The importance of the city of Milan in the history of modern fashion is linked to the success of a particular model of production and consumption: fashion designers’ prêt-à-porter. Milanese prêt-à-porter, appearing in the 1970s and peaking in the following decade, expressed the ability to produce in industrial quantities a fashion created in close collaboration with a fashion designer. A key figure in the Milanese system is the entrepreneur-designer, a novelty in the history of fashion. Due to this relationship with the textile industry, the key feature of Milanese prêt-à-porter has been described as industrial aesthetics. Four designers in particular are considered as typically expressing the Milanese model of ready-to-wear: Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferré, Krizia (Mariuccia Mandelli), and Enrico Coveri. The power dressing created by Giorgio Armani for professional working women in the 1980s is one of the best-known specialties of Milanese fashion.
Thanks to the success of the new prêt-à-porter, in the 1980s, Milan made its name as a capital of international fashion, joining Paris, London, and New York. In that decade, the concept of “made in Italy” was also developed to cover products and style and was associated mainly with fashion. After a structural crisis that lasted from the 1990s to the early years of the twenty-first century, aggravated by the changes caused by the globalization of the economy and markets, “made in Italy” has regained its vigor. The role of Milan, however, is changing. While its position as a shopping capital is confirmed and strengthened, the city is, not without difficulty, coming to terms with the loss of novelty in the prêt-à-porter model to which it owes its fame, as new geographical and cultural developments are taking place for Italian fashion.
For historical and anthropological reasons, fashion in Italy has often been marked by a strong regional and local component, expressed not only in highly diversified productions, such as Como silk, Biella wool, carded wool from Prato, embroidery from Assisi, knitwear from Carpi and Treviso, and Tuscany and Brenta shoes, but also in the rivalry and alternating fortunes of some cities—Turin, Florence, Rome, and Milan—as leaders of fashion. In the 1930s, during Fascism, dressmakers had to turn to Paris, and tailors to London for men’s fashion, and the textile industry was still in its infancy. Turin was appointed by the regime as the capital of the national plan aimed at inventing and imposing both in Italy and abroad a fashion entirely of Italian inspiration and production. Despite the efforts made by the regime, the results of national fashion were somewhat modest. With the exception of Ferragamo and Gucci in accessories, an Italian fashion recognized at the international level and able to compete with Paris was achieved only after World War II, in 1951. The city that saw the birth of modern Italian fashion was Florence, where Giovanbattista Giorgini organized the first fashion shows, brought together Milanese fashion houses (Veneziani, Vanna, Noberasko, and Marucelli) and Roman ones (Carosa, Fabiani, Simonetta, Schuberth and Fontana), and presented high fashion models and boutique fashion (Pucci, Avolio, Bertoli, Tessitrice dell’isola) to U.S. buyers and press. The features that led to the success of Italian fashion, compared with French fashion, were the wearability of garments, quality of fabrics, details in general, and an overall more modern, sporty allure, better suited to the new times. The designs were also easier to reproduce for sale in U.S. department stores.
Florentine fashion was therefore very successful, thanks to the popularity it enjoyed in the United States, but from the very start, perhaps due to rivalry among cities, it had difficulty in developing and organizing into a single united industry. After rotating with Rome—the home of many high-fashion dressmaking establishments—and Naples and Milan, quarrelling over the leadership in representing Italian fashion, and various other vicissitudes, the two centers agreed to separate. Rome became and still remains the home of high fashion, and Florence became the center for ready-to-wear fashion, which later developed a closer relationship with the greatly expanding textile industry during the 1960s. It was above all boutique fashion—ready-to-wear—that aroused the most interest due to its ability to match the growing capacities of the Italian textile clothing sector, which had been economically favored by U.S. funding to Italian industry, provided for in the Marshall Plan from the postwar years on.
