Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Behind the glamour of Italian fashion

I've decided to post a feature I originally wrote for The City Magazine. It ties in with the V&A museum's current 'Glamour of Italian Fashion' exhibition, and if you get the chance, it's definitely worth a visit!

A new exhibition at the V&A charts the rise of the Italian fashion industry, and with it, demonstrates the creative spirit which could be harnessed to pull the country out of its economic slump.  

In the epigraph of his 2012 book Stil Nova (‘New Style’), Italy’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, invokes the words of Albert Camus: “Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions. But a day will come when revolutions will have need of beauty.” Political fluff this may be, but you can be sure that if any revolution were to have beauty, it would be Italy’s.  

It’s now, perhaps more than ever, that the country is crying out for revolution - or big changes, at the very least. Ranked 180th in the world for economic growth, Italy’s political, economic and social decline over the past 20 years has resulted in its worst period of recession since WWII. Unemployment hit a record high of 13 per cent in February, while joblessness among Italians ages 15 to 24 remains at just over 42 per cent. Less than one in five Italians now receive a university education, and young people are now leaving the country in their droves, frustrated at the relative lack of opportunity.

 The last time Italy faced such a bleak outlook was at the close of the Second World War, when much like many other areas in Europe, the country was a shadow of its former self – left in piles of rubble and occupied by foreign armies. But as a new exhibition at the V&A, ‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion’, shows, it was in fact the country’s flair for beauty, and perhaps most importantly, its innate sense of style, which went a long way in bringing about its post-war renaissance.

The philosophy of ‘La Bella Figura’, literally, ‘the beautiful figure’, is one which has long underpinned Italian society. It encapsulates the national preoccupation with presentation; being well turned out is an important consideration to the Italians, so much so that it permeates practically every aspect of their lives, from their dress to their generosity as hosts, and has done for centuries. So it seems fitting for a country which places such a premium on aesthetics that one of its greatest exports has long since been its clothes.

While the V&A’s new show allows you to appreciate La Bella Figura in all its flamboyant glory, it invites you to do far more than simply gaze at the extravagant couture gowns and glitzy Italian fashions from over the years. From the opening image of a bomb struck Florence in 1946, to the subtle backing track of the hum of machines and looms, more than anything else, there’s a sense of the Italian fashion world being a whirling, churning, industrial machine. And this remains the case to this day – Italy is still one of the largest producers of clothing and textiles in Europe, and indeed, the world.

Unfortunately though, along with the political scandals, immigration tensions and huge debts that have blighted Italy since 2000, the country’s fashion industry hasn’t escaped unscathed. Italy’s once renowned networks of textile production and related industries are thinning, while its premium fashion houses are increasingly foreign-owned. The curator of the V&A’s exhibition, Sonnet Stanfill, maintains however that since the current economic crisis began, fashion has remained one of the few bright spots. “Of course the industry was also touched”, she argues, “but the future growth in emerging markets, particularly for luxury goods, will help carry the industry through.”

It’s here, Stanfill adds, that we see parallels with the fashion industry’s role in Italy’s post WWII recovery, “although after WWII, the appetite for Italian fashion came from the States. Now it comes from emerging markets like China and Russia.” There can be no doubt, too, that the legacy of the ‘Made in Italy’ label, the phrase which spearheaded the country’s ready-to-wear revolution throughout the 70s and 80s, remains a strong pull for foreign buyers. Stanfill agrees: “I think that the future of Italian ready-to-wear design lies with the emerging markets and the seemingly limitless appetite for 'Made in Italy' goods.”

As the exhibition shows, it was a post-war boost in the form of Roosevelt’s Marshall Plan – which provided Italy with the US aid used to swiftly retool Italian factories - which kick-started the country’s fashion success. But it took the Italian flair for creativity and entrepreneurism to truly set it on its way to global domination.

Italy's first commercial fashion show, held in Florence in 1951, was the brainwave of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a young Italian who prior to the war had exported Italian goods to US department stores. Thanks to this marketing masterstroke, popular US titles such as Women’s Wear Daily and large stores including Bergdorf Goodman were exposed to a small group of Italian designers – one that included one Emilio Pucci - for the first time. The Americans were clearly captivated by the Italian catwalk; this singular event went a long way in cultivating the golden era now known as ‘La Dolce Vita’, a period of extended economic prosperity and one which brought about the Hollywood fascination with all things Italian. As Richard Burton once quipped, the only Italian Elizabeth Taylor ever learnt was ‘Bulgari’.

Now, however, the situation in Italy is a far cry from La Dolce Vita. While Britain is seen as an incubator for young design talent, providing one of the best platforms for designers fresh out of university, the Italian industry is still very much led by the old guard – Armani, Cavalli, Dolce and Gabbana et al have been in the business for decades. As the V&A’s curator points out, ‘Italian labels hold a strong appeal due to their connection to history and provenance’, and their designs do indeed continue to hold global appeal. But nevertheless, a question mark remains over what the future could hold for the Italian industry.

Even more worryingly, this continued dominance of established brands seems to echo a more general problem of despondency in Italy. Widespread corruption has led to a blockage of freedom and creativity amongst Italians, particularly the younger generation, an issue which has ramifications for Italy not simply in terms of the future of its fashion industry, but in all kinds of social and economic ways.

That’s not to say the country is without hope, however.  Not only does the V&A's exhibition feature designs from rising Italian stars such as Haitian born Stella Jean, proving that the Italian creative flair is still alive and well, it has also been visited personally by a certain Mr Renzi. The new Prime Minister’s attendance of the London show speaks to an acknowledgement of the fashion industry’s continued importance to the country’s economy, as well as his investment in making sure that this remains the case.

In fact, Renzi has already established something of a reputation for his fashion choices; he’s often pictured eschewing the typical political uniform in favour of casual open buttoned shirts and leather jackets. Yet, unlike many of his predecessors, there’s hope that what he brings to the Italian political table will prove to be far more than style over substance. 

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, sponsored by Bulgari, runs until 27 July 2014 at the V&A. For more information and tickets, visit www.vam.ac.uk/italianfashion