MILAN, Italy — Burberry has packed up for London, abandoning Milan after a decade of menswear fealty. Giorgio Armani has scolded Italian designers who regularly show in other fashion capitals. And Donatella Versace even called for a fashion summit in a bid for unity.
Concern that Milan is losing prestige to London, Paris and New York is starting to crack the composure of the city's usually reserved fashion world.
The Italian National Fashion Chamber has been moved to action, announcing a reorganization this spring and making Prada's outspoken CEO Patrizio Bertelli the chamber's No. 2 with the goal of revitalizing Milan fashion.
Bertelli's first act: a letter to restaurants to stay open late during this week's menswear fashion previews that start Saturday. That may seem a small step, but consider that the fashion world spent 120 million euros ($157 million) in Milan over four fashion weeks in 2009, according to Bain & Company figures, a slow year as the key U.S. market was mired in crisis at the time.
Milan may have built-in fashion pedigree, but it does not have the same inherent tourist appeal as the other fashion capitals, which is reflected in their luxury sales that eclipse Milan's €4.5 billion ($5.9 billion) in 2012. New York was four times that, Paris double and London more than one-third higher, according to Bain.
As for the source of the malaise, the economic crisis that has now stalled over Italy has zapped resources from the fashion houses, local government that might otherwise provide a boost and the world of fashion media and fashion buyers that feed the system.
Fashion insiders and analysts say Milan doesn't do as much as other fashion cities to integrate cultural and artistic events and promote new designers to create buzz.
"For sure, some cities have invested more in creating a very powerful setting," said Claudia D'Arpizio, a Bain partner who analyzes the luxury goods market. "I think that is what the new fashion chamber is going to do, to make Milan very visible."
More recently, designer spats, not cooperation, have been the norm. The summit called by Versace apparently never took place, pre-empted by the fashion chamber's own reorganization.
Armani has put pressure on Italian designers to regularly show their collections in Milan, and not in other fashion capitals, reportedly making their return a condition for his participation on the policy-setting fashion chamber board.
Armani pointed out that he has done his part, long taking the last major fashion week slot at the chamber's request to keep the fashion crowd from rushing off to Paris. "Of course, this over time has brought various problems, such as, in some cases, the absence of some of the most important writers," Armani was quoted by Corriere della Sera as saying recently.
He also debunked any logistical difficulties that other fashion houses might have showing two lines in a single week, pointing out that he does it with the Emporio Armani and Giorgio Armani collections, four times a year.
The fashion chamber's long-time president Mario Boselli expressed confidence that the issue would be resolved and Armani would join the board.
"We are confident that with the relaunch of Milan, and some brands will come home," Boselli said in an interview.
He is not promising quick fixes to what are very complex problems, and won't give hints of what's to come, but says some changes will be in place by the September preview shows.
As an early sign of progress, Boselli points out that there will be 78 designers showcased at this week's menswear shows — more than in previous editions — and they include runway shows by four new names: two Italians, a German and a Chinese. Armani has opened up his theater to one of them, Andrea Pompilio.
Boselli also was understanding of the Prada Group's decision to show Miu Miu in Paris, especially at a time when many fashion houses, from Versace to Dolce&Gabbana, have abandoned their second lines. In Milan, Miu Miu risks being overshadowed by Prada. "By going to Paris, it's as if there were two first lines, each with its own identity," he said.
As for Burberry's decision to decamp, Boselli accepts it as part of the business. But he takes it as a victory for Milan that British designer Vivienne Westwood did not follow, despite apparent attempts to woo her.
"The people who decide to stay in Milan, do so because they believe in Milan, period," Boselli said.
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