Jennifer Gampell
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December 2005

by Jennifer Gampell

From the stiletto-heeled ladies doing lunch in bright-colored clingy spandex tops and slinky pedal pushers to the dishy ambulance drivers in form-hugging fluorescent tangerine/yellow jumpsuits, nearly every Milanese pays serious attention to his/her appearance. Zipping through the heart of Italy's premier financial district, nattily-dressed businessmen on Hondas accessorize their sleek machines with equally stylish Honda helmets; his-and-her matching helmets are de rigueur for motorcycling couples.

I generally rate my own attire as idiosyncratically voguish, but after just one hour in Milan I felt decidedly dowdy. Perhaps, I hypothesized, each dwelling has an invisible style sensor that won't let the inhabitants exit onto the street their unless hair, makeup, clothing and accessories are all perfectly synched. If my hotel had such a device, it probably would have confined me permanently to my room for the fashion faux pas of too much black, not enough visible midriff and clunky footwear!

And it's not simply what people wear in Milan. It's how they wear it. When you got it, flaunt it. Quintessentially self-assured, the Milanese strut their stuff whether they've "got it" or not.

I was people-watching at an outdoor café--the cappuccino had such a lovely flower swirled into its thick foam I almost hated to ruin the design by drinking it--when a young businessman dressed in white shirt and red suspenders strode into the bar area clutching his cell phone. Compared to all the other drop-dead gorgeous uominis I'd been gawping at all morning, he looked pudgy and pretty unexceptional. Yet thanks to impeccable accessorizing and a self-important swagger, he projected the same macho élan as his much handsomer counterparts. The sales assistants at Prada's flagship women's store in the famous Quadrilatero d'Oro designer brand shopping area told me that Milanese males spend much longer preening in front of the mirror than the females.

Nor is image consciousness just for the hoity-toity. The carbinieri who saunter their beat in uniforms designed for them by Giorgio Armani in the 1980s exude a timeless chic that law enforcement officers in less fashion-conscious countries could definitely emulate. Meanwhile street sweepers in both Milan and Paris sport similar day-glow green outfits, use almost identical green plastic brooms and push little wheeled carts with green dustbins. Yet while the dapper and energetic Milanese spazzino go about their task with perky abandon, the French balayeurs wear their outfits carelessly and make desultory swipes at Parisian street debris.

From the tiniest Tuscan village to the flashiest Adriatic resort, la moda, fashion to you and me, is as fundamental to daily Italian life as gelato and espresso. Indeed fashion and tourism are Italy's two biggest sources of revenue. According to Sergio Boero, Fashion Coordinator at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano (NABA), the fashion industry brings Italy around €45 billion annually, with the majority generated during Milan Fashion Week.

Everyone calls Milan the capital of fashion, but even the Milanese will tell you that Paris is the global arbiter of haute couture. For over a century, its ateliers have set global standards for creativity. However when it comes to prêt-à-porter, those ultra-modish, ready-to-wear garments that all of us who don't look like Giselle Bundchen or Kate Moss might actually considering wearing, Milan is the world's undisputed brand leader.

To understand how Milan achieved its preeminent reputation, you have to go back to the early 1900s when Italy was beginning to industrialize. Electricity was scarce and out of necessity Italian industries clustered close to available power sources, which were located in the country's mountainous north. During the first decades of the 20th century, northern Italy grew into an important center for textile production and clothing manufacture. Ironically though, most of its fabric-wool, cotton, linen-and sewing expertise ended up abroad.

"Italians became famous as garment producers for French ateliers," explains super suave Riccardo Agostini, head of international relations for Istituto Marangoni, Milan's oldest and most famous fashion school. It was founded in 1935 for the sole purpose of training pattern makers to produce garments for export to France.

With the post-war boom of the 1950s, Italians found themselves with disposable income and a desire to shop. Several Italian clothing manufacturers decided to capitalize on their years of experience in the business and create garments for their own domestic market. Initially, the Italians emulated the French atelier concept; for example Roberto Capucci opened a small studio in Rome in 1950. That same year a young Nino Cerruti propelled his family's prestigious textile company into the fashion business. Also around this time, Istituto Marangoni began offering courses for figurino, the original term for designer before the current term, stilista.

