ITALY’S box-fresh premier, Matteo Renzi, heads the country’s 62nd government since WWII, its fourth since 2011. Italian politics may be a scandal-fest that makes Europe grin like a patronising sibling (when not frowning at the economic chaos), but when it comes to food, art, cars and especially to fashion, we’ll still have what they’re having. In a perfect world, it seems, everything but the government would be labelled “Made in Italy”.
The Glamour of Italian Fashion began at a time when nobody felt that way. Curator Sonnet Stanfill brings visitors back to the physically and spiritually depleted Italy of 1945 with images of a Florentine bomb site. The government and other players in the business community felt that fashion could help spur economic recovery. A lot of Marshall Fund dollars’ were spent on retooling tanneries and textile factories. In this first room, Ms Stanfill shines a light on Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a visionary entrepreneur who convinced international buyers and press to come to Italy’s first fashion shows. These were initially held in Giorgini’s home but in 1952 he moved them to Sala Bianca, a chandelier-lit hall at Palazzo Pitti, Florence. The venue showcased new-season fashions until they migrated to Milan (which is closer to key textile manufacturers), in the 1970s.
Dresses by forgotten talents like Vanna and Emilio Schuberth represent the birth of “Made in Italy” glamour. Emilio Pucci is one of the few designers from those early shows whose work has really stood the test of time.
Salvatore Ferragamo, who debuted Japanese-inspired sock-shoes in Giorgini’s house, is another. Ferragamo was a pre-made asset to the slowly reviving industry. His “shoemaker to the stars” status grew from a Hollywood-based store he ran in the 1920s, which he shuttered during the Great Depression to focus on the Italian market. A pioneer in his field, he constructed the stiletto heels that made Marilyn move “like jello on springs”, the platforms that helped Judy Garland’s Dorothy stand tall and the ballet pumps that became Audrey’s signature. Some of the 20,000 designs he created before his death in 1960 are displayed in the exhibition’s second room.
Other Italian designers charmed the celebrities that descended on Rome’s Cinecittà studios in the 1950s and 1960s. Tempted by the low location costs and sybaritic lifestyle, US filmmakers set up camp in the Eternal City, beginning an era of “Hollywood on the Tiber”. While Italian fashion became cinematic history in films like Roman Holiday and Cleopatra, the nascent paparazzi chronicled the off-duty style and shopping sprees of the stars.
Richard Burton joked that “Bulgari” was the only Italian word Elizabeth Taylor knew. He and Eddie Fischer showered her with jewellery from the Roman house. The most spectacular pieces in the exhibition are some gasp-inducing Colombian emeralds that Fischer gave her. Other Hollywood highlights include a sequined dress Lee Radziwill wore to Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball and one of Audrey Hepburn’s War and Peace gowns.
At that time, designer fashions were way beyond the average Italian’s budget and were targeted at North American buyers. Italian exports were cheaper than the French competition and impressed foreigners with their slim-line, deconstructed tailoring and high-quality fabrics, enhancing the country’s image abroad.
Menswear makes up about a third of the pieces showcased, including some 90s Armani and Zegna pieces and a suit made by Roman tailor, Angelo Litrico, for John F Kennedy. A recent Valentino look that references Savile Row techniques shows the evolution of Italian tailoring.
Modern fashion coverage is so focused on Milan that we sometimes forget it is a national effort, encompassing the fine silks of Como, Tuscan leather and lush Varese knits, to name just three. A Neopolitan-trained tailor’s work is distinct from a Milanese’s. A digital map of Italy’s “productive districts” educates visitors about the complex web of regional specialisms that are unique to Italian fashion.
Walter Albini, the father of Italian ready-to-wear, is another little-known innovator that the exhibition celebrates. The Varese native was an early and prolific ‘stilista’, a profession combining design, styling and mediation between buyers, press and public. The role was instrumental in making high fashion more affordable. Albini worked for a large number of design houses, using his manufacturing contacts to enhance the role of the designer in production and developed new ways of consuming and showing fashion. He sought to blend haute couture with off-the-rack manufacture. His work encouraged wealthy 70s consumers to see easy-to-wear pieces as glamorous and modern. Now largely forgotten, Albini’s efforts have deeply influenced the way Italian brands retain customers. Pieces by early ready-to-wear successes like MaxMara appear alongside his work at the V&A.
The third room is filled with what most visitors will come for: archive pieces by the big names on the Milan Fashion Week schedule. This space is dedicated to the 80s “cult” of the Italian designer, which has seen creatives become at least as famous as their celebrity clients. Ms Stanfill has pulled some real gems, including a plunging white number by Tom Ford for Gucci, a dip-dyed Prada gown and bauble-trimmed Valentino couture. Roberto Cavalli sent leopard-print and leather pieces. Bottega Veneta’s understated intrecciato [woven leather] accessories, highlight an ability to adapt to the post-recession “stealth wealth” trend.
The curator takes great care to balance the space, leading visitors gently through the big 80s names (Ferré, Versace, Armani) past 90s stars and post-millennium revivers (Valli, Dolce&Gabbana, Ford for Gucci), and right up to date with 2014 pieces by MiuMiu and Marni, as well as young designers like Fausto Puglisi.
Perhaps the most important part of the exhibition is a looped screening of interviews in which designer Angela Missoni, Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani and other experts discuss the future of the industry. There is much talk of a need to nurture young designers and shake up the old guard. There are calls for the government to tax fashion businesses fairly, to support start-ups and to appreciate an export that does so much for the country’s image abroad.
Interestingly, there is no uncertainty about the endurance of “Made in Italy” as a phenomenon. In 2014, fashion design is a more global profession than ever before. Italian brands increasingly outsource their manufacturing to the east and owe their expansion to foreign investment and control (the exhibition’s Roman sponsor is part of the LVMH group while Blackstone, the US private equity giant, bought a fifth of Versace last week), yet the cognoscenti have absolute faith that our desire to wear their clothes will continue.
“We know that sometimes we have to make double the effort to get certain results but this is the best country in the world,” says Missoni. “I don’t think the fact that the fashion world became more global ..... will change the fact that we design the clothes. I think [...] we are aspirational for other countries; they want to be dressed like Italians dress.”
* ‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014’ sponsored by Bulgari, runs until July 27, 2014 at the V&A. For information and tickets, visit www.vam.ac.uk/italianfashion