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The making of modern Italian fashion

The world’s first major exhibition on post-war Italian fashion comes to the V&A. K speaks to curator Sonnet Stanfill.

Italy must be the one country whose sense of style and clothing output has been such a signifier of fashionable taste for so long. Then surely there have been many exhibitions devoted to it?

“Not really”, says Sonnet Stanfill, curator of The Glamour of Italian fashion 1945-2014 at the Victoria and Albert museum, London, “and anyway I was looking for something different”. There have been a few shows in both America and Italy but nothing of this scale and importance before.

Stanfill, curator of twentieth-century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, wanted to use the museum’s collection, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, to portray the crucial influence and staying power of Italian fashion from the end of the Second World War until today. She adds, “Given potential regional rivalry in Italy, London also offered a neutral setting at a suitable distance”. 

Labour of love

Such an undertaking takes five years. Sonnet began by asking the leading couture companies to provide items. All were favourable and supportive, “There was no problem with any loan or donation”.

Two years before the opening she went into ‘project mode’, which involved discussions with scholars from both Italy and Britain. Only six months into this process, the design team had to be briefed, so there’d be time to build the display. And five months before kick-off, all objects had to be finalised to prepare the catalogue and the labelling.

The personification of glamour

Why the word ‘glamour’, as opposed to style, for example?

Style is elegance and smoothness. Glamour is being fascinatingly and sexually attractive.
 

It combines allure and charm. Sonnet believes Italian fashion, more than any other, is “a show: it’s routed in la passeggiata”.

So how do you condense the last seven decades into one exhibition? Well, there are several milestones.

During the war, the association Ente Nazionale della Moda, had attempted to promote national fashion and textiles, promote its independence from Paris and develop “a certain sense of Italianness”, as Sonnet puts it. The growing economy brought waves of migration from rural areas to the increasingly industrialised north. The Italian and American governments “valued fashion as both an economic and diplomatic rehabilitator”. This included affording Italian fashion a foothold in the lucrative US market – a crucial step in its future development.

A turning point came in 1951, in Florence, not just for Italy – but for the world: the first significant Italian fashion show. Organised by Giovanni Battista Giorgini, the event attracted great interest, and Italian style and output began to be followed closely. A year later, Giorgini repeated the event, in Florence. “It was small but deeply influential”, according to Sonnet, “as North American department stores sent their buyers, and the press loved it”. By 1952, in the now-legendary Sala Bianca of the Palazzo Pitti, “Italian fashion had secured its place on the international stage”.

But Sonnet says the full story is more complex, “Fine production within high-fashion houses had begun well before” and Rome still held its own against Florence. “The media-fuelled success of the Sala Bianca overshadows the traditional sartoria (dressmaker), who was the main source of quality fashionable garments for wealthy Italian women before and immediately after the war”.

The American market helped move Italian fashion away from dressmakers as “American women increasingly favoured ‘wearable’ clothes that allowed for ease of care and movement required by active lives”.

Italywood

The American influence continued into the 1960s: “Hollywood actors on and off set, from Cinecittà to shopping trips to Florence and holidays on the Amalfi coast, featured in the press and fashion magazines”. Think of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra – all became Italian-fashion ambassadors.

Around this time Milan began to take centre stage. Rome and Florence, and earlier Turin, “had long vied with each other to be fashion capitals, but Milan was now the epicentre of the fashion press”. It was also close to “some of the world’s most innovative textile production, to easily rival that of Lyon in France”.

Walter Albini was the “prototype of a new breed of designer, lo stilista, that emerged in the 1970s;
 

someone who mediated between the practicalities of industry, the requirements of buyers and public, while also being aware of the importance of the press. The stilista “were instrumental in moving elite consumers towards a novel category of fashion: designer ready-to-wear”. Enter Versace and Armani.

Per uomo

The exhibition stresses the menswear story too. Italian tailoring, knitwear and sportswear conveyed sprezzatura, a nonchalant or relaxed elegance that found a ready audience around the world.

The Italian look is less formal, less structured than Savile Row’s.
 

Sonnet highlights several “golden periods of Italian menswear”, starting with the early 1950s when Brioni put on the first catwalk for men. She believes the rise in demand for luxury fashion in emerging markets beckons another wave.

Made in Italy, desired by the world

The story of Italian fashion is one of great skill in material production and tailoring, “along with an inventive, entrepreneurial verve”, adds Sonnet. “Then there are the districts of related industries that have driven Italian fashion to success”. When something is designed in Paris or London, the preferred place of production is often Italy.

Although fashion is more international nowadays, Italian firms still exert considerable influence, not least because of their ability to reposition themselves. For example, since the 2000s Tomas Maier “has used the august leather brand Bottega Veneta to express a novel kind of ‘stealth luxury’, a no-logo, ‘functional essence’ that exorcised labels”. Similarly, Frida Giannini, creative director at Gucci since 2005, “became known for reinterpreting the company’s heritage through a penchant for 1970s style”.

Small wonder that Italy remains Europe’s largest producer of clothing and textiles. Not that all is rosa in the garden. The delicate infrastructure of small-to-medium, often family-run and regional, workshops and factories has been declining for over a decade. However, “Italy’s business leaders have realised instead of competing on price with emerging markets, it should do so on quality, and has been betting on the prestigious Made-in-Italy label.”

What is clear, and this is brought out at the end of the exhibition, is the need to defend and nourish Italian fashion talent and manufacture. “The bright spot in a generally sober economic outlook is the seeming limitless demand from consumers abroad for a taste of Italian style – and glamour”. All of which echoes the post-war period where the exhibition’s story begins.

 

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 runs until 27 July at the Victoria & Albert museum, London. It then tours to the United States.
Sonnet Stanfill is curator of twentieth-century and contemporary fashion at the V&A. She is the editor of the publication that accompanies this exhibition, The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945. 

 
Pictures' credits:  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cover picture: Gianfranco Ferre advert, Fall/Winter 1991. Model: Aly Dunne, Photographer: Gian Paolo Barbieri. ©GIANPAOLOBARBIERI