Located in the heart of Milan's celebrated Quadrilatero d'Oro within walking distance from the flagship stores of Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Versace and scores of other big- and small-name Italian designers, the three-week intensive fashion course provides an overview the industry. The first week includes fashion sketching and designing a collection, before a week of planning and coordinating collections, creative research, trends, European collections, fashion economics and marketing. The course culminates in creative workshop, discussion and evaluation

Italian prêt-à-porter brands started garnering international recognition in the 1960s. An early superstar was Valentino Garavani, better known as Valentino, who'd returned to Italy in 1959 after working in Guy Laroche's Parisian atelier. Valentino's small Roman atelier was only moderately successful, but his 1962 show at Florence's Pitti Palace caught the attention of foreign buyers. When the fashionable American department store I. Magnin placed a huge order and when Jackie Kennedy wore Valentino at her wedding to Aristotle Onassis in 1968, Valentino's international success was assured.

"Italian companies made a choice to focus on prêt-à-porter instead of haute couture," explains Mr. Agostini, himself a ready-to-wear fashion plate in Dolce & Gabbana shirt, Prada belt and jeans by D2, a hip new UK label. "This was because, unlike the French, we had the power of our filiera." Literally translated as 'weavers,' filiera connotes the interconnected processes of garment creation; from textile production, design, sewing through to marketing and sales. "Fashion is not like being a lawyer. You have to combine creativity with marketing rules. This was our secret strength."

Likewise impeccably kitted out-in Helmut Lang white shirt, Marithe Francois Girbaud jeans and Marsel shoes-NABA's Sergio Boero agrees. "You can have a lot of creativity, but the key is in managing it. There has to be a synergy between the creative and business aspects. Without input from the creative side, the fashion industry keeps churning out the same tired designs. Without marketing and advertising support, designers can't sell their new collections. That's what we do really well in Italy: the designing, implementing, managing, and marketing of fashion."

The stylish new NABA campus in the historic Navigli neighbourhood, close to Milan's hippest nightlife area, offers a three-week intensive course encompassing both theoretical and practical lessons. Students receive a comprehensive overview of the "Made in Italy" phenomena including studying the features that influence fashion trends: culture and lifestyle factors, unique Italian skills, production district specializations and the creative and technological value of fabric. They'll also analyze future trends and visit important fashion ateliers and production centers.

Half a century ago, Milan's role as Italy's business and financial center and its proximity to the prolific textile manufacturers thus combined to transform it into an international fashion phenomenon. To maintain its leadership position in today's highly competitive global market, however, the Milan fashion industry can't rest on its laurels. It needs to keep fostering that seamless interaction between business and creativity and this means constantly discovering new and marketable talent. Here's where the city's major fashion schools play a pivotal role.

Since its 1935 origin as a pattern making school, Istituto Marangoni has expanded its fashion curriculum to cover all aspects of the industry: design, business, styling, promotion, brand management and buying. Explains Mr. Agostini, "Our programmes have always followed the needs of the companies. When they required marketing professionals, we started the relevant courses." This symbiosis between school and business has produced some of Italy's most famous talents. The list of Istituto Marangoni graduates reads like a Who's Who of fashion and includes heavyweights Domenico Dolce of D&G fame and Gucci's Franco Moschino.

Marangoni also devises special annual projects together with various fashion-related businesses both in Italy, such as Fendi, and abroad, Harrods. For the companies, it's an opportunity to reinvigorate themselves with fresh new ideas. And for budding design students it's a chance to land exciting job offers with major fashion players.

As Asia seeks to become an ever-bigger player on the global fashion scene, increasing numbers of students from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand are coming to Milan to study fashion and interior design. With so many foreign students-100 out of a total of 600-NABA plans to offer its three-year BA course in English instead of Italian starting in 2006.

"It's very important to come in the right places, like Milan, Paris and London," says Mr. Agostini. "Places where you can breathe the atmosphere of fashion. Where everything talks about fashion." To attract students from around the world, Istituto Marangoni maintains 18 information centres in 15 countries and operates a campus in London with another opening shortly in Paris. Meanwhile NABA runs exchange programs with nearly 40 universities throughout Europe and another 10 elsewhere in the world.

Foreign students benefit incalculably from immersing themselves in la moda Milanese for one or three years, depending on the course of study. However, as Mr. Boero stresses, they also need to understand and acknowledge their own cultural heritage. "You have to know your country, your roots, who you are and where you're going. This is the only way," he admonishes. "You can't copy another country's clothing or their process. You can only take some of their experience and try to implement it differently in your country."

With literally thousands of brands on the market, any of today's emerging stilistas face much stiffer competition than their predecessors in the 1960s or '70s. Finding and promoting a unique homegrown identity is especially crucial for Asian students. For example, there's little point designing a winter collection when you live in a tropical country where the temperature rarely drops below 20ºC.

For Asian countries used to exponential economic growth and development rates, the key to becoming major players on the international fashion stage could well be patience and perseverance. After all, even with the boost from its business and manufacturing filieri, it took Milan decades to became a global fashion icon.

Copyright 2005 Jennifer Gampell