Questioning the ‘Senators’ of Italian Fashion

BoF’s editor-in-chief Imran Amed reports from the recent press conference held by the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana on the state of Italian fashion.

Gildo Zegna, Patrizio Bertelli, Mario Boselli and Diego della Valle | Source: BoF

MILAN, Italy — For several years now, the international fashion industry has been whispering about the decline of Milan Fashion Week and the waning influence of Italian fashion at large. Indeed, with the rising fortunes of fashion weeks in New York (the fashion world’s commercial hotspot) and London (the industry’s creative hotspot), and the continued pre-eminence of Paris, the world’s most important fashion capital for both business and creativity, Milan has been suffering something of an existential crisis.

What does Italian fashion really stand for? And how can its once dominant position be recaptured?

In recent months, Italian heavyweights like Giorgio Armani and Donatella Versace have aired their views on the topic. But a press conference convened on Sunday morning, at which several leading figures of the Italian fashion establishment came together to speak about the future of Italian fashion, was the first public signal that they were finally taking notice of a problem that has been creeping up steadily over the past few years.

Their first major action was to appoint brand new board members to refresh the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI), including big guns like Gildo Zegna, Patrizio Bertelli and Diego della Valle. In a significant show of force, each of the new appointees outlined one of the new strategic themes the board had adopted to guide the direction of Italian fashion: Made in Italy, unity and connections to lifestyle, art and culture.

First up was longtime president, Mario Boselli who introduced Patrizio Bertelli, the highly respected chief executive of Prada Group as the new vicar vice-president of CNMI. Mr Bertelli spoke on behalf of Italy’s new “senators of fashion,” asserting that despite news to the contrary, the foundations of the Italian fashion system remain strong.

“There are no big problems or challenges in Italian fashion today. Without Italy, the whole fashion system would be in chaos,” he said, alluding to the indispensable role that Italian mills and manufacturers play in producing ‘Made in Italy’ luxury products for brands around the world.

Mr Gildo Zegna, chief executive of Ermenegildo Zegna and new vice-president of the CNMI, added that fashion remains a key pillar of the Italian economy, employing more than 1 million people. The “name of the game is unity,” said Mr Zegna, emphasising that working together with the other important institutions in Italian fashion — Pitti Immaggine, Milano Unica, Alta Moda — is a priority.

Finally, Diego della Valle, chairman of the Tod’s Group, another recent addition to the CNMI, said that the Camera had not been communicating effectively with the press and its counterparts in other countries. “It’s not that complicated,” he began, “after all we have access to our country. We should be able to show you how special this country is. We want to act as ambassadors.”

But immediately after the planned speeches, cracks began to appear in the surface of the new strategy. One by one, beginning with Godfrey Deeny, fashion editor-at-large of Le Figaro, members of the international fashion press asked pointed questions about key issues which had not been addressed by the assembled CNMI membership, resulting in some heated and sometimes awkward exchanges.

Deeny pointed out that that the expression of “unity” rang rather hollow without the participation of Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani, both of which had previously decided not to join the CNMI. According to Mr Boselli, Messieurs Dolce and Gabbana had chosen not to accept a recent invitation to join the organisation, a position they have held for the last 12 years. Boselli went on to say he remained confident that Mr Armani’s position would soon change, however, as the CNMI had already met the first of two unspecified conditions set out by Mr Armani as preconditions to his participation. In the past, Mr Armani has said that he would not join the CNMI until brands like Valentino and Miu Miu brought their shows back to Milan. And after the Emporio Armani show on Monday, Mr Armani stood his ground: “Nothing has changed and I am not joining the Camera.”

Suzy Menkes was next to take a jab, saying that the CNMI was woefully out of sync with the digital era. The group responded with unclear statistics about web traffic and said the website now had show images online. Ever the quick wit, Menkes asked why nobody had emailed her about these new developments, further underscoring the CNMI’s poor communications with the world outside the Italian fashion bubble. As of today, the Milan Fashion Week schedule must still be downloaded as a PDF.

Then, a reporter from Agence France Presse pointed out that the new board was far from young and that no women had been invited to speak (most of the members are men in their fifties or sixties). The panel bristled at the observation and from here things descended into rambling, defensive reactions.

There was not one young designer present at Sunday’s press conference and the issues facing Italy’s young designers were not addressed in either the prepared remarks or the press release distributed afterwards. As I see it, this is the biggest problem facing Italian fashion, which desperately lacks a support system to systematically identify, cultivate and invest in the next generation of Italian luxury brands. More than art and culture, it is young designers who can bring a new energy to a Milan Fashion Week dominated by big brands. As my friend Alex Fury noted in his review of the Dolce & Gabbana show over the weekend, “Milano is dominated by companies whose vice-like grip on the fashion industry has been in place for decades. Sometimes, that grip feels like more of a choke-hold, strangling off oxygen to new talent.”

