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London’s Victoria & Albert Museum Explores the Past and Future of Italian Glamour

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Glamour of Italian Fashion

“Viva Italia!” says London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. For its latest exhibition, The Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014, the institution has embraced la dolce vita, filling its hallowed halls with all things Italiani. The show charts Italy’s growth as a fashion powerhouse, from the first fashion shows at the Sala Bianca in the 1950s through the symbolic development of the Made in Italy label, and into the 21st century via a dazzling array of new designer names.

The exhibition endeavors to shed light on how Italian glamour first came to be. And while Italy might not now have the same clout on the global fashion scene as it did in the late 20th century, the exhibition explores the transformative power Italian glam has always held and—via video interviews with Angela Missoni, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, and Vogue Italia‘s Franca Sozzani—hints at what the country’s sartorial future may hold.

While Milan’s big hitters (like Valentino, above) obviously get their deserved time in the spotlight, it’s heartening to see the likes of Fausto Puglisi and Stella Jean in the installation, too, especially considering Milan’s tough reputation for emerging designers. Here, Style.com speaks with curator Sonnet Stanfill, herself wearing a modern design from Fausto Puglisi, about Italian fashion’s humble beginnings, the evolution of Milan fashion week, and the power of glamour.

Why was now the right time to look at Italian glamour?
I think we’re opening at a really interesting time. The Camera Nazionale della Moda recently appointed a British female executive, Jane Reeve, to the new position of CEO, indicating their own awareness that they really need to shake things up. There’s been a lot of anxiety-ridden self-examination within the Italian fashion industry about its own future. We wanted to bring that debate within the four walls of the museum, so that’s why we ended the show with those filmed interviews with designers responding to questions about the future, about the difficulties of doing business in Italy today. Opening now feels timely because Italy is at a crossroads.

What makes Italian fashion so distinctive?

It’s multilayered. One key aspect is the strength of the country’s production, which is a unique feature of the Italian fashion system—you have whole valleys of the countryside dedicated to one kind of product. Silk in Como, leather goods in Tuscany, wool in Biella. That specialism has resulted in products of an extremely high quality. So that emphasis on materials, specialization, and techniques runs right throughout the exhibition.

Glamour of Italian Fashion

Do you think there is a need for new energy and fresh talent within Italy?
I absolutely do. If we had more space, I would have included more young names. We’ve been able to include designers like Stella Jean, whose Haitian-Roman parentage makes her Italian, but she sources textiles from Burkina Faso. And we’ve got Fausto Puglisi, whom I admire very much and who is a passionate supporter of Made in Italy. He sources his leather from Tuscany, his silk from Como. He’s obsessed about the craft. And that’s the type of voice that Italy needs for its future: that passion and dedication to materials, excitement, an original voice. I think he’s got a great future ahead of him.

What do you think Milan fashion week can do to reassert itself on a global stage?

Milan itself recognizes that it has to do more to support young designers. Franca Sozzani and her talent contest, Who Is on Next, in collaboration with Altaroma, does quite a bit to scout and mentor young designers. Stella Jean is a product of that contest. But more needs to be done in that area, and it’s still notoriously difficult to break into the Milan calendar. Fausto Puglisi describes breaking into the Milan fashion industry as going into battle.

The V&A’s exhibitions often like to put things into a broader context. Was that important in the making of The Glamour of Italian Fashion?

You can see that from the first moment you walk into the show, with a large photograph of Florence bombed in 1946 after the war. The easy thing to do would have been to launch into the Sala Bianca and its beautiful gowns, but I really wanted our visitor to understand what Italy looked like then. It was poor. It had only 50 percent literacy at that time. Most people worked as farmers, and in order to understand the true glamour of the Sala Bianca catwalk and what that meant for Italy, you really had to know that it was coming from a place of near despair. It’s a powerful contrast.

Glamour of Italian FashionWhy do you think we are so drawn to glamour?

I think fashion is a very optimistic enterprise. Because when you are buying a dress or choosing elements for your wardrobe, there is an act of self-creation involved, and with fashion itself, there is a dynamic of optimism with the changes involved. You’re thinking, If I just buy this one dress, I might look completely different! The word optimism is very apt for a lot of the fashion stories told here. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship involved—these are designers who start from nothing and can create fashion houses from nowhere.

What are some of your favorite pieces in the exhibition?

One of my favorites is the design by Mila Schön for Lee Radziwill to wear to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. It has long sleeves and silver sequins in a beautiful meandering pattern. We have a photograph of her dancing with Truman Capote on the catwalk, which shows that she has already checked her coat, but I think that evening coat and dress combination feels very 1960s. But what I really love is that the dress tells a wider story. It was worn by a woman who was known for her French couture wardrobe, and she chose an Italian to dress her for what Gloria Steinem described as “the party of the year” in Vogue. So only fifteen years after the first Italian fashion show in 1951, we have one of the best-dressed women in the world choosing a designer like Mila Schön for a party as grand as that. I love it on many levels.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014 runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum through July 27.

Photo: Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum