The Girls’ Guides to Designer Fashion: Series 5- Italian Fashion PART ONE

Fashion Industry Broadcast and Style Planet TV are proud to bring you their new Netflix Original series ‘The Girl’s Guides to the World of Designer Fashion’. In Series 5 of this new Original Series we explore the History of Italian Fashion.

In the last 50 years, the Italian fashion industry has given us fame, scandal, even murder, and it appears there is nothing that can sate our appetite for more.

There is fashion, and then there is the truly sublime. To fully appreciate Italian fashion one needs to walk the Quadrilatero, the handful of sacred cobblestoned Milanese streets where a new pantheon of deities are worshiped, the houses of Gucci, Fendi Dolce & Gabbana, Cavalli, Tod’s et al. On these hallowed boulevards the fashion faithful from all over the world make their Haj. In just a handful of streets, one can be awestruck by the temples of Italian luxury fashion. This is not some run of the mill suburban mall this is transcendence. 

One time skilled artisans and humble shopkeepers have exploded into globalised corporate powerhouses equipped with formidable engines of growth. Sophisticated multinational conglomerates who have mastered the arts of manufacturing desire with their use of marketing and image in addition to that of design and craftsmanship. 

The global rise of Italian fashion can be traced back to the 1960’s when scores of international Jet-set dress buyers and status seekers flocked to Rome, as much for the couture designs of Valentino and Roberto Carpucci as for the search of La Dolce Vita. The jewelled island of Capri was their playground. Florence was famous for leathergoods and gold, and it didn’t hurt Florentine fortunes that Pucci and Ferragamo were Jet set must haves. In the 1970’s fashion heralded the arrival of ready-to-wear and the demand for practical masculine styled clothing that women could wear to work and Milan rose to power as Italy’s fashion epi-center. From this background rose the Italian fashion dynasties such as Armani, Gucci, Prada, Fendi and many more. 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, “Moda Italiana” emerged as a trailblazing force in fashion. Over the past 50 years, designers like Gucci, Valentino, Versace, Armani and Prada have broken through the French monopoly on high fashion, staking the Italian school’s claim on haute couture. 

The French fashion elite can no longer look down their noses at Italian style. Today, Italian Fashion is at the forefront of luxury. And the picturesque city of Milan is at the epicentre. During Milan Fashion Week, some of the most famous labels on the planet showcase their designs, and fashion aficionados and devotees alike flock to the northern city. 

But what led to Italy becoming a world leader in fashion? 

The legacy of Italian design stretches back as far as the Middle Ages, where the Italian textile industry was already making a name for itself internationally. City states such as Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples and Rome produced velvet, silk and wool that were prized for their quality. In the Renaissance, the textile industry was shaped by the art of the old Italian masters- Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. To wear Italian clothing was to be extravagant, opulent. Expensive fabrics and intricate tailoring were an obvious show of wealth and status. 

Photo Credit: Borghi Italia

To this day, luxury and quality are one and the same in Italy. Skilled artisans and humble shopkeepers have honed their crafts and technical processes over generations, lending a long heritage of historic expertise to the modern exploration of aesthetics and style. Italian fashion skilfully combines its cultural roots in the artisanal trades of tailoring, leather work and cobbling with innovatory artistic takes on clothing. 

Many of the modern Italian fashion houses have their roots in a family tradition of craftmanship. The Italian look draws on this existing prestige, afforded to it from the superior quality of leather goods and tailoring. Italian luxury fashion reveals exquisitely well-made garments and accessories, emblematic of a distinct pride in one’s appearance and adornments. 

Like many Italian designers, the House of Gucci rose from humble beginnings. Guccio Gucci son of a leather goods merchant from the north of Italy, Gucci initially avoided following in his father’s footsteps. The first Gucci shop was founded in Florence in 1921. The brand quickly became known for its superior craftmanship and attention to detail. Gucci’s main business came from making saddles and accessories for horse riding, such was the unparalleled quality of its leather work. The label’s signature horse-bit detail on its loafers and red and green stripe inspired by saddles are remnants from Gucci’s past. Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers were both notable fans of unisex Gucci totes. 

Today, Gucci is now known for its controversial history in advertising. Tom Ford has been celebrated for bringing the brand into the modern world. The brand is now synonymous with overt sex appeal and has succeeded in cracking the difficult millennial and Gen Z markets. 

Billie Eilish wearing Gucci.
Photo Credit: Pinterest

Like in the era of the Renaissance, Italian fashion in the ‘20s and ‘30s was heavily influenced by art. But now it was surrealist painters like Salvador Dali who shook up what clothing could mean and express. Designer Elsa Shiaparelli was a significant player in the creation of Italy’s style identity, taking Italian fashion into the modern age. One of the most prominent figures in fashion during the 1920s and ‘30s, Shiaparelli is as well known for her designs as for her rivalry with French fashion icon Coco Chanel. Her lobster dress is a perfect example of a garment functioning as an artistic canvas. Wearable art was finding its feet. 

Fendi is another Italian label clearly shaped by its time. Founded in 1925, Fendi’s history is controversially charged in the eyes of modern fashion devotees. The brand was launched by Edoardo and Adele Fendi as a fur and leather shop, with a workshop adjoining it next door. But their daughters, Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla and Alda, should be credited for the brand’s global fame and success. The five daughters all worked in the family business from a young age, devoting their lives to the fashion label. Karl Lagerfeld joined the brand in 1965 as creative director for fur and women’s ready to wear. Along with the Fendi sisters, Lagerfeld revived a global interest in fur fashion, to the anger of animal rights activists.

The backlash against fur in fashion has reached such a height, that in 2018 the label began to faze fur out of its collections in favour of cruelty-free options, man-made materials cleverly treated to replicate fur. Time will tell if the brand will cast off its roots in the fur trade for good. But it’s clear that Fendi’s adaptability is a guide to the future of haute couture. After the horrors of World War II, Paris resurrected its industry. And so too did Italy, re-building its industry from the ground up. It wasn’t until after the world wars that Italy’s fashion industry gained the economic support that it needed to forge its identity. American aid for Italy’s textile business spurred the production of luxury materials prized to this day. 

In contrast to French labels at the time like Christian Dior, which focused purely on couture, Italian designers understood the need for ready to wear, comfortable clothing that also held an air of sophistication. This idea really took off in the American market. Fashion house Sorell Fontanta headed by three sisters—Zoe, Micol, and Giovanna —was a powerhouse of Old Hollywood glamour. In this era, the “Made in Italy” label was a sign of a garment’s quality and must-have status. France and Italy remained fierce rivals during this era, however Italy managed to tear away from the French mode and truly come into its own. 

Photo Credit: Business of Fashion

The emancipation from French fashion was crucial to Italy’s modern cultural character. In the 1950s, Hollywood stars flocked to Rome and Florence. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could be seen strolling the cobblestone streets in their finest apparel. Audrey Hepburn was a frequent visitor to Italy in search of clothing stores and shoe shops. The jewelled island of Capri was a playground for the rich and famous and Florence was famous for leather and gold. Shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo served the likes of Sophia Loren, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Gene Tierney. Jet-setting Hollywood stars fuelled the international appetite for luxury Italian clothing.

The Girls Guides to Designer Fashion

This new 6 part series explores the seductive world of designer fashion.

Series 1. The History of Lingerie
Series 2. The Legend of the Designer Bag
Series 3. The Mystery of the High Heel
Series 4. American Fashion
Series 5. Italian Fashion
Series 6. Paris Fashion

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