So, when it was my turn to question the board, I focused on their plans for supporting young designers. Mr Boselli said that this was indeed high on the CNMI’s agenda and that, starting this September, young designers would no longer be relegated to impossible timeslots at the beginning and end of Milan Fashion Week. A dedicated presentation space will be created to showcase their talents and, taking a page out of Mr Armani’s playbook, the CNMI will match young designers with more senior designers who can offer mentorship and other forms of support, much as Armani did with the young menswear designer Andrea Pompilio this season, giving him the opportunity to show in his own fashion show space.

These are sensible and promising plans, but by omitting these salient points from their official communications, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana seemed to say that this key issue was still not front of mind. Italian culture and ‘Made in Italy’ craftsmanship are, of course, a very important part of the future of fashion in Italy. But without young brands and designers, they will be nothing but vessels for designers from outside Italy and the corporate behemoths that currently dominate the Italian fashion system.

That so many of the country’s fashion magnates came together to acknowledge the challenges facing Italian fashion is definitely a step in the right direction. But in the end, to this observer at least, what’s missing most of all from the Italian fashion landscape, is a leader with a clear and inspirational vision — like the BFC’s Natalie Massenet or the CFDA’s Diane von Furstenberg — to deliver a concrete plan that everyone, the big kahunas and the young guns, can rally around.

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  1. Very well said! As a young designer in Italy it has been very difficult to setup my business here. There are very few grants or loans, no mentorship and a general lack of help and guidance from the ‘higher powers’ in the industry. There are so many of us working hard to represent Italy and the ‘Made in Italy’ quality of craftsmanship, but with no support from our own country.

    Alexandra de Curtis from Rome, Latium, Italy
  2. Isn’t the ‘leader with a clear and inspirational vision’ Miuccia Prada?

    Jayne Sheridan from Dewsbury, Kirklees, United Kingdom
  3. I think young managers are needed as well, not just young designers. A young mind is not stuck in the past, but it can value the heritage while moving on to new levels.

    Dea from Vienna, Bundesland Wien, Austria
  4. I love quality in word and imagery
    If i look at this picture i do not feel like reading anymore…
    did that ifone dropped or something?

    richard koek from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  5. As with every industry, innovation, creativity and forward thinking are the keystones of success. It’s important and useful that, as Senators, these major players are putting their names behind a national initiative – but it will be their individual, the industry’s and government’s concerted, consistent actions and support of new designers and for new business development that will make a real difference for Milan and “Made in Italy.”

    Imran, your support of young designers for the future of the industry worldwide is invaluable.

    Leslie L. Kossoff from Santa Ana, CA, United States
  6. The Canera fails to recognize that there are at least 2, if not 3 distinct industries they are attempting to rope into one. First there is the product manufacturing industry, a crucial pillar of the economy which is closely tied with the textile and leather industry that is equally important to the Italian economy and to the businesses of luxury designers around the world. Quite separate from these 2, yet still intricately tied together, is the Italian Fashion Design industry which is failing to nurture new talent and is woefully user un-friendly to the fashion press and buyers. Can the priorities of Italian textile heavyweights such as Jersey king Mario Boselli and Super 120′s king Gildo Zegna ever line up with the needs of young designers struggling to make a name for themselves? In my humble opinion, a separate association is needed, whose exclusive goal is to promote Italian designer talent, both established and emerging.

    I’d like to add that I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Armani about the Italian designers showing in Paris. Same goes for the British designers in Paris as well. Nothing would make me happier than to see Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Miu Miu and the like to return to their roots and show their collections in their home fashion weeks. Their incredible talent continues to inflate the importance of Paris as the premier fashion capital of the world, at the expense of their own Fashion industries back home.

    Jessica from New York, NY, United States
  7. The problem that was not addressed is there is not that many things Made in Italy any more. Prato is in the hands of the Chinese 40 to 60%, Biella most of the factories are closed as is Como. It is the tax system that needs to be address number one. The quality that one had in the 70′s and 80′s is gone. In the region of Abruzzo there were highly qualified artisans who were forced to close their doors along with many other regions in Italy. I ambasciatori di moda faranno niente, solo fumo, e interessi loro.

    A. Silvestri Faa from Foligno, Umbria, Italy
  8. I wrote an article on this in The Huffington Post in February.

    Since then I had a conversation on this topic with a top Italian fashion manufacturer – he believes that the Camera della Moda is not interested in developing new talent but rather maintaining the grip of the established brands. So I’m not surprised this issue is not ‘front of mind’.

    Christine Babington Smith from Saint Leonards, East Sussex, United Kingdom