Given all the attention paid to “Made in Italy” over the last few years, it seems almost wishful to posit style as an expression of nationality.
ST But postwar Italian fashion was something very specific. From its beginnings, Italian fashion benefited from a very integrated system, starting with the fabrics and continuing to the designers and manufacturers.
Wouldn’t the same have been true of, say, France?
ST When you think about the American or the French systems, they didn’t have that organization, from designing fabrics to distribution. Often the fabrics they used were imported from Italy. A lot of French fabrics and even products were made in Italy.
Why was that?
ST It was the high quality of the products and at an affordable price. After the war, during the ’50s and ’60s, Italy was full of very low-cost workers. Many had inherited family traditions of craftsmanship. The idea we had with this show was to demonstrate both the qualities and also the shortcomings of the Italian fashion system.
If traditions of quality craft were the positive, what was the negative?
ST There was an overall lack of managerial experience, a lack of coordination. Some of it was the fault of the government, which didn’t invest in infrastructure or education to bring Italian fashion to a level where it could compete with what was happening in other countries. But, where the government failed, Italian ingenuity stepped in. When you ask what Italian fashion was in that period, you could characterize it by saying Italy produced clothes of great quality at an affordable price. There was an incredible versatility in times of change — the fact, say, that small Italian fashion companies could shift direction every six months, alter the kinds of product they were putting out.
ST Women were beginning to ask for a uniform to go to work. Italian manufacturers got the message and produced one. Men were asking for a new uniform to have fun. The Italians got the message and delivered it.
How did you convey this in the show?
ST The show is not chronological. It’s organized by themes. There are nine rooms, and each looks at a specific moment in Italian history and how fashion mirrored it. There is the concept of identity, of democracy, of the global versus the local, and how Italian fashion dealt with the theories of postproduction. Maria Luisa and I were in the exhibition today looking at the actual clothes, and what was so striking was how many manage to look handmade yet had been produced on an industrial scale. You see a pair of Ferragamo shoes, and they have a handcrafted quality. Yet there was an industrial capacity in delivering it.
Italian ingenuity as a premise, rather than the usual clichés about an Italian penchant for beauty?
Maria Luisa Frisa It’s about Italy solving problems. Designers of all kinds would come to Italy from all over the world because there is the industrial structure there to make idea reality.
ST After the war, a big emphasis was given to small family companies and not the big industrial complex. You could make things in small artisan shops.
By shops you mean mills and factories, as is still the case?
MLF Yes. Americans have always been great at producing in mass. But who pays attention to the quality of the fabric or the buttonholes the way Italians do? Nobody does.
And yet in the show you are talking aesthetics but also an ethos that might apply to industrial design?
MLF When you look at some of the Gianfranco Ferré clothes and the Giorgio Armani clothes we used in the show, you’ll see they’re almost designed like a chair.
ST Italian designers in this period were thinking about Italian identity in much the same way industrial architects and designers were. They were thinking about fashion but also about furnishing the body. This was happening within the context of a conversation simultaneously going on with the contemporary art of the period, which is why the show also features art work and photography.
Isn’t this evolution to some degree a result of post-Marshall Plan reconstruction?
ST Suddenly designers here were thinking about Italian identity. They were weighing what kind of impact an increasingly global system would have on them. Probably without thinking about it much, they were absorbing all kinds of influences and Italianizing them. When you look at Versace, it’s incredible what he was putting into the clothes. There is the history of Magna Graecia. There is Hollywood glamour. There are the tropical colors of Miami. He was pairing bluejeans denim with beautiful silks from Lake Como, fabrics with 100 or more colors that can only be made in Italy.
So this “Italianness,” if that’s what it is, becomes both platform and filter.
ST That’s why we call it the history of Italy in fashion. It was fascinating to look at the recent documentary on Gianni Agnelli and how it demonstrates Italy going from being a place that was all in black and white to a place that was full of color. There is a lot of darkness in the history of Italy in the 20th century, even into the ’70s, when you had both the extreme left Red Brigades but also — something everyone forgets — the Fascists. There had been these bleak times, and suddenly there was prosperity. Italians could now afford to travel. They could think again about things like luxury.
MLF And the war had isolated the country in such a way that ignorance almost became a form of imagination. Whether or not he ever went there, there is a lot of joy and brio in how somebody like Gianfranco Ferré was interpreting, let’s say, Africa, though not literally.
And there followed a period when “Made in Italy” became a kind of shorthand for elevated taste.
MLF Yes. Though good taste is a quality but can also be a fault.
That brings us to the career of Miuccia Prada, who has spent her career flouting or interrogating class-based conventions of taste.
MLF It’s not only Prada. Franco Moschino was an incredible social commentator. He had amazing wit. So the show is about reminding people of designers we may have forgotten while also honoring the industrial creativity that goes into making products that are stylish, fit well and solve problems.
ST And create beauty. There are magical designers like Romeo Gigli, who is, unfortunately, a little bit forgotten. We talk a lot in the show, too, about anonymous authorship in the industry.
ST There are the name designers, of course. But there are companies where it hardly matters who the designer happens to be. You take a label like Callaghan, where Gianni Versace worked, Walter Albini worked, Romeo Gigli worked and, most recently, Nicolas Ghesquière worked. They were always making incredible things.
You mean, as though there some kind of industrial intelligence underpinning the enterprise?
ST There is a signature to Italian fashion that goes beyond a “Made in Italy” label. There is know-how and a level of understanding. That’s why so many fashion prototypes are still made in Italy. Italians are industrially nimble. They’re intuitive and good at finding solutions. Say a designer says, “I want to put a ton of Swarovski crystals on a see-though shirt.” In the United States, manufacturers would just say, “What?” In Italy, they would never say, “No, this is crazy!” There is a maybe. There is never a no.