The History of Italian Fashion

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Each season during Milan Fashion Week, well-known and emerging designers flock to the northern Italian city to present their craft to the rest of the world. But Milan wasn’t always the respected fashion capital it is today. Around the second half of the 20th century, Moda Italiana, or Italian fashion, finally became recognized for its attention-to-detail and innovative design. Before that, Paris was the main city for all things fashion, with Italian design largely going unnoticed. Even Elsa Schiaparelli—perhaps one of the most influential Italian designers of the early 20th century—chose to stage her atelier in Paris, spawning a feud with French designer Coco Chanel (who, not being able to bring herself to say Schiaparelli’s name, referred to her as „the Italian artist who makes clothes“).

Schiaparelli, known for her signature color of „shocking pink,“ made notable contributions to fashion, specifically in regards to the construction of couture garments. (She introduced the concept of cutting along the bias, for example.) She frequently collaborated with Surrealist artists including Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau, and incorporated their artistic style into her creations, including her iconic lobster dress.

After World War II, Italy’s textile industry was able to flourish thanks to financial aid from the U.S. and its economic landscape began to allow for other designers to emerge. Zoe, Micol, and Giovanna Fontana—the three sisters who made up the Italian fashion house called Sorelle Fontana—founded their namesake label in Rome in 1943. Following the likes of Schiaparelli, the trio became a powerhouse in the industry, dressing some of the biggest names in Old Hollywood, including Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly.

Over the next few decades, the „Made in Italy“ label continued to gain stature. In the ’50s, fashion shows became more prevalent Italy, thanks in part to Italian entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Giorgini, who was instrumental in bringing it up to par with the Parisians. In 1951, the businessman staged the first-ever high fashion show in Italy at his own private residence in Florence, known as Villa Torrigiani. In attendance were six major American buyers who Giorgini strategically invited to the show. They viewed collections from 10 major Italian fashion houses and were immediately impressed by the quality and allure of the garments. With the success of the show and the support of Irene Brin, a fashion editor who advertised the event internationally, Italian fashion quickly gained traction. Grandiose shows continued over the next several years, and were sometimes sometimes held in the Sala Bianca of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. These high-profile events motivated designers to produce collections to be shown to the public, which led to the first official Milan Fashion Week being held in 1958. Its success cemented Milan’s place as one of the major four cities where fashion week occurs every year.

Italian auteur cinema during the ’50s and ’60s also greatly impacted the way the world viewed fashion. Directors Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, who made the films La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria respectively, majorly influenced the general aesthetic of Italian fashion. Their films were essentially a commentary about the current state of Italian society and culture, which was begging for an artistic outlet and something more lighthearted to ease the grief everyone was feeling as a result of the war. The lavish costumes worn in these films helped to popularize the look of stylized clothing. La Dolce Vita, in particular, reaffirmed the timeless appeal of the little black dress and showcased the glamorous women in the film as emblematic of upscale Italian society.

By the time the ’80s and ’90s rolled around, Italian fashion became known for its maximalist aesthetic and many of the most popular fashion houses today began to thrive, including Versace, Gucci, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Moschino. These labels all redefined Italian fashion by introducing elements that were bold, sleek, and elegant. Gianni Versace, in particular, was one of the biggest trailblazers in Italian fashion by encouraging the women he dressed to be empowered, sexy, powerful, and intimidating. At the height of his success, he cultivated a loyal following of ’90s supermodels, including Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Helena Christensen, and Cindy Crawford, who served as his muses and meteoric rise in the industry mirrored his own. When Versace was killed in Miami on July 15, 1997, he left the reins of the house of Versace to his sister, Donatella, who still has creative control to this day.

Following the death of Versace, the fashion industry made yet another shift into the new millennia. Over the past 20 years, fashion has seen dramatic changes including several labels reinventing their image, and introducing newcomers on the scene. Under the direction of designer Alessandro Michele since 2015, Gucci has seen major creative transformations that heavily contrasted with Tom Ford’s sexy and sleek image during the ’90s. Moschino, as well, has become famous for its use of motifs that reference pop culture phenomena from past collections. Under designer Jeremy Scott, the eccentric label has garnered controversy over the years through his ability to poke fun at the fashion industry (his Spring/Summer 2019 show infamously had models in „unfinished“ designs.) Scott also isn’t one to shy away from politics: for his Fall/Winter 2018 campaign, he drew ire by having models don „illegal alien“ makeup as a commentary on President Trump’s immigration policies.

Major Italian designers, including Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy (and now Burberry) have reinvented classical fashion houses by continuing to produce glamorous collections that set the standard for quality within the realm of haute couture, while continuing to prove that Italian fashion is influential in any regard and has significantly shaped the fashion world as we know it.

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