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The Forgotten/Lesser-Known Giants of Italian Fashion

Italians are known throughout the world for their inherent sense of style and attention to always being well turned-out, with the Milanese in particular regarded as being especially elegant. Indeed, fashion seems to be woven into the fabric of Milan’s culture, reinforcing its status as the fashion capital of the world. For many non-Italians, including me, simply calling to mind Italian fashion is likely to conjure up visions of sumptuous cashmere, perfectly tailored suits and supple leather loafers. Italy’s significance in the foundations of modern fashion is undeniable and even those thoroughly disinterested in fashion can recall a handful of big Italian brands. The country’s prowess for sartorial excellence is ingrained in its history, in large part thanks to its production of textiles such as wool, silk and velvet. During the Renaissance, the cities of Venice, Florence, Rome and Milan were renowned for their precious homespun fabrics. Powerful dynasties such as the Medici family, which proudly dressed in Florentine silks, raised the profile of many local dressmakers. Being well-dressed has always been non-negotiable for Italians – one only has to wander around the Uffizi in Florence to admire the lavish clothes of those portrayed in Da Vinci’s portraits from the 15th century.


The Made in Italy label is synonymous with the highest quality materials, craftsmanship and credibility, evoking images of family-run businesses which have been making garments by hand for generations. The value of this country of origin statement is a firm guarantee of excellence and expertise passed down through generations and the Made in Italy branding itself has become a precious asset for the country. The birth of Made in Italy was in 1951 at Palazzo Pitti in Florence where Gian Battista Giorgini – an Italian agent for American department stores – organised the first Italian fashion show for American customers. This was the first time that ready-to-wear was available in multiple sizes — fortunately the famous French couturiers were not yet able to offer the same. Arguably, it was the Italians who created the bridge between French Haute Couture and American functionality to create the concept of high fashion that was actually wearable.


It was in post-war Italy during the 1950s and 60s when Italian fashion really came into a league of its own thanks to industrial production and machinery which enabled designers to produce much bigger quantities of their designs and – most importantly – rival their French counterparts. Furthermore, the founding of the Camera Nazionale della Moda (the National Chamber of Italian Fashion) in 1958 established Italy as a credible sartorial superpower to be respected by its international peers. While Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel were dressing the highest echelons of society from their Parisian ateliers, across the Alps the Italians were gathering momentum. By the time Italy had recovered from the political fallout of the 1970s, the surge of ‘Made in Italy’ brands accelerated.


No doubt the reason why we associate Italians with inherent style is partly thanks to the impressive roster of famous fashion designers the country has produced over the years, many of which remain global household names today. Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada and Domenico Dolce & Stefano Gabbana – to name just a few who achieved global renown during the 1980s Made in Italy boom – are famed for their designs with loyal followings in every international market and are still the principal designers at their namesake brands. Other designers such as Valentino Garavani, Guccio Gucci, Paola Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gianni Versace, Ermenegildo Zegna and Ottavio Missoni may no longer be at the helm of their eponymous brands, but their names live on as leading luxury brands with annual turnovers of several billion. Their influence on fashion transcends history: ‘Valentino red’ and Armani’s ‘greige’ have become iconic colours, while the Gucci horsebit buckle or Bottega Veneta ‘intrecciato’ woven leather are universally recognisable even without a logo. 


And yet there are a handful of Italian fashion designers whose contribution to modern fashion was invaluable but whose names are worthy of greater renown. These designers occupy a very important place in fashion history and their names were once synonymous with Italian chic. However, their stars have been somewhat dimmed with the passing of time. We risk the names of these key designers being lost with the last generations who lived during their tenures. It’s high time, therefore, to educate new generations about the giants that paved the (run)way in the 20th century. After all, in order to predict the future, it is first essential to understand the past. Behold, some of the lost giants of Italian fashion that deserve to return to the limelight…


Mariuccia Mandelli a.k.a. Krizia (1925 – 2015)

