In this chapter I will analyse the shifting profile of Milan as a fashion city, and its possible evolution within the new global scenario. In so doing, I will raise some issues that reveal the present transnational character of fashion. Foremost among these, the ‘Chinese textile problem’ has been a dominating theme of the Italian media in the last two years, reaching its peak in January 2005 when, with the end of the quota system of the ‘Textile Agreement’, many different reactions arose. The discourse in fact can be reduced to two main opposing views. Either China is considered as a threat to fight with taxes and new quotas to protect Italian fashion from ‘Chinese invasion’, or it is considered as an opportunity to sell more fashion brands to the emerging Chinese market. In both cases what is missing is the appreciation that ‘made in Italy’ is not a given, but a fluctuating concept in a very unstable picture. One of the elements of the picture is the fall of the primacy of the prêt-à-porter production regime. The assimilation of ‘made in Italy’ with prêt-à-porter needs therefore to be revisited in the light of the new emerging cultures of fashion, of which ‘fast fashion’ seems to fit most closely with the present-day culture of appearances and with the very pace of transnational industry. Milan, being the city that hosted the rise of modern prêt-à-porter, is especially sensitive to this crisis.
Italian prêt-à-porter, which reached the peak of its success in the 1980s, is not a phenomenon that appeared from nowhere, so to speak. As White suggests in an important text devoted to the renaissance of Italian fashion (2000: 1–7), it has its roots in the post-war period, especially between 1945 and 1964, when, also thanks to American funding, the textile-clothing industry started up again at full capacity. Yet while it is right to speak of continuity regarding the capacity to produce clothing (Italian ready-to-wear certainly did not appear out of the blue, but was the outcome of textile and industrial development), in terms of the significance which fashion was to assume in Italian culture and economics, it was a radically new phenomenon. In the early 1970s, a turning point took place in the history of modern fashion Milan was at the very centre of this process that gave rise to the prêt-à-porter of the fashion designers, a fashion system that was to enjoy international commercial and media success.
Onto a highly developed Italian textile tradition, with specific artisan competences scattered in various geographic areas, was grafted the art direction of the fashion designers who later became entrepreneur-designers – unlike the dressmakers and couturiers who preceded them – an expression of that merging between design and industry which marks Italian prêt-à-porter. The new Italian term stilista (literally ‘stylist’) also indicates the assertion of a different fashion culture and underlines the dramatic change that prêt-à-porter represents in relation to Italian Style. The characterization of Milan as a capital of international fashion took place in a brief, intense period: between 1972 (the year when several fashion creators abandoned the Florence fashion shows) and 1978, when men’s ready-to-wear fashion also chose Milan, and when Modit, the board of regulation of the fashion shows, was founded by Beppe Modenese. In 1972, however, twenty years after the first Florentine show, Milan was already the centre of a great deal of business exchange in the fashion sector because, from both the geographical and cultural points of view, the Lombard city appeared more suited than the Tuscan capital to support the development of fashion. Milanovendemoda, the trade fair organized by agents and representatives of the clothing industry with the aim of intensifying relations with the many buyers already active in the city, had been taking place since 1969. The main textile associations were formed or strengthened in those years: IdeaComo, the union of silk producers, was founded in 1974, and Federtessile (which groups together ten textile associations) in 1975. Between 1970 and 1975, as if silently called to fulfil a mission, the future fashion designers started to flock to Milan, following different projects, but with the same perception of the widespread effervescence in the city. With the creation of Modit in 1978, the mechanism of the fashion shows was regulated and the role of Milan as the capital of ready-to-wear fashion was sanctioned. From then on the leading shows were held in Milan, in the tightly packed schedule handled by Modit, and from 1990 by Momi-Modamilano.
Milan’s role in fashion should not be taken for granted. The fact is that between the 1970s and 1980s Milan did not become the capital of fashion, as is often claimed, but the capital of prêt-à-porter. It is commonly believed that what we do and think in one place could not be done or thought in another. We should then fully understand what kind of fashion ready-to-wear is, the cultural and geographic humus in which it sprang up and flourished, and the extent to which one depends on the other and what transformations for fashion and for the city lie on the horizon.
