Italian Dress: Geography’s Role on Major Designers and Traditional Fashion

Below is an extensive research paper and its corresponding presentation I completed as assignment in my course, “Dress, Society and Culture” at the University of Georgia.


Introduction

From Fendi to Ferragamo, Italy is often recognized as a fashion-conscious country, which has been established by the iconic designers that are rooted in Italian history. Considering the notion that various Italian cities have regional cultures, most Italian designers have developed as a product of the specific place in which they originated, rather than the country, as a whole. Thus, Italian dress can be classified as highly regionalized, reflecting the traditions, values and culture of a specific Italian society.

Italy can be divided into three main regions, including the north, the center and the south. Traditionally, the north encompasses cities such as Milan, Lake Como or Venice; the center includes Florence and Rome; the south contains Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the island of Sicily. Not only is the country separated by physical regions based on geography and climate, Italy’s administrative roots are more decentralized. Specifically, da Cruz (2000) comments on the state of Italy post-World War II, saying that a “consistently insecure governmental structure resulted in the absence of a unified Italian fashion center, thereby estranging the country’s fashion artists from competition in the mid-century global market.” Thus, not only was the country somewhat excluded from the worldwide trade, but it was also unable to establish a single, booming “fashion capital,” such as Paris, New York or London.

Furthermore, White (2000) defines the post-war period as “an era of rapid economic, social and cultural change in Italy” (p. 5). Although many luxury Italian brands were established in the early twentieth century prior to World War II, it was not until the mid-to-late twentieth century that they picked up esteem, as a whole. In fact, 1965 marks “the emergence of Italy as a major international stylistic and economic force in international fashion” (White, 2000, p 6). Because most brands developed within a more segmented country prior to World War II, the several designers who are a product of Italy are a representation of the region in which they originally served, rather than the whole country. While the list of Italian fashion designers is expansive, this research focuses on one from each region—Prada, Gucci and Emilio Pucci.

Prada, which surfaced in Milan in 1913, was founded by Mario Prada as a luxury leather goods business; in 1978, Muiccia Prada assumed ownership from her mother, making her the third generation of the Prada family to oversee the business (Bolton & Koda, 2012). The central Italian designer to be researched is Gucci, founded in Florence in 1921 by Guccio Gucci. The “small family luggage and leather goods firm survived World War II to become part of the great post-war upsurge of Italian craftsmanship” (Mower, 2006, p. 15). Also, in 1950, Emilio Pucci “opened a boutique on Capri dedicated to simple, yet beautiful resort clothing that embodied the island’s natural beauty and refreshingly bright colours” (Mansour, 2018). Thus, these iconic Italian brands have a rich history, shaped by the region in which they began.

Because these three brands all came to fruition throughout the twentieth century,this research will focus mainly on modern Italian dress in each region. While understanding the history of each brand is important, their influences are still relevant in today’s cultures. While regional cuisine, weather, economic climate and overall cultural norms certainly played a role in the development of traditional Italian dress, how did Italian designers—specifically Prada, Gucci and Emilio Pucci—evolve as a product of their respective regions?

Prada and Milan

Prada is often associated with elegance, as the brand has its roots selling to Italian elites in the early twentieth century. In fact, in 1919, “Mario received a warrant for his goods from the Italian royal family” (Bolton & Koda, 2012, p. 29), which allowed him to use the House of Savoy’s distinct coat of arms in its logo. Thus, Prada’s designs are exclusive, sophisticated and chic. After Muiccia Prada took over in 1978, she upheld the original aesthetic, but also began to experiment with ‘ugly.’ According to Williams (2018), Muiccia “has been using her ugly-chic designs to market insider cool for decades.” The current aesthetic of Prada combines sophistication with ‘ugly’—a style that certainly appeals to the worldwide fashion industry, but more specifically to the Milanese.

On a personal level, Muiccia Prada’s garments are influenced by Milan. She explains how she seeks inspiration from individual interests in life, in society, in culture when designing (Bolton & Koda, 2012). Thus, the city she grew up in, the city where her father began the famed fashion house and the city in which she currently resides—Milan— influence her each and every day, in new and innovative manners. Also, Steele (2003) aligns the brand with Milan saying, “Prada’s style is modern, drawing on the northern Italian tradition of having discreetly elegant clothes beautifully made by local tailors and dressmakers” (p. 107).

Although Milan is often considered the present-day fashion capital of Italy, Milan came to fruition as a prominent financial center and a prosperous manufacturing city (Lecco & Foot, 2017). Thus, it is interesting to note that Muiccia Prada’s sophisticated and minimal designs were often influenced by the city, itself, and its overall atmosphere. In fact, she admits how her garments are inspired by industrial materials and techniques, as she utilizes synthetic fabrics, technical materials and military-influenced garments (Bolton & Koda, 2012). These types of designs are a leading example of how Prada has seen success in designs that are ‘ugly.’

