Italy like France is a country known for fashion creativity and expertise. It has been a major fashion force for centuries, from the period of the Roman Empire until today. Italian fashion know-how and production expertise is widely accepted as the best in the world. Brands like Gucci, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bvlgari have contributed significantly to establishing an important position for Italy in the world of fashion. However, unlike France, which views fashion as a form of art, Italy's outlook on fashion is more as a traditional business developed through a lifetime and passed through generations. In France, fashion and creativity is an obsession and a soubriquet of expression embedded in the genes. In Italy, fashion is both a lifestyle and a means to a lifestyle and culture.
Italy had a prominent position in global fashion during the Roman Empire and the Renaissance era. However, this diminished after the fall of the Venetian Empire in 1797 and the subsequent political unsettlement, giving way for the rise of France and later England in fashion. As a result, several talented Italian designers left their country in search of fortune in France and later in America. By the eighteenth century, Italian women like the rest of the Europeans had begun to adopt French fashion while Italian men adopted English tailoring, further demoting Italian fashion. Consequently by the early nineteenth century, Italian fashion had almost disappeared and had been nearly completely replaced by French haute couture. It took almost a century before Italian fashion was to become world-renowned once more.
The brands that launched the Italian fashion revolution on Italian soil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are Prada, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, while Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Dolce & Gabanna carried it forward. The first internationally recognized Italian designer was, however, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) who became famous after opening her couture house in Paris. Later, in 1906, Guccio Gucci started his saddlery shop in Florence and expanded to fashion accessories in 1923. Ermenegildo Zegna followed Gucci's launch in 1912, with menswear fabrics in the small village of Trivero. Salvatore Ferragamo launched his business in 1927. He was born in Italy in 1898 and emigrated to the USA in 1914 where he studied shoe design and started a flourishing business in California before returning to Italy to set up a workshop in Florence.
The fashion businesses of these talented Italian designers quickly gained world fame. Italian accessories, especially shoes, became popular and synonymous with style, class and high quality all over the world. Although Italian accessories flourished, fashion remained predominated by the dress and this was mostly made in France. As a result, Italian designers focused their attention on exports to America, rather than on developing a home fashion sector. As early as the 1920s, Americans were getting exposed to Italian fashion and its appealing associations to European aristocracy. Italy was also an attractive tourist destination for Americans with its beautiful landscape and seductive lifestyle. This combination served as an important formula for the success of Italian fashion abroad.
The Italian government also recognized the important role of fashion in resuscitating its economy and engineered reforms to favour the growth of fashion. For example, Italian leader Benito Mussolini's government established a National Fashion Office in Turin to promote the Italian fashion industry. However, the fashion influence of Italy was not to rise to its Renaissance-era glory until the mid-1940s, although the country maintained its rich art and cultural heritage.
Before 1945, Italy's economic mainstay was primarily agriculture-based and this was a challenge to the country's economy. The adverse effects of the Second World War further worsened the economy, and as a result the industrial production of fashion goods and innovation in couture and dressmaking remained minimal. The climate of a thriving social and economic structure which fashion needs in order to flourish was lacking. While Paris boomed as the world's fashion destination, Italian cities like Rome, Florence and Milan remained largely unappealing.
An additional factor that contributed to the slow growth of Italian fashion influence is that Italy had no constant and representative fashion capital city like Paris in France and London in Britain. Although Florence, Rome and Milan were (and still remain) important fashion centres, each region of Italy has always specialized in a specific type of fashion production. Florence has long been associated with woollen clothing; Sicily was the centre of artistic weaving while Lucca and Venice were known for silk textile and Venice the centre of shoemakers and cobblers, leatherworks, silk and cotton weavers, wool spinners and dyers.
One major contributing factor to the growth of Italian fashion was the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War which disrupted the leading position of French fashion. During this period, America was again to play an important role in the take-off of Italian fashion. The post-war mass migration from Italy to America meant an export of Italian fashion style and culture and later an import of American ready-to-wear business and technology back to Italy. The peculiar family-orientation nature of the Italian fashion industry meant that every skill and technology learnt was passed from generation to generation. The effective blending of this family-oriented Italian craftsmanship with America's commercial orientation towards fashion would later serve as a backdrop for the success of several brands including Versace and Tod's.
Although Gucci and Ferragamo were the forerunners of Italian fashion, the Italian look as we know it today was pioneered by Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace in the 1970s. Their ease of style and elegance was the opposite of the French opulence and greatly appealed to fashion consumers worldwide. They also highlighted the important complementary role of accessories like shoes, jewellery and sunglasses. The rapidly rising Italian designers effectively drew on the fame of their heritage of precision and craftsmanship and the renown of their accessories. Americans completely embraced this style while the French admired and respected it. The fashion world had changed and Italy contributed to the way the new world looked.
Italy flourishes today as a country of not only beauty but of immense fashion style and influence. The majority of the world's most valuable luxury fashion brands are from Italy and numerous other Italian fashion brands continue to gain fashion authority globally. Although the Italian fashion model is different from the rest of the world in terms of its family business orientation, the majority of Italian brands have shown apt flexibility in adopting modern business practices in fashion management. Italy has always had the typecast of fashion manufacturing, while France was known for fashion branding and Britain for fashion retailing. However, in the current fashion environment, these stereotypes are no longer applicable as each of these countries, especially Italy, has shown the ability for appropriate adaptation to the fashion market's needs.
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