Economic, cultural and geographical factors, as well as a certain spirit of the times, make up the main ingredients for the success of both Italian ready-to-wear and Milan as a fashion city. Milanese fashion had in actual fact been the product of an atmosphere of an ‘opening up’ to cross-disciplinary influences and a sense of cosmopolitanism, which from the 1960s onwards many Milanese professional exponents of journalism, photography, art and culture had contributed to creating. The presence of design was an essential part of this atmosphere: Milan was the city of design long before it became the city of fashion. Milanese design was a forerunner of what was to become the fashion phenomenon on a wider scale. The concept combined the creative skills, experimentation with new materials and the industrial infrastructure necessary to start up the economy, and all of these preconditions joined together under the name and direction of the reinvigorated profession of the designer. It is no coincidence that today, in 2005, the endangered Milan fashion industry is looking again at design, as an example of a sector that has been able to evolve and shape its own destiny rather than simply react to events.
Swift to make its mark and appreciated by intellectuals (a new factor not wholly unconnected to its success, despite the negative period the city and the country were going through in the years of political terrorism (1969–81) and the oil and industrial crises), fashion in Milan metabolized and provided a new driving force for the economy (Foot 2001). Ahead of other Italian cities, Milan was also able to combine the strengths of the manufacturing industry and the service industry. On the one hand, the city stood at the centre of an archipelago of specialized areas, the industrial districts, of which it is to a certain extent the capital. The industrial districts, on which the Italian prêt-à-porter system rests, are highly specialized, often vertically organized production areas: for example, Como for silk, Biella for wool, Carpi for knitwear, Castelgoffredo for hosiery, and the Italian Marches for footwear. On the other hand, Milan was also the leading Italian centre for communications: commercial TV channels started up in Milan, the editorial staffs of the leading fashion press were in Milan, as were the numerous advertising agencies and PR studios.
In the 1980s, once it had recovered from the recession, and also thanks to the spirit of the fashion industry (as Gastel wrote, ‘Fashion is the most fashionable thing there is’ (1995: 164)), Milan became ‘Milano da bere’ (literally, ‘drunken Milan’, from an advertising slogan for Ramazzotti), an affluent, dynamic city, rich in events to be consumed at will, all marked by fashion and the world revolving around it, from Versace’s supermodels, to the fashion shows and celebrity events linked to them. Milanese ready-to-wear became a stable phenomenon conferring a specific physiognomy on the city. This was also visible in the real estate acquisitions made by the fashion designers. Many palazzi of the old Milanese families changed hands in a few years. For example: the building in Via Borgonuovo belonging to Franco Marinotti (Snia-Viscosa) and the Riva cotton manufacturers became Giorgio Armani’s headquarters. Palazzo Rizzoli in Via Gesù was transformed with the contribution of the architect Renzo Mongiardino into Gianni Versace’s headquarters. The Missoni family acquired a six-storey palazzo in Via Durini. And, after the historic palazzi in the city centre (which, with the store windows of the luxury stores, formed the by-then-celebrated ‘Fashion District’), in the following decade it was to be the turn of the former industrial areas outside the city centre to become the focus of restyling by the fashion designers, when entire districts such as Porta Genova, the Bovisa and Porta Vittoria were upgraded thanks to the interest of fashion entrepreneurs in those areas.
