From the first international fashion show to the current status of Italian Fashion, the Fendi Baguette to the Sartoria, the V&A curates some of the important events that have made italian fashion what it is today.
Post WWII with Italy in ruins, the fashion industry blossomed under the stewardship of Giovanni Batista Giorgioni; a business man who hosted Italy’s first fashion show on the 12th of February 1951, at his Villa in Florence. There he showcased collections from the likes of Alberto Fabiani, the Fontana sisters (Sorelle Fontana), renowned furrier Jole Veneziani etc. In July of the same year he hosted another show at the Grand Hotel in Florence and another in July of 1952 at the Sala Bianca (white hall) of Palazzo Pitti, where some of the world’s most influential buyers were enchanted by the outstanding “quality and mystique” of the garments. In that way, Italy emerged to become a rival to Paris.
Milan wasn’t always the centre for Italian fashion, that honour belonged initially to Florence where Giorgioni was based and it was also where icons like Guccio Gucci set up shop for his leathers in 1921. Florence was also known as a bastion for leather production with some of the best artisans. The rivalry between Rome and Florence, when both cities were vying for the prestigious status as fashion capital of the country, saw Milan rise up to the ranks with its increasingly appealing Ready To Wear collection that would go on to become the fashion industry’s cash cow, making “made in italy” a phrase synonymous with quality and craftsmanship. In the 70s and 80s, supported by a number of fashion related businesses like textile making mills, button manufacturing factories etc, Ready To Wear increased the export of italian fashion to 300%.
The exhibition also touches on the effect of Hollywood on the Italian fashion industry; La Dolce Vita, starring Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni, highlighted the exquisiteness of Italian tailoring- Piero Gheraldi, costume designer for La Dolce Vita, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design of a Black and White Picture. Cleopatra starring the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor and one of her eight husbands, whom she married twice; Richard Burton. The Amalfi Coast became the “it” place to see and be seen for celebrities and the paparazzi alike.
Lee Radziwill’s (sister of Jackie Kennedy) evening gown and coat designed by Mila Schön which she wore to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966 stands alongside a floor length red coat with fur collar and trims from Valentino. Opposite is a row of costumes worn by Hollywood legends one of which is the gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace, designed by Fernanda Gattinoni who was nominated for an Oscar for the costumes she created for that movie. A scene with Hepburn dancing at the ball in the same said gown is one of many projected on the wall behind.
Different products of Italian fashion that have become icons in themselves today, did not go without a mention- the discerning and discreetly refined Intrecciato Bag from Bottega Veneta, showcasing the superb leather expertise of the house, the Fendi baguette which was designed to be carried under the arm like a baguette, Tod’s driving moccasins that have remained exclusive despite their popularity, Gucci’s New Jackie bag inspired by its predecessor, the Jackie from 60s, a favourite of Jackie Kennedy, pieces from Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s emerald Bulgari suite; colombian emeralds encircled with diamonds mounted on platinum, given to her by Richard Burton. He presented her with the ring whilst shooting Cleopatra. Although, legend has it that a few days after Burton bought this ring, presumably for Elizabeth, a woman went into the via Condotti boutique of Bulgari with the same ring on her finger asking to have it resized because it was too big for her. That woman was Sybil Burton, Richard Burton’s then wife. Fast forward a few more days and this ring was seen on Liz’s finger. Oh such scandal! But I digress.
The exhibition also pays homage to several people who have made the Italian fashion industry what it is today, the seamstresses, the Stilistas: these would be modern day PRs and fashionistas who were go betweens with the buyers and the public. Often well heeled and well dressed. Designers, old and new; Giorgio Armani, Stella Jean, Fausto Puglisi who designed Madonna Super Bowl costume, Dolce & Gabbana whose heritage design is interwoven with religious motifs, Prada, Antonio Marras, Missoni and its bright and bold prints and patterns, Franco Moschino’s mockery of italian fashion with the Yellow Pages jacket and fashion map of Italy dress, Tom Ford’s years at Gucci which was credited as the era of “dressing with stylish nonchalance” etc.
At the end of the exhibition is a short docu from Italian fashion insiders; Franca Sozzani, Maria Grazia Churi of Valentino amongst others, discussing the troubles that plague Italian fashion industry today, one of which is the lack of fresh blood because of the refusal of old masters to hand over the baton to young up and comers. There is also the issue of lack of assistance from the government who still does not realise what fashion has done and could do for italy.
My only critique of this exhibition, much as I loved it, is that I wanted more of that Italian pizzazz. Italians are a zesty people with a buoyant culture synonymous with passion, a key ingredient in Italian fashion and in this case, more, not less, would have been so much more.
Still, its definitely worth a visit if only for the history lesson.
Glamour of Italian fashion at the V&A until the 27th of July 2014. www.vam.co.uk