Italy Gets Real

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

MILAN — Her face a mask of immobility, her skin spray-tanned to the color of bacon, Anna Dello Russo — camera-magnet and editor at large for Vogue Japan — grasped a hand-held clad in the season’s hot accessory, a phone case resembling a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

“It’s fake,” Dello Russo said flatly.

“The future,” she added, “is all fake.”

The observation, at the Costume National show, was particularly droll coming from an inveterate label-hound, although probably incorrect. If anything was clear over the past two Fashion Weeks in Italy — first at the huge Pitti Uomo menswear fair in Florence and then during Milan Fashion Week — it was that a cultural shift is underway here, away from the virtual toward the actual, from form to substance, from the farcical and dysfunctional politics of the Berlusconi era to what super-optimists are calling an Italian Camelot.

They mean an Italy run by Matteo Renzi, the young new prime minister and former mayor of Florence, a man with long-standing ties to the fashion industry.

“People need a dream, and we lost the dream,” said Giorgio Ricchebuono, a former banker who directs the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, one of the oldest and most extensive libraries in the world and the largest repository of works by Leonardo da Vinci.

The occasion was a private candlelit Fashion Week dinner given by Federico Marchetti, the 45-year-old Columbia Business School graduate who returned from the United States to Italy in 2000 to found Yoox, a publicly traded online retailer with a strong fashion focus and projected revenues this year of $750 million.

“People lost the story of Italy,” Ricchebuono added. “We have to get it back.”

More than the success of any single label in the crowded showrooms of Pitti Uomo and then on the catwalks of Milan, it was a reconstituted narrative of Italy that designers and manufacturers seemed eager to put across.

“We have the heritage of craftsmanship, and we have the technology,” said Gildo Zegna, chief executive of Ermenegildo Zegna, a company few outside the business are aware manufactures not only its own lines of clothing but those of many other labels like Saint Laurent and Tom Ford. “Who better than us?”

In the Zegna show that followed, designer Stefano Pilati made the case concretely, in a show that seemed like a summary of life lessons accrued during stints at Armani, Prada and, most recently, Yves Saint Laurent. Wherever he fetched up in the design world, creating clothes for women or men, Pilati’s signature has been assuredness with color, strong silhouettes, resistance to trickery and amiable ease with the markers of luxury.

What does that mean in practical terms? Double-face “splittable” cashmere, for example, is produced by few woolen mills yet is something a powerhouse like Zegna can handily achieve. With that in mind, Pilati can push technological limits to produce sweaters woven in alternating dimensional patterns and layered like louvers, or jackets of technical nylon quilted in micro-geometric patterns. He showed each in a collection notable also for the varied dimensions — undertaker-length jackets with waists high and tight, and also short, Eisenhower ones — likely designed to accommodate the body types in widely divergent markets in the United States and Asia, and also for the subtle coloration of which Pilati is a past master.

Well after the show ended, there remained in a viewer’s mind images of the voluminous overcoats or pleated trousers or sweaters Pilati created in an off-kilter palette reminiscent of a portrait by Kees van Dongen: teal and olive, plum and sage green, turquoise with a hue the Spanish call caquita del bebé.

Talent and assurance know no nationality, of course. Yet a heritage of craftsmanship is as much an Italian birthright as are the aesthetic glories of the Renaissance. Even genius can be taken for granted when it’s all around you, said Italian-born artist Francesco Vezzoli, invited by Raffaello Napoleone, the head of Pitti Immagine, to stage sly “interventions” at three small museums in Florence. There in the Museo Bardini’s Room of the Madonnas, Vezzoli hung his “Crying Portrait of Christie Brinkley as a Renaissance Madonna With Holy Child” amid a group of stucco and terra-cotta pieces by Donatello and Verrocchio. In the chapel of the Museo di Casa Martelli, he sneaked in an impious self-portrait painted in the style of Raphael.

“I actually felt I could cry when I was in the room with some of these artworks,” he said.