In the 1980s the fashion show dominated the Milan stage. Trussardi transformed his catwalks into shows of great impact, taking place in unusual locations such as the La Scala opera house, Piazza del Duomo, the Brera Art Gallery, the Central Station and San Siro horse race track. Apart from their actual participation, the impression in the 1980s was that large parts of the city and its citizens were intimately involved in fashion culture, which was itself entwined with the worlds of advertising, the television studios and the Socialist Party. In that decade the relationship between design and fashion grew even closer: Memphis and radical architecture included fashion in their creative horizon. And, from the mid 1980s, with the ongoing economic growth, the financial aspect of fashion was also strengthened. Milan’s role became international, thanks to the export of designer label garments and in general to the success Italian designers were enjoying in Europe and in the United States (in 1982 Time Magazine dedicated its cover to Armani, the first fashion designer after Christian Dior to be awarded the honour), especially in New York. As the fashion critic Suzy Menkes wrote:
The Armani story is in many ways a parable of Milanese ready-to-wear with the contract with Gft (1978) sealing the new relationship between fashion design and industry, restraint and rigour as hallmarks of the designer, and the huge billboards in Via Dell’Orso for Emporio Armani as the symbol of the democratic spread of fashion. Armani, born in 1934, is part of the first generation of fashion creators who made their name in the new fashion city of Milan. Stefano Dolce and Domenico Gabbana are representatives of the second. It is singular that they are still described by journalists as the ‘young designers’, although they are now over forty and other, much younger creators are on the scene. The ‘young’ label is probably still applied to Dolce and Gabbana as the last followers of the original model of Milan prêt-à-porter, whose features we may sum up thus: a heroic debut with ‘a summons to show’ (in this specific case, a phone call from Beppe Modenese, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion); business skills (they financed the first show themselves and then immediately founded the firm); segmentation of their product into first lines, second lines, jeans, perfumes and licences; spectacular promotional strategies; and the use of endorsers from the star system. Their high-profile advertising presence at strategic points in the city, like the airport, has helped to lock their identity with the city (Figure 8.1).
The New Yorker argued that if Armani could be considered the Volkswagen of Milan, Miuccia Prada was its Mercedes. The city of Milan in the 1990s – the decade when Prada reached success – was very different from the one that had generated the fashion designers and the ‘young’ fashion designers. It was difficult to see this at the time, but today it seems obvious. Miuccia Prada (whose story is similar to that of many former Milanese girls from a good middle-class background) had little in common with the biographies of the first fashion designers, such as Armani, Versace, Krizia, Missoni and Coveri. First, she was not a fashion designer, at least not in the sense of knowing how to cut, sew and make a dress. As the British newspaper The Observer commented recently:
Miuccia Prada doesn’t sew, embroider or knit. I never saw her sketch a skirt or a shoe, nor is she likely to pick up a pair of scissors and cut out a dress… . She is not that kind of designer. Instead she surrounds herself with talented people whose job is to translate her themes, concepts and especially her taste into clothes that bear the Prada name. (16 May 2004)
Second, her success as a designer did not start in Milan – a city that on the contrary opposed her, and where the leading fashion press deserted her first shows – but in New York. After her New York ‘certification’, she won over her home town. Only after having made their name in the United States, did Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli also make their mark in Milan. And, in Foot’s shrewd observation, the fact that the most celebrated luxury producer in the world needed to start with the New York shows to make her name may be seen ‘as a symptom of a slow decline in the central role of Milan within the world fashion industry’ (2001: 154). That said, Miuccia Prada has surfed the wave of the crisis in prêt-à-porter, which she had astutely anticipated, even though it was still in the distance. At the end of the age of the democratization of fashion and the heroic times of the ‘summons to show’, Prada presented herself as a producer of elite, cerebral luxury.
Since the close of the twentieth century, many things are changing in fashion. Italian ready-to-wear is struggling in the twists and turns of the de-location of production, Chinese competition, counterfeiting and the fluctuating meanings of the idea of ‘Made in Italy’. The ‘democratic’ model on which ready-to-wear was based – namely, fashion accessible through the trickle down of brands (first lines, second lines, young lines, fragrances, licences, etc.) – is gradually being replaced by a polarized orientation: extreme luxury, the almost unique item, on the one hand, presented in stores of great style and, on the other, fast fashion, the fashion of Zara, Mango, H&M and many others. Fast fashion is not based on a vertical, integrated production system, as Italian prêt-à-porter originally was. The garments may be made anywhere, wherever convenient, in China or Eastern Europe. The expiry of the Multifibre Agreement, on 1 January 2005, which liberalized the entry of Chinese textile products into global markets, as I have said above, represents a further difficulty for the leadership of Italian fashion. The culture of appearances is being transformed, consumers are not content with complete, linear lifestyles, such as Armani’s sobriety or Versace’s glamour, presented at regular seasonal intervals. The provisional, changing identities of new consumers favour the fast, fragmented proposals of the new fashion. From research I am currently undertaking on the relationship between Italy and China and their textile and fashion industries (Segre Reinach 2005a) I have learned that Italy still represents a model for China, at least as far as style and branding is concerned, but in many ways it is really China’s vision of fashion that is at the vanguard. China is more attuned to fast fashion, just as Italy is by definition the home of prêt-à-porter.