Although Florence appeared modern in the 1950s—with the aristocratic and sports outfits designed by Emilio Pucci and Roberto Capucci—after almost twenty years, the city had become unable to deal with the changed expectations of the public, company capacities, and the needs of the fashion creators themselves. Florence did not have sufficient connections with the textile industry and the service sector; press, photography, and public relations agencies were crucial factors for transforming an elite product into the mass language, and these had not yet been developed in Florence. The fashion creators complained that Florentine organization was too antiquated in its formulas and did not enable them to fully display all their products. Another place had to be found.
A series of factors made Milan the focus of interest for the emerging Italian fashion system. In the 1960s, Milan was the driving force behind the first economic boom. While it had not played a major role in fashion until then (although in 1906, it hosted the first exhibition to develop an Italian fashion, and, in 1948, the director of Snia Viscosa, Filippo Marinotti, opened the Italian Fashion Centre), it was, for many reasons, the natural place to develop the new idea of prêt-à-porter.
When, in 1972, twenty years after the first fashion show in Florence, some fashion creators, including Walter Albini, decided to leave the catwalks of Florence to show in Milan, the Lombard capital was already the center for many business deals in the fashion sector. The fabric makers had moved there from Florence after 1955 to show their products in Milan. Milanovendemoda, the trade fair organized by the agents and sales representatives of the clothing sector, had been active since 1969, with the aim of fostering closer relations with the many buyers already in Milan.
Milan had an atmosphere of open-mindedness, cosmopolitanism, and experimentation, thanks to the presence of industry and of many professionals in the field of art and culture—including journalists and photographers such as Maria Pezzi, Guido Vergani, Silvia Giacomoni, Adriana Mulassano, Anna Piaggi, Alfa Castaldi, and Ugo Mulas—who were all, in different ways, involved in grasping the essence of an emerging aesthetic. Milan was also the city of design. Industrial design had begun to make its name in postwar years, with Marco Zanuso, Vico Magistretti, and Achille Castiglioni; in the 1960s, its activity was characteristic of the city. The design formula—the collaboration between an architect and an enterprise—was then picked up on a broader scale by future fashion designers. In the 1960s, the La Rinascente department store, a forerunner of the democratization of luxury and highly sensitive to industrial design, was the first to introduce garments designed by Pierre Cardin, the same ones for sale in boutiques but at lower prices. La Rinascente, with the Apem brand, had also been producing ready-to-wear garments since 1950. The potential inherent in a working relationship with industry was also grasped by the Milanese dressmaker Biki (Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure), who was the first of the previous generation of fashion designers to design ready-to-wear garments. From 1960 to 1966 she created the celebrated Cori line for GFT (Gruppo Finanziario Tessile, a major fashion company) in Turin, the same group that, some years later, signaled the success of Milan fashion design when it signed a contract with Giorgio Armani. Milan was a hive of creativity and an active trading center, fully reflecting the ongoing changes.
The city was also sensitive to the young antifashion revolutions then sweeping through Europe and the United States, particularly to what was happening in London and San Francisco. Elio Fiorucci’s store, which opened in Galleria Passarella (Piazza San Babila) in Milan in May 1967, inspired by London’s Carnaby Street and Biba, was a meeting point for young people who wanted to distance themselves from the bourgeois way of dressing while recognizing the growing importance of the communicative aspect of dress. The Fiorucci logo, a Victorian-style image of two little angels created by the Milanese architect and graphic designer Italo Lupi in the 1970s, was an example of great innovation. Other Milanese stores inspired by 1960s London, including Gulp! Cose, the Drogheria Solferino, and Carnaby Street, contributed to creating a fashion shopping culture into which the new generation of fashion designers fitted in the following years. The store Cose opened in Via Spiga in 1963; it sold garments and knitwear designed by the owner, Nuccia Fattori, clothes by Biba, Zandra Rhodes, and Sonia Rykiel, and products by Emmanuelle Khanh, Chloé, and Rabanne. Fattori also wanted to celebrate emerging Italian talent by selling garments by Walter Albini and Cinzia Ruggeri. Gulp!, which opened in Via Santo Spirito in April 1964, was furnished with the help of the sculptor Amalia Del Ponte (who had also done the interior design for Fiorucci’s store) with psychedelic lighting, walls with wavy colored lines, and cardboard boxes for wardrobes. Gulp! became the spot for the new trends, and its small artisan dressmaker’s atelier produced highly successful creations. It was the favorite boutique of many Milanese artists, such as singers Caterina Caselli, Mina, and Ornella Vanoni and classical ballet dancer Carla Fracci. Fiorucci said of his own initiatives in that period and of those around him, “we were a Milanese and Italian phenomenon” (Vergani 2004).
