One day a few thousand years ago, a funny thing happened at the forum. A Roman showed up with a sheet draped across his shoulder, called it a toga, made a few dramatic gestures -- and suddenly everyone felt terribly overdressed and gauche in their trussed-up tunics.
It's been happening since fashion began. Italians have been trumping buttoned-down looks with casual elegance that translates immediately into classical eloquence and leaves everyone else wanting the same. Visit any Italian city and you encounter an entire citizenry -- from the captains of industry to meter readers -- who have an innate sense of style that makes everything from a night at the opera to a trip for an espresso an exercise in sartorial expression. They can walk amidst the ruins of Rome in the most updated gear or wear the most luxurious raiment through a factory in Milan and make both acts seem implicitly natural. An Italian can don the same suit every day for a week and with a change of pocket square, a roll of a cuff or a flower tucked into the lapel make it look like a wholly different outfit. He can enter a room full of navy blue pinstripe suits wearing a pastel jacket and make it seem like the corporate dress code suddenly changed and he's the only who got the memo.
But how did the Italians corner the market on panache, while the rest of us wait for the crumbs to fall off their plates?
It seems rather simple, but it's a state of mind. It helps that Italians live in a land where every day is a celebration of beauty, where a hearty cry of "Bellissimo!" is as likely to come from an enthused construction worker as an interior designer. Italian culture draws fewer distinctions between what is art and what is not and lets aesthetic appreciation flow through everything.
Italy is also a place of liberated palette, informed by azure seas and skies and coral coasts. Italians are not held prisoner by the drab tones of winter. Moreover, a certain opportunism is born of a spiny mountainous terrain with flinty soil. If Italians find a patch of earth, they grow tomatoes. If they have a single shirt to wear, they do it with style. Further, Italian society has not been cursed by the modern world's reluctance to work with the hands. Italians are artisans, proud of their crafts, and they don't necessarily aspire to the boardroom or the big deal. Hence they have a great wealth of talent and are willing to pour their attention into the most minute details. And in fashion that is a big deal.
Since the day Marco Polo smuggled back silkworms from the East, Italians have been proudly and painstakingly working the finest fabrics to perfection. The town of Biella in the northwest creates some of the most luxurious superworsted and cashmere materials in the world. Today, Italy represents the assimilation of textile mill technology and designer creation of shape and silhouette. Design houses such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali and Giorgio Armani have created their own mills for weaving fabrics, testing new technologies and manufacturing styles.
No matter how much fashion is a business, in Italy it's also always an art. What would seem like a factory in America -- 180 master tailors working side by side in the Neapolitan workshop of Kiton -- becomes a celebration of handcraftsmanship. Twenty-five hours of meticulous stitching and nothing else -- the linings are never heat-fused -- creates a suit that is a work of art.
Italian pride in workmanship is not undermined, however, by slavishness to tradition or a reticence to borrow from other cultures. The Italian suit is, of course, just another take on the uniform created on London's Savile Row. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Italians unapologetically borrowed the model, tricking it out with their own marvelous details and sense of style. They gave as good as they got, for it was at this time that Cerruti began supplying the great fashion houses with cloth. Italian fashion still refers back occasionally to the English origin, but with a cross-cultural flair that makes it its own. Luciano Barbera was educated in England and his style smacks of that influence. Sometimes the Italians return the favor to Britain. Leonard Logsdail, a Savile Row tailor now in New York, says that he's been known to tear a page from the Italians' book, by emulating their lightness of touch.
When the French ruled fashion in the 1950s, the Italians challenged all the tightly wound Gallic precision with more florid expressions. Brioni stole some French thunder by being the first to stage a men's fashion show. It was in the 1970s when the Italians came into their own with the emergence of Giorgio Armani, who simply stopped trying to emulate the French model of pinched body-hugging suits and obsessive finery. He created his draped look, boldly uttering the dictum: "Eliminate the superfluous, emphasize the comfortable, and acknowledge the elegance of the uncomplicated." The style clearly won out as it wedded yards and yards of the most elegant fabric with a relaxed form that was more realistic for a body type -- especially in America -- that was not anorexic.
Even America was a source for the Italian look. In the early twentieth century, shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo moved to the United States, where first he made cowboy boots and eventually custom-made shoes for the likes of John Barrymore and Rudolph Valentino in his Hollywood shop. He eventually returned to Florence as the "Shoemaker to the Stars."
Italians understand that seeming contradictions create excitement. And strict rules do not. Or as the folks from Zegna point out, soft can equal sharp. Therefore, don't be surprised at the Tuscan willingness to mix media. A sweater tied over the shoulders of a suit is accepted policy. Driving moccasins with evening clothes is not unheard of. Neither is wearing two shirts at once.
Stodginess and unwillingness to experiment have never been the hallmarks of the Italian tailor. In his hands the newest super worsteds and the most delicate cashmeres have transformed the once weighty and hot business uniform into a globe-trotting, climate-spanning suit. While a firm like Loro Piana is famous worldwide for its high-tech Biella factory, Italians are never so ethnocentric that they can't appreciate the product of other cultures. Kiton gets most of its fabric from England.
Family values loom large in the Italian fashion world, where businesses get handed down from generation to generation. The Zegnas have been in the business for generations and run their $600 million-plus operation with a collection of cousins who oversee every aspect of the business.
Lines blur in Italian fashion. Nino Cerruti took his family firm from cloth making to fashion forging in the '40s and later gave Armani his first opportunity. Barbera pulled off a similar switch after three generations of fabric making. Ottavio Missoni started out making track uniforms, Emilio Pucci, skiwear. Cerruti's first show included plays he had produced with the actors wearing his clothes. Brioni now publishes prestigious books, some fashion oriented -- a celebration of boutonnieres; some not -- a tome on single-malt Scotch.
Even as Italian fashion recognizes that an ever-changing world moves relentlessly into the future, one thing never changes: the appreciation of quality materials and expert workmanship.