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The Evolution of Pitti Uomo, Part I: Provenance and Power

The development of modern menswear is inextricably linked to the city of Florence and Pitti Uomo, the largest menswear trade show of its kind. In part one of a two-part series, we examine the evolution of Pitti Uomo.
A 1981 Zegna show at Pitti Uomo | Source: Pitti Uomo
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FLORENCE, Italy — Florence has long held its own kind of magic: the gentle breezes born by the lapping river Arno undulate up the dark, sturdy, constant foliage of the Renaissance city's sentry like poplars; wide piazzas, crowned with crenelated towers, are alive with dappled, dancing light, animated by the shadows of swaying cypresses. The Medicis, Florence's most famous sons, unleashed the Renaissance to the world from this special place. Their patronage of luminaries including Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo, began a period of enquiry and discovery that dragged humanity out of the monastic dark ages, and ushered in a new age. The dissemination of their new ideas and the discoveries that produced them gave birth, in time, to a new kind of man, both learned and cultured: a modern man.

Half a millennia later, that modern man is more present in the city than ever before, no more so than in January and June, when 30,000 members of the international menswear industry – buyers, exhibitors, journalists and spectators – descend on the Tuscan capital for Pitti Immagine Uomo. Their biannual presence marks the beginning of the new season, and the start of a new business cycle, in an industry with a market value expected to exceed $402 billion in 2014.

Firenze ‘Home Town of Fashion’: 1951 - 1971

Pitti Uomo began due to a man possessed of a thoroughly modern outlook: Giovanni Battista Giorgini. An aristocratic Italian from an antiquated Lucca family, Giorgini had business interests in Italian exports, which prompted him to act as a facilitator and propagator for the Italian fashion industry in the United States. The first to perceive the global opportunity represented by Italian craftsmanship, Giorgini invited key buyers and influencers from the United States, the world’s largest economy, unravaged by the war, to Florence in 1951.

Billed as the first ‘High Italian Fashion Show’, the womenswear presentation featured Carosa, Fabiani, Simonetta, the Fontana sisters, Schuberth, Vanna, Noberasco, Marucelli and Veneziani, and was attended by the elite of North American retail: Ethel Francau, Julia Trissel and Jessica Davis of Bergdorf Goodman; Stella Hanania of San Francisco’s I. Magnin; John Nixon of Montreal’s Henry Morgan and another New Yorker, Gertrude Ziminsky of B. Altman.

Convincing North American buyers, already in Europe to attend the Paris collections, to add the Florentine shows to their itinerary gave birth to the modern Italian fashion industry. Before Rome or Milan, Florence, with its terracotta tiles and resplendent Duomo, emerged as the original fashion capital of Italy. The success of the initiative and its continuing economic contribution to the city canonised Giorgini in the eyes of its inhabitants, who affectionately dubbed him the second patron saint of Florence.

The Foundation of Pitti Uomo: 1972 - 1981

Where womenswear led the way, menswear followed. In 1972 the first edition of Pitti Uomo took place, showcasing Italian tailoring and style to the foreign markets. It was an immediate success, although on a greatly reduced scale to that of today. "In the Seventies, it was much more formal inside the fair, very much divided between the two moments, between the day and the night. In the day the buyers placed orders, numbers, quantities – they were very concentrated – and then, in the evening, we really enjoyed ourselves. I was 17, still at school, and to see all the buyers from all over the world, it was magical. Pitti is something that excites me even now," said Claudio Marenzi, president of Sistema Moda Italia (The Italian Textile and Fashion Federation), the Italian fashion industry's representative body.

"Initially the idea was to promote Italian manufacturers and 80 percent of the show was formal wear: suits, 120 tie producers, shirts, trousers – it was 90 percent Italian," explained Raffaello Napoleone, chief executive of Pitti Immagine. Pitti immediately became an incubator for Italian menswear, acting as both a global showcase and a unifier for the national industry, creating cohesion, though never monotony, through the sharing of style cues and evolving tastes. The Italian look of soft, unstructured tailoring, fit for work and il dolce far niente, and laced with the sensual glamour Italy had become associated with in the 1950s, was established.

"I exhibited at my first Pitti in 1974," said Stefano Ricci, president of the Centro di Firenze per la Moda Italiana, and an exhibitor at the fair through his eponymous brand. "We were just a few brands then, 30 or 40 perhaps. Today we are more than 1,000, and in the period between the two, I saw the first collection of Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna when he had the small booth but was already showing all the signs of becoming a giant – extremely important moments when the designers were hot."

"Pitti Uomo represents the history of the men's industry in Italy," said Marenzi. "Pitti had the role of showing to the world the big brands in the Seventies: Zegna, Valentino, all the big designer brands made by the GFT group." Serendipitously, contemporaneous to the establishment of the Pitti Uomo look, Italian manufacturing entered a golden age of quality and subsequent increased significance in the industry, led by GFT, the Gruppo Finanziario Tessile.

The combination of industry-leading manufacturing and craftsmanship, and a cohesive national look, led to one of the great movements of fashion in recent years: the birth of the Italian super brands. The GFT brands, along with Gucci, Missoni and Brioni, set new standards in accessible sartorial elegance for men, in comparison to the staid tailoring of Paris and the formal environs of Savile Row. The cachet of Made in Italy, still relevant today, was accepted internationally.

“Fashion is linked to the image of Italy. It hugely contributes to the brand equity of Italy. The fashion business is a crucial ambassador for overall Italian production. Pitti Uomo is a destination point for buyers, media – it has been for decades. It is crucial,” emphasised Carlo Calenda, Italy’s vice minister for economic development.

Fortezza da Basso And The Eyes of The World: 1982 - 2014

The international emergence of the big brands brought Italian style into the awareness of the masses. Clever product placement, such as Giorgio Armani’s dressing of Richard Gere for American Gigolo boosted Italian menswear’s profile yet further, and international interest in Pitti Uomo increased. The expansion in interest called for an expansion in premises. Pitti Uomo left its traditional home of the Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti and, after a brief period, took up residence in its current home, the Fortezza da Basso. The move coincided with the beginning of a new decade. As the Eighties dawned, and exhibitors’ international success increased, and the look of the Pitti Uomo fair evolved into the prototype of the event that takes place today.

The impact of Pitti Uomo on designers of Giorgio Armani’s calibre cannot be underestimated, and isn’t by the designers themselves. “I have a video of Armani talking about the emotion of being in Sala Bianca not with his collection. You have to remember in that period, fashion was Italy,” Napoleone shared.

“When we moved to the Fortezza, the big brands started to personalise the booths. I remember the first edition that I attend was just in a building near the Fortezza. The building had many, many rooms, but the rooms were impossible to personalise. At the Fortezza the big brands, like Marzotto and Corneliani, were downstairs with big booths that were kind of show rooms. It was the first time you saw the personalisation,” said Marenzi.

“It evolved in the Seventies and Eighties into this trade show centre with enormous booths for megabrands, many of which have now moved to Milan and other places. But that then opened up space for new and developing companies to enter the show,” Tom Kalenderian, the head of menswear at Barneys New York, added.

A bigger change than booth size was afoot, however; Pitti Uomo may have begun as 90 percent Italian, but, “today we are 60 percent Italian, 40 percent international,” said Napoleone.

Tune in tomorrow for "The Evolution of Pitti Uomo, Part II"

Visit the new BoF Menswear Hub to discover more menswear news and analysis from BoF correspondents and around the web, as well as a live index of the most influential people and retailers shaping the global menswear market.

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