put those concepts together, you get the idea that fashion is an alliance between technical mastery and an aesthetic level of taste.”
Italy’s legacy of excellence in craftsmanship, explains Griffiths, stretches back to the end of World War II, when “the economy was at rock bottom and entrepreneurs built huge manufacturing bases” which would kickstart the famous il miracolo economico and lay the foundations of fashion as a national institution. With help from the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli, the famous Fontana sisters and Giovanni Battista Giorgini (the man who staged Italy’s first fashion show in his Florence home in 1951) it is, says Griffiths, an industry that “grew from a place of great adversity” to become the world-renowned centre of excellence it is today.
“It’s a lexicon of artistry that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” says Simon Holloway, another English transplant, and the creative director of Agnona – a label founded by Francesco Ilorini Mo in 1953. For Holloway, it’s “the intense attention to quality and detail combined with innovation” that makes Italian fashion exceptional. “They’re never satisfied, they always want to do it better, down to every little detail,” he says.
Colville co-founder Molly Molloy, who designs the brand’s collections from its Milan HQ, concurs. “As a foreign designer it was mind-blowing when I first started working here – you can do anything. It’s in their blood – [Italians] grow up realising how important fashion is and they’re really open to ideas. We’ve been working with a knitwear designer who’s worked with everybody for years and wants to know what people want now as much as she did 40 years ago.”
It’s with this sense of national pride that Paul Andrew, creative director at Salvatore Ferragamo, recalls the crochet grosgrain dress that featured in his autumn/winter 2020 collection. “[It was made] by a woman who lives in the hills near Florence [who] had these skills passed down to her from her family. Her day job is a maths professor at a university, but she pursues that craft because it is a part of her heritage and connects her identity.” For Andrew, this is something “extremely beautiful and extremely Italian”.
“You’re talking about very humble, highly skilled, talented people [working in Italian mills] who make these incredibly sophisticated, complicated designs,” adds Holloway. “People think fashion can be frivolous and not vital, but there’s a humanity behind the gloss of Italian fashion that’s really beautiful.”
The human touch is one of the most important elements in understanding what fuels the Italian fashion industry, says MSGM founder Massimo Giorgetti. “If something is Made in Italy, you can recognise the aesthetic: not only is the fabric well done, it’s happy!” he laughs. “It’s made with Italian love, energy and enthusiasm and the final result is something everyone in the world can recognise.”
Dig deeper into the psyche of Italian fashion designers and La Dolce Vita isn’t just the title of Federico Fellini’s most famous film. It means “the good life”, but, for Italian designers, it’s a way of life; a lens through which all creativity is conceived.
“For us, it is definitely about the lifestyle in this piece of very special land that puts people in the mood to develop amazing things,” share the Giuliva Heritage Collection husband-and-wife team Margherita Cardelli and Gerardo Cavaliere. “Here, you live within families who are nurtured from the most amazing food that grows and the best water and wind which pass through – it’s the best in the world! We feel really lucky to be born here in such a special country that has taste you can dream about [but also] taste and touch.”
Being connected to this heritage, continues Cardelli, fuels that other famous signature so synonymous with Italian fashion: purpose. “[Our design] is really connected to lifestyle,” she says. “When we design clothes, [we] think about where someone is going, from travelling abroad to jumping on a train – we try to communicate something timeless but also comfortable that makes you [feel] ready and elegant for every situation.”
These are, agrees Griffiths, the high principles of Italian design. “In Italy, we think precisely about where and how something is going to be worn. It’s not purposeful to the extent of being boring, it’s about making something to make someone feel their best. There’s a glamour to Italian fashion too – when a woman or a man walks into a room, they are noticed for all the right reasons.”
From distinctive aesthetics to head-turning antics, being noticed, it seems, comes with the territory – as one Italian attests. “Italians are quite expressive in general so for us, the way we dress… has an importance that’s maybe not the same elsewhere,” says M Missoni creative director, Margherita Missoni, who grew up in the Missoni compound just north of Milan. “Aesthetically, whether your style is classic or trendy, I think it has to do with colour,” she says. “We are traditionally more flamboyant, more extroverted, more cheerful.” It is, she adds, “one of the reasons why Italian fashion has always existed and is worth writing about – because people put a lot of thought into it.”
Being bold, being brave, always being one’s best is in Italian fashion’s DNA. “[It] has a boldness that sets it apart from all the others,” says Scott. “Whether it’s strong and colourful like my work at Moschino; sexy and daring at Versace; conceptually bold at Prada and Marni; or even the boldness of an ultimate minimalism created by Mr Armani, Italian fashion pushes it to the limit and then well beyond.”
“There is a warmth that comes from the Italian spirit,” he adds. “It’s never too cool for school, it’s playful even when it is being sophisticated – and it’s always inviting and always welcoming.