The move of the center of ready-made fashion from Florence to Milan marked a change in the outlook of Italian fashion, from a product of culture and art, as American eyes had preferred to interpret it, to an enactment of modernity. At the international level, the rise of Milan was the start of the transformation of fashion from the expression of class and good taste to the dominating language of our time.
Milan was ideal for the development of industrial fashion from a geographic point of view, being situated in the heart of the industrial districts, and specialized local areas with a vertical organization. The districts enabled the setting up of an integrated industrial system that encompassed the entire production process, from original ideas to distribution. The city also acted as a district for postsales and communications activities. The presence and concentration of commercial television (Silvio Berlusconi’s private TV stations made their name here from 1978 to 1984), fashion magazines, advertising agencies, and public relations studios turned Milan into a meeting point for the production and service industries.
In its swift rise between 1970 and 1978, fashion was appreciated by intellectuals, an unusual factor that also contributed to its success. Despite the bleakness of the times for the city and the country, with the years of political terrorism (1969–1981) and the oil and industrial crises, fashion gave a boost to the economy. After being at the forefront of the economic boom of the 1960s, with a swift reconversion, Milan found in fashion a means to overcome the crisis in heavy industry. Between 1970 (three years after the opening of Elio Fiorucci’s store) and 1978, a series of events took place that laid the foundations for the new system. In the following decade that system was to lead to the second economic boom, in which Milan played a leading role. The main textile associations were formed in 1974 and 1975, respectively: IdeaComo, the union of silk textile producers, and Federtessile, a group of ten textile associations in the sector. In this same period, the fashion designers of the future started to converge in Milan. Before this time, fashion designers did not exist in Milan; the word in Italian, stilisti, was new.
In 1965, Giorgio Armani, who was already working in Milan in the fashion department of the La Rinascente department store (opened in 1917), in 1965, met the businessman and fashion designer Nino Cerruti. From 1970, Armani started to work as a fashion designer in his company, Hitman, where he perfected the celebrated deconstructed jacket for men. In 1976, with Sergio Galeotti, he founded the Giorgio Armani company—then made by GFT with a contract drawn up with Carlo Rivetti in 1978; this event is considered the birth of Italian prêt-à-porter.
In 1972, Gianni Versace, who came from a tailoring family in Reggio Calabria, was asked by some Milanese firms to work for them, and, in 1973, he moved to Milan, where he collaborated with the Genny and Callaghan brands before opening his own business with his brother Santo in 1976. The first Gianni Versace fashion show took place at the Palazzo della Permanente in Milan in 1978.
In 1975, Enrico Coveri left Florence to present his collections at the Hotel Diana, one of the hotels (together with the Hotel et de Milan) that was a pivot of Milanese fashion. In 1977, Cinzia Ruggeri created her line based in Milan; Krizia showed at the Permanente in 1977 and again in 1978 in the first incarnation of Modit, the board organizing the fashion shows founded by Beppe Modenese. Modit and MilanoCollezioni helped to make the city the capital of Italian—and, later, international—prêt-à-porter.
