FLORENCE, Italy — Suzy Menkes stood atop the stairs after the Burberry show, clutching a black suitcase, and looking for a sign that proclaimed: "WALK THIS WAY FOR THE DIESEL SHOW IN FLORENCE." This season, despite attempted negotiations between Pitti Uomo's chief executive Raffaello Napoleone and the British Fashion Council, London Collections: Men started on January 6th, just one day before the four day Florence-based trade show was scheduled to begin, meaning the two events would overlap for two days. As a result of the clash, Napoleone made a bold move, chartering a private plane to fly media and buyers to Florence the moment the Burberry show had concluded on January 8th, at a total cost of €29,000 (about $39,000).
And so Wednesday afternoon a who's who of the menswear world — Ms Menkes included — boarded a bus to London's Victoria Station, rode the Gatwick Express to the airport, then hopped on a flight to Florence, boarded a bus at the other end and walked straight off and into the Diesel Black Gold show, which was planned for 9:00pm (it was delayed approximately 30 minutes as a result).
So is the excitement of London's relatively new menswear showcase threatening to overshadow the 42-and-a-half-year-old Pitti Uomo trade show?
"In terms of media, London's winning the war," says Godfrey Deeny, fashion editor-at-large of Le Figaro. "In terms of buyers, it's losing. How many buyers were in London? Let's say 200, maybe less. There are thousands here. You do the math."
According to Napoleone, 1050 exhibitors descend on Pitti Uomo each season for a four-day event that attracts about 25,000 local and international buyers, and brings in €340 million (about $462 million) in revenue for the city of Florence. Brands range in scale from several-hundred-million-euro businesses like Brunello Cucinelli to startups like Man 1924, which began life as a multi-brand store in Madrid before owner Carlos Castillo made the decision to start showing his own collection at Pitti.
Pitti was traditionally the first stop on the menswear circuit and set the tone for the season to come. Exhibitors are able to dress their stalls in any way they like and many create installations with as much painstaking creativity and attention to detail as something you might see in a flagship store. But more than that, it's become something of a peacock's dream, filled with superbly dressed industry insiders from all over the world, who attempt to outdo each other's pattern mixing, colour combinations, and precision-cut suiting proportions, much to the delight of the world's top street-style photographers.
One of the downsides of the proliferation of photographers has been the ubiquity of images depicting what could be referred to as the "Pitti Look" — cropped suit jackets over oxford-cloth button-downs with knit ties, precision-folded pocket squares, cropped, tapered, and cuffed pants, and heavy-soled wingtips.
"[The look] might run the risk of becoming a caricature of itself," says Nick Wooster, retail veteran and street-style star. "This event is almost 45 years old, so clearly it has staying power. I worry that maybe I'm a little bit of a caricature of myself, but Pitti is way stronger than that."
Eric Jennings, vice president and fashion director of men’s, home and gifts at Saks Fifth Avenue, says Pitti is the most important men's trade show on the international fashion calendar. "Pitti has become its own brand. It's become bigger than a trade show, it's like a cultural phenomenon. We don't write orders at Pitti, but we do a lot of business with the brands [which are] here. This is a chance to get a sneak peek at the collections; it gives us a good idea of the direction in terms of colour and trends, and we get a real feel for the aesthetic of the season ahead. It's so commercially viable and it's also the broadest — I also go to Paris, Las Vegas and New York, and Pitti has the most breadth and the most depth of any of the trade shows. We definitely discover new brands here and the good thing is that it's before the buying budget is used up, so if we do see something new at Pitti a lot of the time this is the place we'll pick it up."
Pitti has historically been a launching pad for brands small and large. Even industry titans like Ermenegildo Zegna showed their early collections at the show after they made the transition from operating as a mere fabric mill to a full-scale fashion house. Napoleone and his team also invite one company each season to do a headline show, usually to launch a new line, as was the case with the Diesel Black Gold menswear presentation last night, or to celebrate a designer in the midst of a moment, like Raf Simons who showed his Jil Sander collection at Pitti in June 2010, or Thom Browne who showed his line in 2009.
"The past issues were more interesting," says Gilles Denis, editor-in-chief of Les Echos Week-End. "I think Diesel was probably a signal that Pitti was sending to Italy itself and to the internal market that at some point Pitti needs the support from big Italian groups like Renzo Rosso's [Only The Brave] group [which owns Diesel]. So I think that was very important for Pitti. From a fashion point of view, previous editions have been more interesting, from Haider Ackermann to Raf Simons to Valentino. I think they should start with stronger shows. You leave London with Burberry which is always a very strong show; it's the epitome of Britishness and it's why we go to London. And then when you arrive at Pitti you need something very strong."
Street-style photographer Tommy Ton, who shoots for style.com and GQ as well as his own blog, agrees. "I wish when designers came here to do shows they'd use it as an experimental platform to do something different. What is the point of coming here if you're not going to do something different?"
This season marks Wooster's 26th year coming to Pitti Uomo. "I think more than anything else, it's an amazing visual experience," he says. "Because it's an installation, it's really like an art project. I always get inspired by the visuals and how people interpret their brands, and that's something the runway doesn't provide, so I think this is the best venue for that kind of thing. You don't feel like it's cubicles in a trade show in Las Vegas. You feel like each brand really has an opportunity to say something and I think that in today's world, it's the only way."
Matt Breen and Brian Trunzo are two ex-lawyers who co-founded New York menswear boutique Carson Street Clothiers, which carries many brands that show at Pitti. "For me it's a merchandising lesson every time I come," says Breen. "It gives us ideas to take home." As for whether the Pitti look is getting played out, Trunzo has no concerns. "I actually think it'll start reaching the masses at some point. If you think back to the trends that have been the hottest over the past couple years, a lot of them started here — the double monk shoe, the chelsea boot, double-breasted cropped blazers. Eventually, they might get a little tired here, but then they make their way into stores and to the normal guy."
Ever the peacocks, Pitti Uomo's showgoers can be equally inspiring, which is why Tommy Ton, a regular attendee for three and a half years, chose to skip London this year in favour of the Italian tradeshow. "There's better content for me here. I love shooting London, but I choose Pitti because I'm not going to see anybody here that I would see in London or Paris. This is where retailers are and this is where people tend to focus on the lesser-known designers. Also it's quite a lesson in dressing — fit and proportion and the mixture of textures and what things work. It's dressing 101 for menswear. That's why even Kanye came here once. There's so much you can take away from this experience."
And not just for industry folk. "We just had a customer in San Francisco whose lifelong dream was to go to Pitti, so he asked if we could help him get in," says Jennings. "He's not even in the trade — guys who aren't in fashion want to be involved. We've always supported Pitti and we spend a chunk of our time in Europe at Pitti, so that's why the schedule clash with London is such an issue."
"I have a feeling that London may be having second thoughts and that perhaps they will be more amenable next season and in the seasons to come."
The British Fashion Council declined to provide concrete figures on attendance at London Collections: Men, saying only that attendance of both press and buyers was up year-on-year and represented 37 countries.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 10 January, 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated the number of buyers in attendance at Pitti Uomo this season. The correct number is 25,000, not 7,000.