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c.2012 New York Times News Service

MILAN The flashbulbs have not dimmed in the front rows of Milan Fashion Week despite the notable absence this season of Italian editor Anna Piaggi, perhaps the last great example of a fashion eccentric who managed to inspire designers as much as she was inspired by them.

Today a new generation of self-created runway fixtures has emerged to take the place of singularly dressed editors of the 20th century, indelible figures like Piaggi, Isabella Blow and Diana Vreeland. But you sense that creative direction now goes only one way, since many bloggers and street-style stars are dressed by designers and even paid to wear their clothes.

While they are entertaining to watch, it was Piaggi who was a true originator, one whose aesthetic sensibility was informed by her own tastes, her remarkable collection of centuries-old vintage designs and her detailed knowledge of fashion history.

More than 200 people gathered at the Palazzo Reale in Milan last week for a memorial service for Piaggi, who died in August at 81. It was somewhat fitting that guests entered by walking through a major Picasso retrospective that opened in the museum this week.

Among the speakers were several designers Carla Fendi, Rosita Missoni, Manolo Blahnik and Stephen Jones who similarly talked about Piaggi's ability to inspire. Jones, the great milliner, described her as "a talisman for those who believe that fashion is a way of life and that freedom of expression should manifest itself in what you wear."


Her eccentricity was awe-inspiring, sometimes surreally so, as seen in photographs that showed Piaggi wearing a ball gown with the skirt spread open to reveal a large clock, or a knit sweater dress that showed the cartoon figure of a woman naked from the waist up, or elaborate gowns with ruffled scrolls, or an Art Deco fur coat that matched the pattern of her wallpaper. Or, on one occasion, the burgundy polyester vest of a McDonald's uniform. Her face was powdered white with bright rouge dollops on her cheeks, and she never, or at least not in the last few decades, left home without a comically shaped hat.


Piaggi's relatives have also announced that they are working with Milan and the Italian fashion industry to create a foundation that would work to preserve her wardrobe, possibly even making a museum out of her apartment. She lived in a building that was a 14th-century convent, amid piles of hat boxes since the death of her husband, photographer Alfa Castaldi, in 1995.

When Jones was a student at Central Saint Martins in London, he recalled seeing Piaggi with Karl Lagerfeld, the designer with whom she was most famously associated during the glamorous years of Paris in the 1960s and '70s. She was like a beacon for young students who were eager to be a part of the world of fashion, and her openness and gentleness seemed to invite them in.

When Piaggi, working as an editor for publications like Italian Vogue, became one of his customers, Jones discovered just how inspiring her confidence could be.

''Anna would always take me out of myself," he said. "Unchecked, I can be a bit studied and analytical, and she would inject spontaneity in whatever I did. She would take a hat and put it on upside down, or back to front, and when she had proved me completely wrong, she would say, 'There, you see?'"


Her dedication to fashion was so intense that comfort and sensibility were inconvenient afterthoughts. Missoni, who frequently vacationed with her, recalled a particularly difficult journey through an airport when they were delayed because of the tiny shoes Piaggi insisted on wearing, and the amount of time it took to pass through a security checkpoint because Piaggi was wearing so much jewelry.

Jones said that on one of those vacations, likely to a spa, Piaggi called to ask for hats that were waterproof.

''Why?" he asked.

''Well, I can't be naked in the sauna," she said.