Milan is the capital of prêt-à-porter, one of several possible fashion systems that have dominated the modern history of Western clothing, its manufacture and consumption, so far. Ready-to-wear is a production and cultural model that reached its highest peak and success in business and communications in Milan. The evolution of the culture (and production) of clothing apparel, increasingly transnational, is however changing the privileged role of Milan in fashion’s world order. The transformation of fashion cannot but leave its mark on Milan. The result is widely visible in its streets. The international luxury brands continue to open new stores in the prestige locations in the city centre, such as Louis Vuitton in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and Ralph Lauren in Via Montenapoleone, the first monobrand store in Italy. At the same time, however, the same streets are dotted with new fast fashion stores, the Scandinavian H&M (taking the place of Fiorucci) and the Spanish Zara (in Corso Vittorio Emanuele).
Is Milan aware of this transformation? And how is it equipping itself to remain one of the capitals of style? Signs of change may be seen at the institutional level. The new Florence Fashion Centre is collaborating with Sistema Moda and Milan to deal with the crisis in the trade and set up a joint project for the relaunch of ‘Made in Italy’, with greater collaboration between the city of Rome, the home of high fashion, Florence, with its Pitti Uomo, Pitti Filati and Pitti Bimbo events, and Milan, where the prêt-à-porter fashion shows take place. The idea is to integrate the Italian know-how, which preceded the rise of Milan, and to enhance the whole image of ‘Made in Italy’, not just the ready-to-wear with which Milan is linked. On this subject Mario Boselli, President of the National Chamber of Fashion, states: ‘In France, fashion is only Paris, but in Italy it is Milan, Florence and also Rome. It is an integrated process in which each part works together with the others and gives its contribution to the whole system’ (quoted in Women’s Wear Daily, 2 March 2001). Giovanni Bozzetti, Milan City Councillor for Fashion, shares this view: ‘I see in our future a nation which plays a compact game, each with its own speciality – Milan for ready to wear, Rome for high fashion, Florence for menswear, Naples for tailoring’ (Milano è la Moda, ClassEditori, 2004: 137.)
The traditional rivalry between Paris and Milan – which in the 1980s had led several fashion designers to ‘choose’ one or the other, seems to be fading, faced with Asian competition that is much closer to the new successful fast fashion system. Significantly Gft, Gruppo Finanaziario Tessile (one of the largest textile companies that had a primary role in the history of Italian ready-to-wear) has announced that by 2010 it will move completely to China. In response to such trends and to promote better European cooperation, a protocol agreement was signed (in Milan, since Lombardy with its 200,000 workers, is confirmed as the leading textile concentration in Europe) between Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, and Didier Grumbach, president of the Féderation Française de la Couture, ‘for a joint strategy regarding processes and changes to avoid being overwhelmed by [competition from the East]’ (Corriere Economia, 13 December 2004: 26). In October 2005 a new textile association was also founded in Milan, with the aim of relaunching the Italian textile industry. The association, called Milano Unica is based in Milan and brings together in the city many different Italian textile exhibitions, IdeaBiella (wool), IdeaComo (silk), Moda In (textile and accessories) and Shirt Avenue. It is clear then that Milan aims at preserving its fashion leadership.