It is almost sinful to take for granted access to one of the world’s great cultures, said Marco de Vincenzo, a Sicilian some consider Italy’s most talented young designer. Before starting his own label, de Vicenzo designed leather goods for Fendi.

“I learned so much about pride and the craftsmanship that still exists going around sourcing things all over the country,” he explained at the Yoox dinner, where a curator produced for the evening three drawings from a da Vinci codex depicting designs for an advanced weaving loom and a belt buckle with a motif of intertwined mulberry branches.

“The factory might be really ugly and in the middle of nowhere,” de Vincenzo said. “But then you work with them, and they produce the most beautiful, amazing things.”

As much as savvy brand building, that immutable truth about Italy is the foundation of labels like Brunello Cucinelli and Tod’s. Cucinelli, whose ultra-high-end sportswear was shown at Pitti Uomo, is a true Italian success story. By capturing a market for high-end sportswear he became a kind of billionaire’s J. Crew. Cucinelli’s clothes are almost entirely manufactured in the medieval village of Solomeo in Umbria; the multibillion dollar label Tod’s is based in the Marche, a centuries-old center for leather crafts.

Tod’s, of course, made its name on the rubber-soled driving shoe called a Gommino, one more likely to be behind the wheel of a Maserati than a Toyota Camry. In previous seasons, Tod’s tried building an apparel business to go with its accessories, with sometimes mixed results. But then it hired Andrea Incontri, an architect by training, to design a collection of what he termed necessary luxuries.

“I don’t buy many things myself,” Incontri said at a preview of a collection, referring to his wardrobe. “It’s like with chairs or tables. I want a few good things and I want them to last.”

Incontri delivered on that brief with his J.P. Club collection, one of the finest presentations seen in either Florence and Milan. Vests with bellows pockets slipped off to reveal patch-pocket jackets in the same canvas and color, just the thing for a contemporary Howard Roark. Hatched geometric patterns created not by computer but by the designer’s hand were drawn on shirts.


The Gommino loafers were punched out with regular ventilation holes — cool in both senses of the word.

It was no stretch to imagine a man in slim trousers paired with Incontri’s double-breasted jacket lounging on the terrace of Il Pellicano, the fabled Amalfi coast hotel, or at La Società del Giardino, a hide out for the elite of Milan. Partly that is because the clothes were shown in tableaux vivants, with models lounging on sets styled as modernized versions of rooms at a club founded for the gentiluomini, or gentlemen, of the city in the 18th century.


That no single collection of the week left anyone gobsmacked was hardly a worry. As if by unspoken collective agreement, designers seemed content to stay within their individual wheelhouses, to use the flaccid terminology of baseball and corporate America. Thus Miuccia Prada, as she often does, made commentary on class by coming up with a characteristically sly take on normcore in suits of denim piped in contrasting leather. Thus Massimiliano Giornetti at Salvatore Ferragamo, with trademark understatement, offered discreet clothes for the global bourgeoisie. Thus Italo Zucchelli at Calvin Klein romped through that label’s back pages to come up with a collection that turned underwear into outerwear, upending the brooding sexuality of the Calvin Klein image and rendering it sunny, even finding a way to make vinyl jackets in Life Savers’ colors seem wearable.

Thus Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta gave a master class in understatement, with slouchy sweats and beachcomber sweaters, stuff so subtly casual that, were it not for their formidable price tags, you would hardly know a designer of his talent had a hand in them. Thus Giorgio Armani returned to his roots with two strong shows that reiterated in modernized versions the shapes and silhouettes that have made him the most famous and wealthy designer this country has produced. Thus Frida Giannini built most of a collection for Gucci on a pattern that called to mind cabana awnings at the Lido in Venice.

And thus designers of all stripes seemed to have awakened from the bad dream of the Berlusconi era, ready to take justified pride again in the label “Made in Italy.”



In Brief


Frida Giannini presented a show built largely on a single note: awning stripes. She rendered her black-and-white stripes in a familiar enough selection of taut suits and cropped jackets worn with classic white loafers made from alligator and ornamented with Gucci’s trademark egg-butt snaffle bit.

