March 26, 2009
Prada, Versace, Gucci, Armani, Valentino, Bulgari, Zegna, Brioni, Cavalli, Ferragamo, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana. That Italians love fashion is not news. But is it true? Of course! Men and women, they both are utterly sexy and personal appearance is one of their major concerns.
Where does this Italian obsession come from? I don’t know, but I think it has always been like that. Just think of the intricate hairdos Italian women used during Roman times. I mean, they knew how to work it out! Ever since imperial times, in Italy there has been a fascination for personal opulence which translates into embracing a perfect sense of style. Fare bella figura, which means something like to give a good image of yourself, is the personal motto of most Italians. This includes how to behave, how to keep your reputation, and how to dress appropriately!
Related to the Italian love of fashion, the ultimate Italian social ritual is not a wedding, a baptism or a funeral, but la passeggiata. In every Italian city and in every Italian town, Italians love to dress up for their daily late-afternoon walk. The idea is to see and to be seen. Before dinner, you pick your best clothes and then go out. You greet your friends, you window shop, you sit around the Renaissance fountain on the main square of your town and talk endlessly by cell phone, you sit on a terrace of a restaurant and have a glass of wine with your friends, you check what everybody else is wearing and you show your new shoes (or your new love)!
But what’s the core of this fashionista way of life? The real Italian obsession is a passionate love of beauty! Just think of the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raffaello, Botticelli, Giotto, Vasari, Tiziano, Ghirlandaio... I can go on and on citing Italian artists whose works reflected their love of beauty... and please note how Botticelli made his Venus naked, but Flora is hurrying up to cover Venus with a gorgeous piece of Florentine fabric – almost an allegory of fashion!
Going to more recent times and beyond clothes, think of Italian design for cars, furniture and home goods. Not to mention the uncountable number of anonymous artists of ancient Rome who copied the work of anonymous sculptors and painters from Greece.
This is another dimension of the Italian character. In Italy, life is a big theater and appearance (again, fare bella figura) can be more important than the real thing. You can sacrifice other things, but you’ll never see an Italian with a suit that doesn’t fit; because if you’re Italian you’re concerned with how you present to your public, which is the rest of the world. So, you’re a poor Sicilian country boy? It doesn’t matter! During the passeggiata you have to look wealthy! In addition, Italians know they look good with their signature sunglasses… so, the sun is not shining? It doesn’t matter because you know you look fierce! Italians always make the joke that you can recognize your connazionali (other Italians) living in London, because they are always wearing their sunglasses, even with heavy rain – which in London is the normal day, you know.
I remember I was in Rome when Valentino decided to retire. He organized a big fashion show in the temple of the goddesses Rome and Venus (how Roman is that?). At the same time, and after many years of restorations, the Ara Pacis Augustæ was open to the public. The Ara Pacis is the big Altar of Augustan Peace built by the first Roman emperor Augustus, the very Caesar who took a Rome made of brick and turned it into marble (by covering the brick with marble… I told you that the important thing is appearance). The Ara Pacis celebrates the period known as Pax Romana or Roman Peace (however, you should ask the Parthians and the Goths what they thought about this Roman peace). Anyway, the Ara Pacis is a really nice thing to see by itself, not only because of the historical value but also because of the art involved. But if only in an Italian-themed flower show you can find shoes, only in Italy can you find a fashion exhibit in an almost 2,000 year old monument, the big opening of the Ara Pacis with a glamorous Valentino retrospective. I’m not complaining, because the setting was striking! The work of the most Roman fashion designer displayed in a grandeur that’s only possible in Rome. The mannequins looking like Vestal Virgins – the priestesses of the goddess Vesta in Ancient Rome – seemed to be ready for a sacrifice in the name of good taste, high fashion and style. Well, you know. In Italy, life is a runway.
If Augustus was the first emperor, Valentino is the last one to date. At least that’s what the new movie Valentino, the Last Emperor claims. The film features the last two years of Valentino’s career, including the big Roman finale I just told you about. It also tells you the story of his partner of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti.
I won’t be posting for a little while, because I’m going to northern England for a few days. But don’t worry, I’ll be wearing my sunglasses there!