c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
MILAN — Henry James, of course, said it best.
“In Italy,” the Master wrote, “we see a charm in things which in other countries we should consign to the populous limbo of the vulgarities.”
Case in point: last weekend’s GQ party honoring Jim Nelson, the style bible’s editor, on his 10th anniversary on the job.
In New York, trade parties celebrating personnel milestones properly fall under the heading of line-of-duty. (As decorator and socialite Robert Couturier once remarked, “You go to leave.”) In Italy, and specifically in this fortresslike city of high walls and hidden gardens and with palaces concealed behind blank facades, sheer beauty dispels all thoughts of vulgarity’s limbo. So inured are Italians to the beauty around them that they tend to take it for granted. Wide-eyed Americans do not.
“I kind of can’t believe this even exists,” Nelson said before a thronged cocktail party that was a social high point of the Men’s Fashion Week, an evening that was like being set loose in a petting zoo of fashion celebrity.
Nelson was referring to the location, the gardens of the Villa Necchi Campiglio, a modernist masterpiece constructed from 1932 to 1935 by Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi for Nedda and Gigina Necchi, sisters who had inherited a vast fortune built on sewing machines.
Invisible from the street, the villa is an intact historic monument surrounded by wide lawns, a swimming pool and tennis courts. GQ guests crunched down paths of white pea gravel beneath mature chestnut trees flanked by pots of carmine geraniums. They gathered poolside under trees strung with fairy lights and a rare supermoon, which hung so low and shone so brightly, it seemed like a theatrical prop.
Designers in this sober city of industry are not the collegial group you might imagine. Except for Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared, they are not even partyers in general.
Luring Giorgio Armani from his palace apartment on the Via Borgonuovo, where he lives quietly with his beloved black cat, Angel, is an accomplishment. Getting him out to mingle with a crowd that includes Frida Giannini, Tomas Maier, Diego Della Valle, Gaia Trussardi, Thom Browne, Ermenegildo Zegna, Italo Zucchelli, Stefano Pilati, Neil Barrett, Umit Benan, John Varvatos, Kean Etro, soccer stars Hidetoshi Nakata and Henrik Lundqvist and many others is a feat.
“The crowd is amazing,” said Claudio Castiglioni, the chief commercial officer of Tod’s, adding that probably only GQ, with its editorial power, could wrangle such a guest list.
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“Look who’s coming!” hissed another guest, model Hanneli Mustaparta. Nudging a companion, Mustaparta pointed toward Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, whose card readings cannot have been too positive lately, given that days earlier an Italian judge had handed them a 20-month suspended sentence and levied a heavy fine on the pair for hiding hundreds of millions of euros from tax authorities in a dummy company.
Far from seeming perturbed, the tanned and bespectacled designers appeared relaxed as they air-kissed friends and spoke of their haute couture show in Venice. The theme is a masquerade ball. Invitations in the form of individualized masks have already been delivered. Guests are expected to dress accordingly. Don’t even think about come-as-you-are.
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A recurring theme in Milan involves talk of the “fashion system,” made to sound like a planetary group formed in the remote past around a central sun and subject to immutable laws. In reality, the Italian fashion system is fairly scattered, decentralized, factional and altogether as recent an innovation as the notion of capital-F fashion itself.
The machinery to generate the global fashion juggernaut we now know was devised here in the 1950s by a nascent trade group that came to be called the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana. Over the decades, though, that group seemed to lose some sense of its original mission and the city its luster as an incubator of the new. Yet, because so much production remains centered here, buyers had little choice but to keep Milan on the radar. Its advertising power ensured that editors did the same. Even so, many agreed that Milan was no longer the creative powerhouse it had once been.
“Go back to the ’80s, when you had Versace, Armani,” said a major U.S. retailer who, reluctant to compromise business relationships, would speak only anonymously. “In those days, you had to come to Milan.”
Cities like Paris or London seemed like “secondary places,” he added. Still, they came.
Now that is beginning to change. If a full-scale alarm was not set off by the recent decision by Burberry and Alexander McQueen to quit the Milan calendar and show in London, the buzz generated by London Fashion Week surely jolted the Milanese awake.
At an impromptu news conference early last Sunday, a group seldom seen in one another’s company announced emergency plans to revitalize Milan as a fixture on the fashion map. Some of the most famous names were represented: Zegna, Patrizio Bertelli, Angela Missoni and Della Valle, the owners, respectively, of Zegna, Prada, Missoni and Tod’s.
“Without Italian fabrics, Italian know-how, there would be no fashion,” Bertelli said.
Whether or not this is so, there is no doubt that the multibillion-dollar fashion industry here, one employing roughly 1 million workers, direly needs infusions of creativity and youth.
In New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, mobilized early to recruit and support a new generation of designers — and also to build out Fashion Week’s presence on the Web and across social platforms. The Camera Nazionale, meanwhile, continued to operate like a club with vague governance, a wobbly institutional message (what does “Made in Italy” mean, anyway, when so many Italian goods are manufactured in Eastern Europe and sent back across the border to have a label sewn on?) and a tendency to communicate by fax.
“London is a reality,” Zegna said in a phone interview. “Paris is strong. We have to be competitive. For the first time, you have a group coming together and putting up our own money to defend our position.”
Already the new body has collectively pledged 5 million euros (about $6.5 million) to the cause, he said.
In an email message, Bertelli added that what matters most is innovation: “I think this concept should apply not only to the collections but also to all the aspects of the fashion week.”
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Della Valle said, accurately if to no particular end, that, in Italy: “there is beauty all around us. We should dust off the beautiful things.”
Leave it to Armani, who has refused to join the group, to take a hardheaded approach.
“To my mind, all Italian brands should go back to holding their fashion shows in Milan,’’ he wrote in an email. “This ‘return’ to Milan would be seen as a strong signal, strengthening the concept and value of Italian fashion worldwide.”
A final word on fashion innovation in Milan: Japan.
Everywhere you looked in the city last weekend there were Japanese men in blousy white shirts over black hot pants worn with white bucks; in drop-crotch trousers accessorized with lug-soled Prada shoes; in Prince of Wales checked shorts-suits worn with crisp white shirts and Grenson oxfords; in vintage overalls shorts from Gap (yes, ’90s Gap is now vintage).
“The Japanese have really gotten it together recently,” said Scott Schuman, the street photographer of The Sartorialist. “There’s a new, younger generation of guys that loves fashion and pushes it,” although not to the point where they look like a punch line.