In the 1980s, once the recession was over and the second, much more significant, Italian economic boom had started, and also thanks to the fashion industry, Milan went through a period of great expansion. The creation of a fashion designer cult was achieved with the collaboration of great photographers. The partnerships between Giorgio Armani and Aldo Fallai, Dolce and Gabbana and Ferdinando Scianna, and Gianni Versace and Richard Avedon are just a few examples. As the journalist Minnie Gastel wrote, “in the ’80s fashion is the most fashionable thing there is” (1995). Milan became “Milano da bere” (drinkable Milan), from the successful advertising slogan for Amaro Ramazzotti, meaning an affluent, dynamic city, rich in events, marked by fashion and the world revolving around it, from Versace’s top models to fashion shows and events. Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace, often described as the two faces of Milanese prêt-à-porter—one representing rigor, the other transgression—were both featured on the cover of the U.S. weekly news magazine Time: Armani in 1982 and Versace in 1995.
Prêt-à-porter became a stable phenomenon for the city. In the period in which Bettino Craxi was prime minister (1983–1986), the political importance of Milan was comparable with that of Rome. Fashion and politics lent a specific physiognomy to the city. In the 1980s, a new relationship between design and fashion also developed: Memphis, a Milan-based collective of young furniture and product designers led by the architect/designer Ettore Sottsass, included fashion within their creative remit. Architects such as Alessandro Mendini and the Studio Alchimia proposed a “soft” design—close to fabric and fashion—that was applied to furniture, to objects for everyday use, and to architecture itself. An example was the 1981 exhibition at the Milan Triennale entitled L’interno dopo la forma dell’utile, which saw designers committed to transforming objects in everyday use as if they were garments to wear with nonchalance and to discard in the same carefree way. In 1982, Mendini presented his Arredo-Vestitivo project in Fiorucci’s store in Milan. Maddalena Sisto (1951–2000) and Nanni Strada, a creator of garments designed and communicated as design objects, formed a synthesis between the two fields of fashion and design.
The influence of fashion on the city may also be seen in the property acquisitions of the fashion designers. Many palazzi of the old Milanese families changed owners in a few years. The house in Via Borgonuovo owned by Franco Marinotti (Snia-Viscosa and the Riva cotton manufacturers) became Giorgio Armani’s headquarters. With the help of architect Renzo Mongiardino, Palazzo Rizzoli in Via Gesù was transformed into the Gianni Versace head office. The Missoni family acquired a six-story house in Via Durini. Unusual locations were used by Trussardi for his fashion shows, such as the La Scala opera house, the Piazza del Duomo, the Brera Art Gallery, the Central Station, and the San Siro racecourse. They became spectacular performances; it was a time when the fashion show was truly taking off in Milan.
After the mid-1980s, Armani, Valentino, Versace, Ferré, Krizia, Trussardi, and others were joined by a new generation of fashion designers, including Dolce and Gabbana, Romeo Gigli, and Miuccia Prada. Carla Sozzani’s concept store at 10 Corso Como opened in the 1990s. With its avant-garde choice of location, near the Stazione Garibaldi, then still a working-class area, and far from the Quadrilatero della moda (literally, “stronghold of fashion” in the central streets of Milan, where the original fashion creators had their stores), it marked the beginning of fashion’s colonization of other areas and districts in the city, such as Porta Genova, Bovisa, and Porta Vittoria. Soon, the large vacant industrial areas outside the city center would be redeveloped by the fashion designers.
In the 1990s, prêt-à-porter entered a difficult period. The growth of the brands’ communication power marred the “democratic” origins that had distinguished the business model and had been one of the reasons for its success. This period saw the rise of brand acquisitions and the formation of large luxury groups to deal with the internationalization of markets. Delocalization and the rise of new Asian competitors—mostly in China—made it difficult for small enterprises or those who lacked a product with high added value to offer a strong image. The necessary activity of branding brought retail rather than production to the fore. New models of production and consumption modified the Italian and world fashion industries.
The role of Milan had already changed by the time of Prada’s rise in the early 1990s. The celebrated producer of worldwide luxury, the Milanese Miuccia Prada, who launched the famous nylon backpack in the early 1980s, had to start from the New York fashion shows to make her name as a prêt-à-porter fashion designer. The fashion journalists had given her first shows in Milan in 1989 the cold shoulder, and it was not until later that she was accepted and appreciated in her hometown (Mario Prada, Miuccia’s grandfather, opened his first store in Milan in 1913). This change may be interpreted “as the symptom of a slow decline in the central role of Milan in the world fashion industry,” as British historian John Foot has stated.
