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Milan’s Paninari: Just a Fashion Trend, Or Cultural Phenomenon of the 80’s?

“They have been cast as a fashion movement but in hindsight, the paninari were much more…”

Timberland boots, Levis 501 jeans, El Charro belt, Armani shirt, Moncler jacket, Invicta backpack or Naj Oleari bag. The outfit of the paninari, a very expensive outfit, marked a generation. They have been cast as a fashion movement but in hindsight, the paninari were much more: a real social phenomenon, sons of the eighties, and like all fashions, daughters of their time. 

In Milan city center, groups of young people gathered on Saturday afternoons. Right-wingers here, left-wingers there. Sometimes the groups would cross paths and it would end badly. It had been like this since the student movements of 68′ when politics divided the waters. Then came the Years of Lead, political terrorism and the Cold War and after, the wonderful Eighties began. In the U.S., President Reagan arrived; in Russia, the Perestroika movement started and old ideologies faded away. In Italy, Craxi’s socialists were elected to the government, Berlusconi’s networks were on TV, neo-liberalism was spreading: for the first time, the “I” became more important than the “we”. In this climate, a group of young people decided to move from the historic meeting place in the central Piazza San Babila to the nearby Piazza Liberty, just in front of the bar Al Panino. Although it may be legend that the group was named after this sandwich shop, from that moment on, the paninari changed the style and taste of a nation for over a decade.

All dressed the same, strictly in big brands, the sons of the Milanese bourgeoisie sought new identities. They listened to American pop music, undemanding and danceable; they chewed on English words and formed their own slang, coining terms like cucador (“Latin lover”) or spitinfia (“picky girl”); they chose the brand new Italian fast-food restaurants like Wendy’s and Burghy’s as their meeting places. With the first walkmans, they shared tapes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham! They were not a new youth subculture: they were a concentrate of mainstream style so dense as to stand out from all the rest. “Is there something more behind the appearances?” everyone wondered, trying to put the paninari into context. “Do you belong to any political party?” asked the reporters of the time, microphones in hand, but they had no answers: they just didn’t think about politics. They wanted to have fun with those in their company, designer clothes, girls, bikes and cars. A few years earlier, teenagers of the same age would have taken up arms to defend an ideal and build a better world. But the years of the paninari were the years of “Milano da bere” (“Milan is for drinking”, the slogan of Ramazzotti Amaro’s marketing campaign), of yuppies, of commercial TV and Dynasty, of an Italy that wanted to leave the past behind and be modern, American, fashionable.

As with any phenomenon, it’s difficult to establish a beginning or end date of the paninari. It’s much easier to identify the peak. The year was 1986: the paninari were everywhere–no longer avangarde, but already established. The Pet Shop Boys, after a visit to the center of Milan, recorded the song “Paninaro”; Italian cinemas released the film Italian Fast Food, which comedian Enzo Braschi parodied on the TV program Drive In; the newsstands carried comics titled “Paninaro”, “Wild Boys” and “Cucador”. There were Paninaro dictionaries and lists of brands to own, stickers to glue, places to go, and music to listen to; the wannabes and followers adhered to this orthodoxy in order to be cool. Then in two or three years, everything ended as quickly as it had begun. The Berlin Wall fell and shortly afterwards, Italian politics was swept away by the Tangentopoli scandal. 

A Milanese born in 1980, I am too young to have been part of the movement, but old enough to remember the songs on the radio, the Avirex jackets à la Top Gun and RayBan sunglasses, and the new and forbidden taste of the Big Burghy. I was simply there like the sociologists of the time who tried to investigate, narrate, and psychoanalyze the phenomenon–too attentive to appearances and lacking in ideals. Today, 40 years later, in the city of the paninari, people drink American coffee and bubble tea, watch Netflix, eat tacos and poké, talk only about calls, briefs and schedules. 

The paninari were the beginning of a new era and although we Italians are always nostalgic, there’s no need to be. For those who understand Italian, it’s enough to listen to “Paninaro 2.0” by Il Pagante–a semi-serious Milanese band that puts the vices and virtues of this city on stage. This city where the eighties have never ended.

In collaboration with NSS Magazine