Originally from the city of Bergamo in the north of Italy, Mariuccia Mandelli is widely regarded as “the godmother of Italian fashion”, whose brand Krizia was one of the most popular in Milan during the 1960s and 1970s. However, Mandelli almost didn’t become a fashion designer because her parents wanted her to become a primary school teacher, a profession she held for a few years until a friend suggested she pursue her true passion of fashion design. In 1954, Mandelli could be found driving around Milan in her Fiat 500 packed full of her designs which she sold to Milanese shops. She was soon noticed by a journalist from Grazia magazine and ten years later Mandelli held the first fashion show for her brand Krizia at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence for which she was awarded a prestigious Critica della Moda award. She later posed for a portrait by Andy Warhol and, thanks to her seemingly radical views and circle of friends, acquired the nickname of ‘Crazy Krizia’.

The brand name Krizia comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogue, Κριτίας, which speaks of female vanity, epitomising Mariuccia Mandelli’s approach to fashion and her skill of reflecting the progressive atmosphere of the 1970s in her designs. After all, Mandelli was the first to present scandalously short hot pants on the runway in 1971. When asked in an interview before her death what her ideal Krizia woman was like, Mandelli replied “la mia donna è libera”, thus solidifying her place as a revolutionary in the annals of Italian fashion history.


Gianfranco Ferré (1944 – 2007) 

Gianfranco Ferré is perhaps best known for his time as Creative Director of Christian Dior from 1989 to 1996, but his own eponymous brand was one of the most influential Italian brands of the 1980s and 1990s. Ferré originally studied architecture in Milan, which informed his later work as a fashion designer where his elaborately structured and sculptural silhouettes gained him worldwide renown as ‘the architect of fashion’. Indeed, his architectural training was particularly evident in his use of exaggerated seams and voluminous white shirts with oversized cuffs, both of which became signatures of his designs. Ferré began his career designing accessories for Walter Albini but soon established his brand Gianfranco Ferré in 1974, designing both womenswear and menswear. Ferré’s travels in India inspired his use of yellow, red and fuchsia in his designs, along with the prominence of paisley, which brought an exotic touch of the Orient to 1980s Milan. It was his unusual appointment to the house of Dior in 1989 by Bernard Arnault, however, that catapulted Ferré to global fame. His arrival in Paris raised many eyebrows since it was unheard of at the time for a Parisian couture house to hire a foreign designer, but Ferré soon gained a loyal following of Dior clients and established himself as a celebrated designer. He returned to Milan following his tenure at Dior and continued to design for his own label until his untimely death in 2007 aged just 62. Famed for his flair for tailoring and androgynous silhouettes, Gianfranco Ferré remains one of the most celebrated Italian designers long after his death.



Elio Fiorucci (1935-2015)

Fiorucci: a brand synonymous with disco culture, tight jeans and t-shirts adorned with cherubs wearing sunglasses – the unofficial uniform of the cool kids of the 1980s. The origins of this famous brand are much humbler, however, where a 14-year-old Elio Fiorucci began work at the family shoe shop in Milan alongside his five siblings. Fiorucci was soon designing shoes of his own, earning him the money to travel the world for inspiration. He travelled to Ibiza, Mexico and – most significantly – arrived in London during the Swinging Sixties, where he was so galvanised by the radical styles of Carnaby Street and the King’s Road that upon his return to Italy, Fiorucci founded his own fashion label inspired by the trends set by British brands Mary Quant and Biba. Fiorucci wasn’t interested in following in the footsteps of heritage Italian brands and instead set out to create a brand more daring, eclectic and disruptive than anything Italy had ever seen. Fiorucci stores were entirely different from traditional clothing shops, with Keith Haring art on the walls, live DJ sets and in-store bars serving cocktails and fast food – many refer to Fiorucci as the inventor of the concept store. His New York store even became known as the ‘daytime Studio 54’ because of its wild atmosphere and social status as a place for bright young things to be seen. Andy Warhol even had an office inside the store where he started Interview magazine. In addition to his invention of experiential retail, Fiorucci is perhaps best known for his creation of stretch jeans: denim with the addition of lycra to create an almost spray-on effect that was brilliantly scandalous at the time. Fiorucci is immortalised in the song He’s The Greatest Dancer by Sister Sledge: “He wears the finest clothes, the best designers heaven knows, ooh, from his head down to his toes, Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci…”


Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure, a.k.a. Biki (1906 – 1999)

Fashion and music often go hand in hand and Elvira Leonardi Bouyere’s life certainly intertwined the two worlds. Born in Milan just after the turn of the century, Bouyeure possessed a great affinity for music from a young age thanks to her grandfather, the celebrated composer Giacomo Puccini. It was Puccini who gave Bouyeure her unusual nickname of ‘bicchina’ as a child, meaning ‘naughty little one’, which later became ‘Biki’. After many trips to Paris to learn about the world of fashion (and where she met her husband, art collector Robert Bouyeure), Bouyeure decided to open her own fashion label in Milan in 1934 and went on to open stores in Zurich, Saint Tropez and Portofino. The designer played a particularly important role in fashion history as she was arguably the first celebrity stylist. Bouyeure was surrounded by famous musical and theatrical figures during her childhood as the granddaughter of a world-famous composer and thus naturally gravitated towards the stars of stage and screen when she founded her brand. Bouyeure dressed many actresses in Biki designs including Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, but it was the opera singer Maria Callas who really made Biki’s name. When a young Callas arrived in Milan to perform at La Scala in the 1950s, she was criticised for her unfashionable dress sense. Bouyeure had seen Callas perform and was so taken with her that she offered to dress the singer for all public appearances. Thanks to Bouyeure, Callas soon became a worldwide fashion icon and went on to wear her designs until the very end of her opera career, establishing Biki as a renowned Milanese seamstress and the original celebrity stylist who would go down in history.



Mila Schön (1916 – 2008)

Maria Carmen Nutrizio, known as Mila, was a key figure in the development of modern fashion thanks to her eye for detail, rigorous silhouettes and love of famous couturiers who inspired her own designs. Schön was born in 1916 to Italian parents in the region of Dalmatia in north-eastern Italy, which later became part of Croatia following WWII. She married a wealthy Austrian businessman whom she met in Milan (hence her Germanic surname) and as a wealthy young woman in post-war Italy Schön was a regular client of couturiers Cristobel Balenciaga and Christian Dior. Following her divorce and subsequent financial collapse, the young Italian decided to design her own clothes since she could no longer afford to buy the finest couture and her designs soon gained a loyal clientele of well-heeled Italian women. Schön presented her first collection in 1965 at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence and by the following year had opened a store on Milan’s famed Via Monte Napoleone. Her designs were recognisable for their precise cut and elegant, minimal lines and Schön’s signature became the use of ‘double-face’ wool to create reversible coats due to her apparent dislike of shiny linings. Her designs were worn by elegant society women in the 1960s, most notably by Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill, whom Schön dressed in a beaded tunic coat for Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball. Schön even designed the uniforms for Alitalia air hostesses in 1969, creating elegant green wool suits with miniskirts and matching bow hats. Today, Mila Schön is recognised as a pioneering Italian designer and her legacy remains that of the use of double-face wool, which later became an essential style of the 1960s. Several of Schön’s designs are now showcased in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.


So many of these former fashion giants are now sadly fading from memory, but their legacies live on in the fashion we wear today. It would be impossible to list every Italian designer who has helped to shape the fashion industry over the years, and I hope to be forgiven for those I have not been able to include. Milan would not be the fashion capital that it is today without these fundamental figures who created the now world-famous Made in Italy label, established Italy as a country of sartorial excellence and significantly shaped the fashion world as we know it.