In my first part on the exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A it was neccessary to set the scene for postwar Italy: impoverished, the funding it received through the Marshall Plan for regional industries provided high quality material that could fuel a fashion industry about to break through onto the international scene. Following Giorgini’s efforts to showcase the best of Italian production in the 50s, a potent market was found in North America for exquisite and hand-sewn pieces strengthened by a blend of quality and tradition. The 60s saw the emergence of a cultural fascination with Italy that went hand in hand with its fashion, creating an attitude and attractiveness that only grew throughout the years.
So far the main concern had been the creation of the “perfect outfit” – made for a maker’s loyal and exacting clients, every detail curtailed to his or her desire. Yet the late 60s and early 70s called for a new approach. Just as Florence and Rome were being replaced by Milan as the new capital of Italian fashion, ready-to-wear fashion was on the rise, where the concern was not so much the perfect outfit, but the perfect “style”.
On that note, the exhibition leads us seamlessly into this second part, where the outfits on display are now almost all left unprotected by glass; this allows for more observation of the textures but is also intentionally reminiscent of shop display rather than a traditional museum collection.
Indeed, proudly displayed at the entrance of the room, Elio Fiorucci and Walter Albini have become the epitome of the new designer that have embraced the ready-to-wear market branching out into clothes stores. They eclipse the traditional dressmaker with the more modern notion of “Lo Stilista”: the designer, stylist and mediator in terms of brand image and clothing. This new creator is concerned as much with the marketing image and wide-range accessibility of his products…while retaining an impeccable quality in his materials, as well as a newfound inventivity. The motto of Ferregamo mentioned at some point encapsulates this attitude: “Handmade shoes by mass production.”
This is perfectly on par with the marketing campaign “Made in Italy” that sought to increase the appeal of Italian fashion abroad. While Elio Fiorucci was definitely concerned with the branding aspect of his work, Albini, trained as an illustrator, uses his skills to produce elegant sketches that search for this sense of style and expression. Yet there is also a stronger focus, as we evoved through the display, on a more concise exploration of fashion’s relation to italian production. A video displays the regions that provide the industry with silk (Como), wool (Biella) and leather (Tuscany). The slightly dry and advert-like feel of the small video is toned down by the garments displayed on rows either side in themes corresponding to the textiles used, from Missoni’s knitwear to Karl Lagerfeld’s multicolour mink or Max Mara’s camel coat.
The last part is one that concerns itself not only with fashion but essentially with the way it is channelled throughout modern media and deified.Lo Silisto here becomes, in the year 2014, the “designer”, whose world and its superstar status is defined as such by Anne Piaggi: “a secret society, made up of pioneers, a few inventors and a few poets. They are the new phenomenon and the new elite.”
The room is large and dark, projecting a sense of covert holiness as a large dome-like structure stretches overhead and a screen shows a whirl of videos in which models stride across the catwalk as a reconstruction of one displays various haute couture designs from recent years. Almost too excessive, too showy…yet it works. Maybe the true key to displaying fashion that oscillates between elegance and brightly coloured, textured luxury.
Some are instantly known, such as Valentino or Dolce & Gabbana. Yet again, some are new arrivals, designers yet to become fashionable household names. In a sense, I wish I could have seen more of these. We see a lot of well-known fashion designers throughout the exhibition itself so giving more of the scene to a larger array of emerging designers would have been interesting. Yet this is a small point in itself…counterbalanced by a video at the end of the exhibition in which designers, editors and fashion experts are asked their opinion concerning the future of italian fashion, and encourage the presence of fresh emerging designers within the industry.
The exhibition finishes off with a greater focus on photography as not only the vehicule of a design but also of the idea and appeal behind it, sometimes drawing on lyrical, cultural and even political themes, such as the Benetton ads by its artistic director Oliviero Toscani that became revolutionary for the messages that they conveyed rather than their presentation of the clothing, making a brand image something other than its garments…making it desirable and glamorous as a concept in itself.
This exhibition left a great impression on me…and it might have been one of my favourite so far this year. It showed an immense love of the clothes and a concise eye not only on Italian fashion but on the evolution of an industry as a whole. I would have personaly loved to see more fashion sketches; there were a few dotted here and there as well but not always a clear overview concerning their contribution to the final product. However I understand the fact that the focus had to be on the Italian textiles and the way they shaped the design of the clothes, rather than the sketched idea. The sheer amount and quality of the clothes was overwhelming, although I would a few more in-depth spotlights on particular designers in certain places and maybe more historical context in terms of Italy’s political and social situation. How were other industries faring? To what extent were Italians themselves and their governement supportive in relation to international buyers, aside from the prosperity that this would inject into the country? The subject is mentioned but remains vague, perhaps reflecting the concluding video in which the need for renewal and economical support is stressed.
Another subject that would have interested me would have been the way in which Italians would express this dolce vita, nonchalant and refined way of dressing outside of the catwalk and workshops, to see a bit more of the “typical” dressers and consumers rather than having allusions to a faceless market. Yet, there was an immense width of information to cover and I think that this insighful overview was perfectly handled. On display until the 27th of July, this exhibition is one that I cannot recommend enough.