After taking over the label, Muiccia updated the conservative merchandise. “In 1985, she introduced a line of lightweight backpacks in a fine-gauge nylon satin, trimmed with leather, that pretty much transformed urban life” (Bolton & Koda, 2012, pp. 29-30). Named the pradabag(pronounced as one word), the simple design soon became highly desired by Milanese working women and men, alike. Thus, it is evident that Muiccia’s first success within the family business was influenced by the active Milanese people and the need for a utilitarian, sleek handbag.

Although Muiccia Prada has clear influences from the people of Milan, she also seeks inspiration from their lavish lifestyles. According to Bolton and Koda (2012), “her style is both deeply rooted in the sartorial conventions of bourgeois Milan—the drab palette and sober luxury of tailored clothes that are meant to convey substance and respectability—and incorrigibly ironic about them” (p. 30). Whether designing to support the simple, austere clothing of the city’s inhabitants or poking fun at them, she analyzes the Milanese people—the jobs, their family structure, how they commute, what they do for fun—and creates garments with them in mind.

In an analysis of Prada’s Spring 2019 Ready-To-Wear collection, Mower (2018) exclaims, “placing fashion on an equal footing with an art performance is a prerogative Muiccia Prada has always asserted. It puts people on the edge of their seats, straining to correctly perceive what this oracle of fashion will have to say about the state of the world.” Throughout several decades, Muiccia Prada has remained true to her Milanese roots as a designer, yet has continued to challenge the world around her.

Gucci and Florence

Ornate, eccentric and glamorous, Gucci embodies symbols of wealth, ranging from well-to-do Florentines or hip-hop artists of the modern day. Although Guccio Gucci certainly established the label as elaborate and luxurious, Alessandro Michele—the current Creative Director—has continued these types of designs, while also creating a “new romantic and flamboyant, multi-hued aesthetic” (Finnigan, 2016).

According to Foot, Silver and Erhlich (2017), “the present glory of Florence is mainly its past.” In fact, the city still honors its history in terms of religion, art, power and wealth (Foot, Silver & Erhlich, 2017). Thus, Gucci strives for opulence. Much like Florence is known for particular art (Michelangelo’s Davidor Botticelli’s Birth of Venus) and architecture (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fioreor commonly ‘the Duomo’), Gucci is also known for particular symbolism, such as the “bamboo, the green-red-green webbing, horsebits and the famous GG initials that were originated by Guccio Gucci” (Mower, 2006, p. 14). According to Mower (2006), Gucci’s products “were handmade at Gucci work-benches in Florence, constructed with the finest materials” (p. 14).

Florence, itself, is an opulent city and Gucci’s overall aesthetic is certainly mirrored in this. Goldsmiths and jewelers are concentrated on the Ponte Vecchio, a symbol of Florence (Foot, Silver & Erhlich, 2017), making precious metals and jewels both a part of the city’s commerce and Gucci’s collections through the years. Therefore, “Gucci also perceived the status attached to the sporting pursuits of his leisured customers” (Mower, 2006, p. 25).  Also, the brand utilizes the finest leather from the cattle of the local Tuscan region. Thus, the brand established an ostentatious target customer early on and has rarely strayed from that.

Florence “is far more dependent on tourism” (Foot, Silver & Erhlich, 2017) and of the three designers explored, Gucci is certainly the most saturated in the modern fashion industry. From GG belts and Gucci t-shirts seen in streetwear to the sheer number of times the brand is name-dropped in hip-hop lyrics, Gucci is certainly well-known. Hence, both the city and the brand are favored by the general public. Mower (2006) adds “The name of Gucci became yet another attraction luring American tourists to Italy, a force that transformed the country into the sexiest possible holiday destination” (p. 15). Also, “When the hip-hop outsiders become multi-millionaires, they put Gucci at the top of their shopping list.” (Mower, 2006, p. 30).  Truly, Gucci has been, and still is, a sought-after brand.

As a tribute to its Florentine roots, Gucci recently opened Gucci Garden, a concept-store, museum and restaurant, all rolled into one. According to Goldberg (2018), “The aim is to hearken back to Florence’s roots as a hub of activity–where markets, restaurants and various shops lined the Palazzo where the ‘Garden’ is now based, selling handmade crafts and delicacies.” Not only does Gucci strive to represent a Florentine influence with their products, but with their overall brand image and mission.

According to Mower (2006), “Gucci is quintessentially Florentine” (p. 16). Even today, Gucci’s Creative Director—Alessandro Michele—seeks to revive Gucci’s past. In an analysis of the Spring 2019 Ready-To-Wear collection, Mower (2018) describes Michele as “a designer who rummages around in the past and ends up finding himself there. The past living in the present: There is a global powerhouse of a brand built on Michele’s ability to keep magicking up that fantasia.” Even though the Gucci family is no longer involved with the brand, Michel understands their founding vision and respects their Florentine roots.

Emilio Pucci and Capri

Emilio Pucci’s “brightly colored, synthetic clothes emphasized physical exuberance as well as a feminine intellectual charisma” (Casadio, 1998, p. 7). Thus, the brand’s overall aesthetic can certainly be characterized as bold, whimsical and distinct. With once glance at a Pucci print, the viewer can easily imagine the garment’s use in a seaside town, such as Capri.

