The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?

Once upon a time, Italian fashion was a powerful force. Milan, Rome, Florence and Venice were hotspots for jewellery, clothing, shoe and textile design, the envy of and inspiration for the rest of Europe. But competition from England, France and Spain forced it to take a back seat. I’m talking, of course, of Renaissance Italy, where the Medici family set 16th and 17th century trends in much the same way Alexa Cheung does now, until courts from other parts of Western Europe gained dominance. What is interesting, however, is the striking parallel to today’s industry, where the once impregnable names of Prada, Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, even Armani, are under threat from other countries’ creative offerings.

The 1950s saw a direct homage to Italy’s former greatness as a fashion leader, with tradesman Giovanni Battista Giorgini consciously crafting a show with the aim of emulating its former success. Gucci’s success at selling handbags to the Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, Hollywood stars of the day, put Italy back on the fashion map. Its emphasis on personally tailored clothing was a sound riposte to American factory production, reinvigorating the concept of old fashioned luxury. This brought the brands, and their home nation, global attention. Today, Milan fashion week is a key staple in every Vogue reader’s diary. But being forced to move with the affordable, mass marketed and, for an era which champions the individuality of the individual; curiously ubiquitous times has presented challenges anew for Italian fashion.

Dasha Zhukova, then – fiancée, now wife of Roman Abramovich and sponsor of a variety of new designers, criticised Italian fashion as overly formal, favouring Russian and British design instead. She said; ‘People sometimes want to wear just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans rather than buying the entire Gucci collection.’ Such critiques have sparked fears that the heavy, illustrious styles favoured by Milanese designers are simply out of touch with how today’s super wealthy youth want to adorn themselves.

Dissent has come from inside as well as out. Giorgio Armani has described Prada’s designs as ‘tacky’ and ‘faddish’. It is true that against the spate of Italian fashion offerings in the last decade (plastic banana earrings under creative director Miuccia Prada, leopard print on – well, everything, in every shade of neon from Versace, and Roberto Cavalli’s apparent Swarovski crystal tourettes’ syndrome) the hues of his well cut suits stand out in their subtlety. Armani attributed the phenomena to excessive influence by the ‘banks’, with Prada recently having been floated on the stock market, unlike his own privately owned business. Couched within more juicy criticism, at Milan Fashion Week 2012 Armani described rival Miuccia Prada’s taste as clever for ‘irony’ and ‘bad taste which becomes chic’ before suggesting that some of her designs were ‘ugly’.

Remarkably, Italian fashion has been affected by Asian markets throughout history. In the 19th century, cheap imported silk from Asia to Milan further damaged native industry, which had already been knocked by aphid-like insects which destroying the plants. Despite this, the end of the century saw the creation of now haute couture Salvatore Ferragamo and the jeweller Bulgari. Famous fashion houses that began as leather goods and luggage makers such as Gucci were followed by others such as Prada in 1913. Over the last 100 years, similarly, designers have been lured by cheaper materials from China, and even, as in textile boomtown Prato, Chinese labour in Italy, where it fuels some 3,200 businesses. Those Italians who resent the success of such start-up immigrant businesses, to the apparent cost of native ones have some consolation. Nowadays, China is as much of a place to buy high fashion as to sell its raw materials. Signs that trade is very much two way are evinced in statistics which show China, and other fast growing Asian economies such as South Korea, as leading consumers of high end designer goods.

Moreover, to some fashionistas, crudeness is a small price to pay for high fashion. “Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: Impossible Conversations,” was the title of an exhibition which ran from May to August last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The spiritual godmother of Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli anticipated Prada’s use of wild colour and pattern as early as the 1920s. The show featured a display called “Ugly Chic,” which celebrated the individuality and expressiveness denoted by unorthodox dressing.

One woman who does not seem to mind is Donatella Versace. The bastion of the Italian fashion industry, famed for her white blonde hair and lime green leather flares, commented that: “first of all, any reaction is a good thing, the people who struggle are those who have no reaction at all.” As for those who eschewed bold designs; “They are too safe.”

But it was in tackling fashion’s inexorable problem, that Versace reminded us how to inject the fun back into fashion, as she mused: “Tacky – never mind. What is tacky? What is chic?”