On 2 May 2005, at Palazzo Mezzanotte, in Piazza degli Affari, Milan, a two-day meeting was held, entitled ‘Milano di moda: First strategic conference on fashion’ also described by the press as the ‘Convocation of the States General of Fashion’. Guests were the historical protagonists of Milanese ready-to-wear – such as Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, Dolce and Gabbana, Mariuccia Mandelli, Laura Biagiotti, Roberto Cavalli, the forerunners of ready-to-wear, like Elio Fiorucci, the exponents of the National Chamber of Fashion, various major luxury companies, and the main universities in Milan. One message emerged loud and clear: ‘only by changing everything can we win back our leadership’, by which they admitted, perhaps officially for the first time, having lost it. That ‘everything’ to be changed merged in a criticism of the symbolic and structural centre of ready-to-wear, the fashion show, whose model goes back to 1951 and which appears, for many speakers, wholly inadequate to tackle the new market. The timing and presentation of models must change. No longer should shows last one week, but fewer concentrated days, four at most, to give journalists and buyers the time to travel between the increasingly numerous fashion weeks in the different cities throughout the world. And above all, the garments on the catwalks ought to be those of the current season, as happens in the ‘design week’, another significant event in the cultural and business life of Milan, and not those for the following season, so as not to give time for fast fashion protagonists (and the Chinese) to copy the models. As the Italian press recorded:
It is significant that no representative of systems other than ready-to-wear was present at the conference; there was no fast fashion company, no ‘Chinese competitor’ apart from an entrepreneur from Prato (the Italian city that hosts one of the largest Chinese communities in Europe and where there are a few very successful and entirely Chinese-owned fast fashion companies) invited more as an orientalist curiosity than as a witness of the new transnational phase of fashion. Moreover, among the ‘rival’ cities, only Paris and New York were mentioned, as if the geographical and cultural context had remained stationary since the 1980s. Milan still means fashion, argued Stefano Zecchi, Councillor for Fashion in the Milan City Council in his paper to the meeting, but the question we must ask is whether it is still in fashion.
In this atmosphere we must also interpret the decision, after years of postponement, polemics and indecision, to officially start the construction of a Città della Moda (Fashion City), a project advanced by Nicola Trussardi in the 1980s when ready-to-wear was still in its heyday, and which has never been achieved. It is a polyvalent structure (designed by the architect Cesar Pelli) in the Repubblica-Garibaldi district, to be built on a 100,000-square-metre area intended for residential and business development and for offices, including a fashion museum that, believe it or not, still does not exist in Milan (Figure 8.2). The project finally took off in 2004 and will be completed by 2009. The fashion city: ‘will become an excellent place to represent the vocations and traditions of Italy and Milan where the creativity expressed by fashion, design, communications and culture may merge’ (Brochure ‘La Città della Moda’, July 2004). The Città della Moda (costing €680 million and financed by Hines Estate) will, according to the Lombardia Governor, ‘help to relaunch the city’, though his optimism is tempered by one of his officials’ ‘hope that the fashion designers will not hamper the project’ (‘La Città della Moda’, July 2004). These two statements capture perfectly the present hopes and fears of the city. Will the old fashion system, that still monopolizes Milanese fashion culture, understand the changes that the transnational textile industry is undergoing and give Milan a chance to adjust?
In fact, despite the recent changes, Milan continues to be an ideal city for clothes shopping, due to the range, quality and variety of products on offer. Alongside boutiques, flagship stores, restored palazzi and the maisons of the great fashion designers – which still constitute the most visible part, but are probably destined to become future archaeological remains – we may glimpse a new network of shops and artistic-craft-business activities, which greatly remind us of the shape of Milan in the 1960s and 1970s, with its innovative stores such as Fiorucci, Gulp, Cose, La Drogheria Solferino and the creative atmosphere of the beginnings of prêt-à-porter. We may draw here on the memories of Beppe Modenese, who in an interview with Minnie Gastel recalled that:
in 1978 for Modit we had invited to the fair the St. Andrews restaurant, the Einaudi bookshop, Renato Cardazzo’s Galleria del Naviglio, the jeweller Luisa de Gresy, and I had also organised a small cinema which projected clips of fashion films. There were beautiful cafés, avenues of flowers … fashion helped to open up frontiers in a social sense. And from the point of view of image, it changed the mentality of Milanese shopkeepers who started to modify their stores in an innovative fashion. Unfortunately the ace card then has taken a negative turn: they flattered themselves that Milan had the finest fashion stores, jewels and luxury goods. But I miss the grocers, the bars, the flower shops, the stores which make the city come alive every day, but which have disappeared.