Although Emilio Pucci was born to a wealthy Florentine family, he spent much time in the south of Italy, on the island of Capri. Soon after launching his fashion career, Pucci crafted a collection in 1949 in Capri, the island which had a strong influence on his use of color and thematic prints (Casadio, 1998). Not only was Capri a source of inspiration to Pucci, but he also utilized the island and its craftsman for his garments. According to Casadio (1998), “Pucci also had his clothing produced in Capri, by small-scale tailors along the coast, not long because of the low production costs, but also because he adored spending his free time on the beautiful island. There, free from distractions, he was able to dedicate himself to completing his design” (p. 12).

As a popular resort town in southern Italy, Capri is famous for its beautiful scenery, a mild climate and flourishing vegetation (“Island of Capri,” 2015). Pucci, himself, was a frequent visitor of the island for vacation or solace but, in 1950, he opened a boutique, La Canzone del Mare (The Song of the Sea), at Marina Piccola, “a decision that provoked much curiosity and created a scandal among his aristocratic friends and relatives who considered work rather beneath their status” (Casadio, 1998, p. 12). While visiting Capri on holiday was status-quo for Pucci’s contemporaries, deciding to live and work there full-time certainly was not.

A major influence that Capri made on Pucci was through the vivid colors seen throughout the landscape. In fact, Casadio (1998) adds“color played a primary role. It was a signifier, an indicator of emotions, a metaphorical language that recalled the depths of the sea, iridescence, and the infinite tonalities of shadow” (p. 17).

In an analysis of Emilio Pucci’s Spring 2019 Ready-To-Wear, Phelps (2018) exclaims how “the visionary founder set the codes for color, swirling print, and sportif decades ago. Now, according to the design team lead, the internal thinking is focused on ‘locating the future of Pucci.’ Like its past, the house’s future appears to be ‘on holiday.’” By establishing the brand in a city of lavish escape, Pucci set the tone for the brand’s image of bold, lightweight resort-wear.

Conclusion

Although some countries can identify a single fashion capital, Italy lacks this ability. After World War II, Florence claimed the title of fashion capital by hosting the annual Pitti Palace shows and exhibitions, but Milan saw growth in the apparel industry and seized the title by the 1970s  (Foot, Silver & Erhlich, 2017). However, having multiple hubs of fashion has only allowed the country to flourish in the textile, leather, manufacturing and overall fashion industries.

“With Milan and Tuscany as saturated production centers, and Venice, Rome, Sicily and Florence as inspirational landmark in the evolution of the Italian aesthetic, the growth and influence of Italian fashion is ever present and ‘Made in Italy’ is one of the most recognizable stamps of quality and innovation in contemporary fashion” (da Cruz, 2000). As seen through the examples of Prada, Gucci and Emilio Pucci, Italian fashion is highly regionalized. Although the ‘Made in Italy’ label carries the same degree of superiority, despite the specific city that it came from. According to Paulicelli (2015), “one of the most appealing factors Italy possesses in the eyes of foreigners is the idea of ‘authenticity’, a cultural capital that is linked to heritage and the past.” This regard for ‘Made in Italy’ products comes chiefly from the authenticity of the craftmanship. Italian dress, which is regionalized and therefore unique, varies visually from city to city, but carries an overall sense of quality, despite its city of origin.

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References

Bolton, A. and Koda, H. (2012). Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible conversations. New York,   NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Casadio, M. (1998). Emilio Pucci. New York, NY: Universe of Fashion.

da Cruz, E. (2000). “Made in Italy: Italian fashion from 1950 to now.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Finnigan, K. (2016, May 8). Farewell minimalism: How Gucci brought the fun back into     fashion. Retrieved October 29, 2018 from https://www.telegraph.co.uk.

Foot, J., L.A. Silver & B. Ehrlich. (2017, September 20). Florence, Italy. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from https://www.britannica.com.

Goldberg, C. (2018, January 9). Eat Chic: Gucci is serving up exclusive products–and pasta–in   Florence. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from https://www.harpersbazaar.com.

Island of Capri. (2015, January 23). Retrieved on October 22, 2018 from https://www.britannica.com.

Lecco, A. and J. Foot. (2017, November 29). Milan, Italy. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from https://www.britannica.com.

Mansour, L. (2018, February 22). Prince Of Prints: The history of Emilio Pucci. Retrieved September 16, 2018 from http://aeworld.com.

Mower, S. (2006). Gucci by Gucci: 85 years of Gucci. New York, NY: The Vendome Press.

Mower, S. (2018, September 24). Spring 2019 ready-to-wear, Gucci. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from https://www.vogue.com.

Paulicelli, E. (2015). Italian fashion: yesterday, today and tomorrow. Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 20(1), 1-9.

Phelps, N. (2018, September 20). Spring 2019 Ready-To-Wear, Emilio Pucci. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from https://www.vogue.com.

Steele, V. (2003). Fashion, Italian Style. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Williams, R. (2018, August 5). How Prada is rising nostalgia and ‘ugly fashion’ to turnaround. Retrieved October 29, 2018 from https://www.businessoffashion.com.

White, N. (2000). Reconstructing Italian Fashion. New York, NY: Berg.

 

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