To understand the changes, the differences between Italian fashion, Italian prêt-à-porter, and Milan must be made clear. The production and cultural model of prêt-à-porter, which was consolidated in the 1980s, had the following features: a vertically integrated production process (that is, control of all phases, from production to distribution); seasonal collections and fashion shows; and a segmentation of product (diffusion) linked to an equally wide-reaching system of licenses. But this model is no longer the predominant system of fashion in Italy or elsewhere. After a period of adjustment, the “made in Italy” export and marketing of clothing and accessories and retail has regained its strength, especially in countries like Russia and China, which have become the outlet markets for an Italian product with a perceived design identity.
Many prominent fashion designers died in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, like Enrico Coveri (1952–1990), Franco Moschino (1950–1994), Gianni Versace (1946–1997), Nicola Trussardi (1942–1999), and Gianfranco Ferré (1944–2007). This, and the fact that the new generation has a different background, has contributed to a change in the role of the fashion designer. It does, however, seem very difficult for new fashion designers to emerge in this new context. The organization of the calendar of the prêt-à-porter fashion shows has been attacked by the foreign press. Because of the many new commitments and Fashion Weeks throughout the world, the press would like to reduce the eight scheduled days to four, not considering it of interest to remain longer in Milan.
The 1980s model of prêt-à-porter has been joined and somewhat replaced by the constant outpouring of low-cost fashion products; fast fashion; and new, postmodern, technological artisan luxury goods. Despite the differences in their protagonists and goals, all tend to distance themselves from the 1980s model. The entrepreneurs and fashion designers of the early twenty-first century have little in common with those who made their names in the 1970s and have a different involvement with Milan from designers and entrepreneurs of the older generation.
Fast fashion has modified the traditional seasonal division of fashion and the presentation of novelties. The old price segmentation has broken down, and the business focus is more on distribution than on production. The new system’s strong points are speed, attention to new consumers, and price, together with a product always updated to the latest trends. On the model of the international Zara (Spanish) and H&M (Swedish) chains, many new Italian ready-to-wear companies account for a significant part of new Italian fashion, such as the Patrizia Pepe, Pinko, Celyn B, and Carpisa brands.
Regarding top-end production, a new generation of fashion designers is making its name, including Antonio Marras and the recent Albino (Albino D’Amato and Gianfranco Fenizia), 6267 (Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimonsi), Rosamosario (Gianbattista Valli, Pierluigi Fucci, and Carlo Contrada), and Sara Lanzi. These designers refer explicitly to a conceptual, contrived, constructed sartorial style closer to the model of boutique fashions of the 1960s and 1970s (to which many of them explicitly relate, recognizing their cultural roots) and the regional tradition typical of Italian production preceding prêt-à-porter. The most dynamic Italian fashion in the twenty-first century is represented by these new approaches—on the one hand, swift distribution and low costs with an eye to trends and, on the other, a new sartorial attention achieved with a mix of artisanal creativity and technology.
The transformation of Italian fashion is affecting the role of Milan as a capital of style. The criticism of Milan and Italian fashion made by the foreign press is a significant symptom. The never-placated rivalries between cities also seem to be reappearing. Since the rise of prêt-à-porter, Florence has remained a major center for industrial presentations (Pitti Uomo is the most important event for the international textile sector) and intends to take up a role also in women’s fashion trends, competing with Milan. The new Florentine initiative is Pitti Woman Precollection (whose first version appeared in January 2008).
Milan remains a central attraction for fashion shopping, and fashion remains its main economic resource; it is also a major feature of city life, in the culture of its inhabitants, and the culture it offers tourists. But Milan is no longer the only fashion hub. The city of Milan, however, seems nostalgically attached to that fashion model that peaked during the 1980s, which made it internationally famous and continues to permeate many sartorial city initiatives.
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