MILAN, Italy — In recent years, Suzy Menkes' favourite question in Milan had become, "Can anybody name me one Italian designer under the age of 50?" But if Milan was once an impenetrable fortress of decades-old, world-renowned fashion houses, could the Italian fashion capital finally be seeing the emergence of a new guard of design talent?
On day one of Milan's menswear week, in between the Ermenegildo Zegna and Costume National shows, 29 year-old designer Julian Zigerli presented his collection at Armani/Teatro in a joint sponsorship effort between the Italian brand and L'Uomo Vogue. This is the third time Mr Armani has opened his doors to a young designer, and it's one sign of a gradual shift occurring here in Milan.
Zigerli was an interesting choice for Armani and Vogue — he's not an Italian, and his clothes have the creative frivolity of some of the upstart brands we saw in London last week, but talent is talent, and Mr Armani recognised it in the young man from Switzerland, saying, "I have decided to keep on supporting some of the most promising designers from all over the fashion world, maintaining a global view… I hope that my support will be a good omen for his career."
Natasha Slater, a PR consultant and events organiser who works with Dolce & Gabbana and Belvedere, and throws the weekly 'Punks Wear Prada' parties that attract 600-odd guests during fashion week, says that since moving to Milan 11 years ago from the UK, she's seen a definite increase in the support shown to up and coming designers, but that there's still a long way to go.
"I think the industry is opening but it needs to open up more in Milan," she says. "There is a lot of talent and there are lots of fashion schools here. I think what's happened is that the Camera Nazionale de la Moda and the fact that there are so many big brands has kind of squashed the possibility of younger brands emerging, and also there are no grants or sponsorship so it's very tough if you're a young brand, you need to find the money from a private investor."
Likewise Cathy Horyn, The New York Times' venerable fashion critic, laments the lack of fresh blood coming out of Milan. "It's been a long, long time coming, and there's been a lot of talk about it," she says. "There have been some names that have percolated up that are kind of interesting but it's hard. You think of the kind of impact that Romeo Gigli had back in 1990 — the whole industry was shaken up by him and everybody became very aware of him and maybe it's just harder today with younger designers getting their brands established and their names established, because the big brands so dominate the market. But if you look at New York and London and Paris, young talent has an easier time being noticed. And London and New York developed a reputation over the last decade of being places for young talent. 'Come here and we'll give you a platform.' And Milan let that go."
But still, there are some initiatives which are pushing Milan in the right direction. One of the first projects Slater worked on with Dolce & Gabbana was the launch of Spiga2 (now rebranded as Piave37), a multi-brand boutique whose aim was to showcase young designers on the Milanese scene. Labels such as Umit Benan (who will show in Paris this season), Fausto Puglisi, and MSGM got their starts in the store, and have gone on to success on a far bigger scale.
Massimo Piombo, who launched his eponymous label MP Massimo Piombo two years ago after leaving his 20-year-old brand Piombo, is making a bid for the role of torch-bearer of a new generation of elegant tailoring brands coming out of Milan. He found almost immediate success upon changing the location of his presentations from Pitti Uomo to Milan, and the brand is now stocked on Mr Porter, and in department stores around the world. Massimo Piombo's buzz is growing — Google his name and you'll find numerous menswear blogs and magazines worshipping at the MP altar. It can't have hurt that his third season saw him feature one of the world's best dressed men, street style star (and L'Uomo Vogue fashion editor) Robert Rabensteiner in the lookbook.
But as BoF wrote recently, MSGM is the young contemporary brand everyone's talking about here in Milan, with 500 stockists worldwide, including their own flagship store which opened in Brera, Milan, in September. A number of retailers BoF spoke with that carry the women's line haven't yet picked up the men's, but that may have changed after MSGM's first Milanese show, which took place a stone's throw away from Metropol, where Dolce & Gabbana hold their catwalk presentation each season.
"MSGM has a lot of street credibility — it's getting recognised on the street and in the blogosphere," says Eric Jennings, vice president and fashion director of men’s, home and gifts at Saks Fifth Avenue. "We're seeing it a lot out there, I'm seeing it editorialised, so for a young brand, this is one that's making a lot of buzz."
Milan-based Elle stylist Nicolo Milella says new brands like MSGM and Paula Cademartori (a handbag company), have found success for two reasons — first, a strong personal image on the designer's part, and second, immediately recognizable branding. "The designers are great personalities, they're online, available, always around in the right places, fun to be with, friendly and cool," he says. "Everybody wants to be friends with them, and buying their pieces is a sort of way of getting into their friendship circle."
"Look at Massimo Giorgetti's clothing and you'll see people are crazy about his prints," he says. "He's all about sweaters and prints when you look at his successful commercial products. He's recognizable for that. Cademartori has the same metallic closure in every single bag, you see that clasp of the bag and immediately know it's a Cademartori. She doesn't change the style every season, she reinterprets it."
Eric Jennings's advice to young designers is simple: "It's finding the right showroom that can nurture and develop and help with distribution, which is key. What happens often is that you might like the line but without the infrastructure and support behind it they come and go very quickly. Usually the thing that will kill a new brand is delivery. They are last on the production cycle because of the quantities, and then they deliver late at the end of the season and they're held up to similar standards as the big brands. The markdown cycle is such that if you deliver at the end of that cycle then you're going to have big troubles."
And in this regard, it seems Milan has some ways to go yet. With the heavy influence of classic tailoring and the conventional codes of Italian fashion, young designers in Milan need to break out of the formula and create something distinctive, that stands out from the fray of blazers and topcoats.
"Have an idea, that's it, and the people will come," says Horyn. "Look at Margiela — I remember sitting in the show in the Salvation Army, and people were fascinated by what he was doing with trash bags and sheets, and completely puzzled by it. And then he goes to Hermès, and clarifies it because he was dealing with beautiful fabrics, but you know, those collections have been the benchmark for a lot of designers ever since. He had a concept, he believed in something. And I think that's really what it comes down to."
"And I think you've gotta be good,” she adds. “I don't care if you're 50 or if you're 10, you'd better be good."