Little tailors and dressmakers’ shops, craft shops, new interpretations of luxury and commercial initiatives of various kinds are again flourishing in the city, standing apart from both the mass-production of the colossal flagship stores, and that of the new giants of fast fashion. As Gilbert writes, ‘relatively small, independent designers and retailers may sustain a viable independent fashion culture, often within distinctive districts of the city’ (2000: 13).
In the Isola district, to give an example of the new creativity, which seems to be once more arising in the city, there is the so-called Stecca degli Artigiani. This is built on a former industrial area (Siemens-Electra) abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s and then relaunched in the 1980s by the Milan City Council to host various artisan and artistic workshops. Another example is the former Braun Boveri factory – occupied by artists in the mid 1980s – now the official headquarters of a Centre for Contemporary Art. I like to think of this district – one of the many where this transformation is beginning to be seen – as a metaphor for a possible future for Milan. A future upgrading as a vital shopping city (and not just for tourists), in continuity with its history as a Hanseatic city, as Aldo Bonomi (2004) describes it, where the experience of fashion may live alongside the newly emerging expressions of creativity. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the inhabitants of this neighbour-hood, bordering on the Garibaldi district where the colossal ‘City of Fashion’ will arise, have demonstrated against the enactment of the plan, fearing that the new initiative – seen by many inhabitants of the area as a barefaced colonization by a prêt-à-porter singing its swan song – will destroy the authentic substratum of this district (Figure 8.3). But what the inhabitants of the Isola perhaps do not see is that here Milan is already in the future, where boutiques like Agata Ruiz de la Prada’s in Via Maroncelli stand alongside new dressmakers’ and independent stores of various kinds.
Fashion is an important part of the show of urban life and its experiential aspect, as Gilbert (2000: 11) argues, is closely linked to the vitality and the quality of the place where purchases are made. As Diego Della Valle, Chief Executive of Tod’s states, ‘a brand must eschew look-alike stores across the world and offer products specific to various cities’ (Michault 2004). But in Milan in particular, the designer fashion seems more intractable about transforming, about measuring up to the changed scenario, almost oppressed by the weight of its glorious past. The transition from a culture exclusively linked to prêt-à-porter to a more articulate, complex interaction of the global and the local is the key point on which the future of Milan as capital of style depends. For this reason, in Milan creativity currently no longer seems to exhaust itself in fashion, which in the last few years has been perceived as more than a significant experience, almost as an incursion on the life of the city.
Prêt-à-porter today is being criticized and deconsecrated. ‘Fashion Weak’ is the title of a recent happening made by an independent group of young Milanese activists during one of the last official fashion weeks, to protest against the imposition of fashion on reluctant Milanese citizens – the exact opposite of what happened in the 1980s. The ‘Fashion Weak’ happening, we must however point out, was organized in one of the most prestigious fashion schools in Milan. So, if it is true that fashion cannot be denied as an essential feature of the city, especially in Milan, where it is consubstantial, it is equally true that Milan must find a new role in the increasingly wider transnational network of fashion capitals, and start to offer experience and not just products: a shopping city able to communicate first of all the essence of itself and its continuing vitality.
 This essay is dedicated to the memory of Guido Vergani. I also wish to thank Djurdja Bartlett who provided constructive comments and suggestions.
 The shows organized by Giovanni Battista Giorgini in Florence in 1951 marked the end of the monopoly of the French fashion designers and the start of Italian Style. They were attended by an international public including the leading American buyers. Among those abandoning Florence in the early 1970s were Walter Albini, considered the founder of Italian prêt-à-porter, Ken Scott and the Cadette brand. In 1974 women’s fashion definitively left Florence.
 Berlusconi’s first private channel, TeleMilano, started broadcasting outside Lombardy in 1978. Starting in 1974 as a cable TV in a building in the Milan02 housing estate, in 1980 it became Canale5. In Berlusconi’s portfolio, Canale5 was joined by Italia1 in 1982 and Retequattro was acquired by Fininvest in 1984.
 For example, Prada eschews the ‘second line’ concept. Its Miu Miu is a completely different line from Prada.