— Guy Trebay


By straining a bit at Ferragamo, a spectator could almost detect some effort at play in the drifty light trenchcoats layered over textured knitwear, in trousers turned up at the cuff to reveal a giraffe-print lining, in sturdy saddle shoes with a golf fringe and a thin lizard wedge.

— Guy Trebay

Bottega Veneta

Tomas Maier established again why he has been so successful designing for a house whose customer turns left by reflex when boarding a plane. There were wispy summer softball T-shirts with deep sexy scoop necks; trousers with both waists and cuffs rolled; shorts so wide they looked like bloomers; long-john style pants; cotton pullovers woven in transistor-panel patterns; and sweaters almost one-shouldered, the necklines were so casual. In less assured hands, the whole thing could have gone terribly wrong — “A Chorus Line” meets “Gilligan’s Island.” Instead, the collection achieved a fine coherence despite its obvious contradictions.

— Guy Trebay

Calvin Klein

The real Calvin Klein had a genius for finding the lascivious sexiness in something as functional and puritanical as tighty-whities. The house’s current menswear designer, Italo Zucchelli, is so naturally sunny, he can make even kinky materials look wholesome. In some circles, those PVC windbreakers might seem borderline pervy. Rendered by Zucchelli, in bright neon shades of yellow, orange and red, they were squeaky clean.

— Guy Trebay


Although she is a steward of a family business — indeed, a dynasty — Angela Missoni has always maintained a light hand with the totems of that heritage. The Missoni chevron is sacred but flexible. And Missoni is nimble enough to ride that zigzag like a wave.

— Matthew Schneier

Neil Barrett

At a Barrett show it can sometimes seem as if the designer conceives of the body in Identi-Kit units. This time, using neoprene and lightweight leather and almost no color, he appeared to have segmented the male anatomy in modular ways. Sweaters with side zips flattened the torso into a Gumby A-shape. Broad shorts squared off the form below the waist. A volumetric parka was rounded so that it almost appeared as if there were nothing inside, just a shape with four disembodied limbs and a tiny round head sticking out.

— Guy Trebay


There was a fleet-footedness to Consuelo Castiglioni’s collection for Marni. There was plenty to like: lightweight suiting in wool treated to be water-resistant (and a matching summer coat in same) or a bomber jacket and karate pants in parachute cotton.

— Matthew Schneier


Kean Etro titled his latest collection “We Are What We Eat,” and, at least at first glance, the truth of that was on the surface. The clothes were printed, to eye-popping and not wholly flattering effect, with prints of pasta, shrimp and clams. This being Etro, there were many suits and sportscoats, on the whole longer and looser than in the recent past. But there were gym shorts, sweatpants and track suits in nearly equal measure.

— Matthew Schneier


The American neologism “normcore” still elicits mostly puzzled stares from Italians, but the spirit is willing even if the vocabulary is weak: bellwether designers of Italy are on a quotidian trip. At Fendi, Silvia Venturini Fendi was extolling the virtues of “real clothes.” Throughout the spring 2015 collection, there were moments of Fendi’s former extremity, like the leather-mesh vests that overlaid suits like perforated armor, or the slightly kinky way that bags slung across the front of the body revealed straps held together in the back with a harness’ silver ring. But the key men’s accessory circa 2014 doesn’t truss, it plugs. So Fendi partnered with Beats by Dr. Dre to create headphones in its selleria leather and crocodile.

— Matthew Schneier


Dsquared, always shown on an early morning at the end of fashion week, can usually be counted on to gin up something to rouse the spirits of a fashion flock that, at this point on a long circuit, is generally in the grip of some type of hangover. One time it was Rihanna, in the early “Umbrella” days. Once it was a troupe of semi-drag acrobat rockers. The clothes seldom vary much — jeans, jean jackets, khakis, bum-freezer blazers — and, according to the mood of the twin designers Dean and Dan Caten, are either laboriously distressed or ostentatiously schoolboy. If anything about the clothes was different from whatever was the last thing Dsquared showed, it was probably the appliqué patterns and prints that alluded lazily to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

— Guy Trebay