The people of Italy are not easily defined, but you can bet your life they’re all sharply dressed. The nation that produced Cavalli, Valentino, Armani, Prada and Bulgari (to name but a few) sits firmly at the top of the roster when it comes to style. Milan is ranked as one of fashion’s ‘big four’ capitals alongside London, Paris and New York – and Rome makes the cut if you extend that list to 5. In a country where high-end shops adorn the retail areas of nearly every town and the police are dressed by Armani, ‘La Bella Figura’ – or ‘Good Impression’ – remains a tenet of everyday life. More than perhaps any of the world’s other beacons of sartorial supremacy; style permeates the essence of Italian life.
Look back, look forward
Italy is so synonymous with style that it’s difficult to view its position as a global clothing player as anything less than eternal. It’s easy to look at the Italian Renaissance and trace a direct path to the catwalks of Milan, but by the 16th century Italy’s artistic development in cities such as Florence, Venice and Palermo had peaked, and its silk crown was torn from its head by a French aristocracy whose flamboyance knew no bounds. The decline flowed into an age of Napoleonic chaos, Italian reunification, a fascist dictatorship and two world wars – none of which proved particularly useful for a flourishing peace-time industry.
Following Mussolini’s fall Italy was unshackled from its fascist past and rediscovered the joys of self-expression. As happened the world over, cultural rebellion came into vogue and for young Italians looking to present a new Italy to the changing world – combining old world mastery with daring modernism held the answer. Despite rejecting the old order, the sharp lines that have come to define the Italian style can be based in nothing else than a novel rejection of its regimented past. To this day Italians are raised to appreciate the best materials, approach their dress systematically and to above all never compromise on quality. Italian clothing is bound to a very specific idea of rebellion in which one blends in by standing out, using colour fearlessly and combining controlled style with personality to striking effect.
Living ‘La Dolce Vita’
Italy’s first modern fashion show was held in 1950 by Giovanni Battista Giorgini, an innovator whose legendary soirees placed Florence firmly back on the international circuit. Battista began shipping Italian clothing to U.S department stores and soon suede shoes, flannels shirts and slim black suits with sunglasses took hold across the pond. Florence led Italian style in the 50’s and 60’s, to be overtaken by Milan in the 70’s as designers in the city began pioneering much of the ‘ready to wear’ style we see today. Over time, French ‘haute couture’ came head to head with the ‘Italian school’ and brands like Gucci began squaring up to French heavyweights Chanel and Dior on the catwalk –time and again proving up to the fight.
Success was driven by the great and good that turned to Italy for individual modernism. Drawn by the chic lure of the rising Italian fashion houses, the silver screen’s biggest stars decamped to Rome and Florence in the 1950’s seeking the best that global style had to offer. Film stars, sports icons and mobsters dressed Italian to impress and the European style soon smacked of the new American Dream. In Italy, fashion is as much an expression of attitude as it is tailoring.
Perhaps the best way to define Italian style is through the concept of sprezzatura - meaning ‘studied nonchalence’. The Italians’ commitment to systematic decadence is typified by the ‘Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana’, or the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, which was created in 1958 with the specific intention of protecting the highest cultural values associated with Italian dress. Now ‘Made in Italy’ means much more than just geographic origin, it is a commitment to values of style and quality nurtured for generations. As the English have tea and the French wine, the Italians have style.