March 28, 2014 7:30 pm

The enduring appeal of Italian menswear

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953); Richard Gere in ‘American Gigolo’ (1980)©The Kobal Collection/Corbis

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953); Richard Gere in ‘American Gigolo’ (1980)

I was there at the beginning, when Italian men’s fashion started its soft-shoe shuffle towards world domination. I had just left my student years and the 1970s behind, and a new job loomed. Trainee journalists on provincial newspapers were not famous for their dress sense but I needed to look, at the very least, smart. Flared jeans were not going to do it for me. So I went to see this movie, in the spring of 1980, called American Gigolo, and its now-famous sequence of Richard Gere preening bare-chested to Smokey Robinson, as he picked his way delicately through an impossibly replete and chromatically harmonious wardrobe. He seemed to be singing to his shirts: “Oh you held me captive in your false embrace.” The clothes flopped on to his bed, as if of their own accord, plying their supple charms. They didn’t even seem like men’s clothes at all: their lines were fluid, their textures soft. Gere had clearly fallen in love with them; and like many a callow 22-year-old whose idea of colour co-ordination had been to team denim shirts with denim jeans, so did I.

Giorgio Armani suit (1994)©Victoria and Albert Museum

Giorgio Armani suit (1994)

Of the many stories told in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, it is the menswear story that is among the most compelling. Gere’s serenade to his Armani outfits in the middle of that time span constituted a cultural revolution. Not that it was the first ever display of male narcissism, which after all has a lengthy history; it was more that it sold an idea, that of sprezzatura, or relaxed elegance, that gripped the world, and shows no sign of letting up. The top Italian menswear designers are today expanding into countries that, at the time of American Gigolo, were threatening nuclear war on the soft resolve, and soft fabrics, of capitalism.

Everyone wants the look today: the look that says I am smart and rich and tasteful, and I don’t even have to try too hard to show it. I can trounce you in business but I would rather be sipping an early-evening espresso on the terrace. I am hard-boiled and ruthless but I don’t need to wear chainmail: my finely spun suit will do my talking for me. It was the Italians who effected that aesthetic transformation, and we are still living through the reverberations.

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Peter Aspden

The genesis of the revolution was both material and philosophical. American money poured into Italy in the years following the war, and was keen to support its indigenous fashion industry. At the same time, wealthy US tourists, and then Hollywood, began to travel to the big Italian cities, revelling in the street theatre and the gorgeous backdrops. Local sartorial idiosyncrasies were picked up and instantly valorised: the unpadded and scantily lined suits made in Naples to allow for the stifling heat, which drew attention to the high-quality fabrics the city’s tailors were using; the pignata, or horseshoe, pockets that instantly conferred an air of nonchalance on the wearer compared with the stiffer, more formal London suits. The English style, both literally and figuratively buttoned up, was able to “gently correct the defects of the wearer”, says Sonnet Stanfill, curator of the V&A show; the southern Italians made no such concessions. “They hoped you would come in great shape.”

Peter Aspden in the mid-1980s

Peter Aspden in the mid-1980s

The look of relaxed sensuality became a keynote of American, and by extension world, culture. “Come back to Sorrento,” sang Sinatra, and they did. Magical things happened in Italy: a princess could fall in love with a reporter on a scooter. You can still find posters of Roman Holiday all over the city. The magic affected everyone: the film was co-written by Dalton Trumbo, a communist. The clothes were the symbol of the country that bewitched us all. It was a perfect swarm of contributing factors: immaculate standards of workmanship, honed over centuries; devilishly clever marketing; a postwar world that was loosening up, socially, morally. A new figure began to emerge: the stilista, not just a stylist but a kind of liaison officer between textile manufacturers, entrepreneurs and the media. The transition from personal tailoring to ready-to-wear began to turn fashion into a mass phenomenon. All was in place by the time of the Richard Gere moment: the name of Giorgio Armani was on the brink of achieving thermonuclear levels of recognition. I saved up, for quite a long time, just for one of his ties. Aspiration towards luxury became a symptom of social mobility. The cult of the designer grew and grew.

Giorgio Armani©Rex Features

Giorgio Armani

Stanfill says there has been more than one “golden age” of Italian menswear: the early 1950s, when Brioni put on the first menswear collection on the catwalk; and the “go-go” years of the 1980s, when designers became superstars. The expansion of fashion and luxury in the emerging markets makes her think we may be on the brink of another one; one that “seems not to have any limits”. “It is,” she says, “a story about materials.” While researching the show, she spoke to a leather technician at Gucci “who had to train for 10 years to be allowed to call himself a cutter”. Here is the winning paradox: all that hard labour behind a look that aspires to effortlessness.

We pause before a rich blue velvet suit, from 2004. “Tom Ford for Gucci,” she says. “He was Gucci’s own best model: stylish, confident. He was the embodiment of Gucci man. Even though he’s from Texas.” Just some more Milanese mythmaking. Smoke and mirrors, Italian style. “The love I saw in you,” croons Smokey while Gere gazes at his shirts, “was just a mirage.”

‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014’, V&A, London, April 5-July 27, www.vam.ac.uk

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‘He burnt through money, friends, lovers and life’

Although his name is not widely known, designer and stilista Walter Albini (1941-83) made a major impact on Italian fashion. Working under the label “Walter Albini for ... ” he designed for companies such as Basile and Misterfox before launching his own Grande Gatsby collection in 1972. Here, his friend Carla Sozzani, founder of concept store 10 Corso Como, remembers his life and influence.

Walter Albini in 1971

Walter Albini in 1971

Walter’s research was far-reaching: into the ancient, the new, the Orient, the Occident, astrological myths, warrior masks and Italian art. Research into chemistry, and alchemy, and how many yellows can be drawn from the stamens of a crocus flower were all part of his thinking. Looking to the future, grounded in the past, his first designs, shown in Florence in 1965 convinced him that haute couture was fading.

While he found the history of the 1920s especially wonderful, it was also fabric that drew his attention. He was in love with Barbier, Benito, Erté, Poiret, Liberty and art deco.

He was the first to understand the importance of designing the fabric for the dress, not the dress for the fabric. Working with the Milanese fabric houses of Etro and Bellotti, he broke with the seasonal shows in Florence and in 1971 decided to show his collections in Milan, which is how the Italian ready-to-wear began. It made him a star.

In 1974, a separate line for men again expanded into markets that no one had given any thought to and the Milanese studio stayed very busy, bringing Italian fashion to a new, young and international clientele.

Albini designs, 1972

Albini designs, 1972

However, his extravagance cost him dearly. Some saw only his gold hair, the trips to Sidi Bou Said, his home on the Grand Canal in Venice and the extravagant fashion shows at Café Florian. He was the prototype for the ‘star designer’ of the 1970s and he burnt through money, friends, lovers and life rapidly. Style was his only link to reality. Nothing or no one could divert his path when it came to his work. To be faithful to his dream, he was unfaithful to everybody.

“One day he was asked, ‘What natural gift would you like to have?’ and he answered, ‘Wealth.’ But this was not true. He never saved it and he would rather lose a supplier or a client than change a single camellia – he cared so little for money. He made and spent with abandon and created perfection by paying little attention to the costs.

He demanded of himself only perfection in all aspects. From the first drawings – ‘when I draw women, I often am captured by the drawing itself’, he said – to the design, cut, fabric, and all the accessories, there was no aspect that he did not supervise with care and follow up to its great finale.

We were great friends. For years we would all gather, myself and others who loved fashion and loved art and loved him. All at the long tables in Torre di Pisa in Milan, always very late at night, not knowing how soon it would end. He died in 1983, making beauty and making history.

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