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.