T’s 25 Most Influential Women’s Wear Collections: The Italian Designers We Overlooked

“To understand Italian fashion, you need to start at the beginning,” says Pamela Golbin, one of the five panelists who recently helped T determine the 25 most influential postwar women’s wear collections. She’s referring to February 1951 at the Florentine home of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, an Italian entrepreneur who invited American journalists and department store buyers to discover the nation’s brightest talents. In his private residence, Giorgini hosted a small show with multiple designers, including Emilio Pucci, presenting not just the best of Italian fashion but a less expensive, sportier alternative to the sophisticated French style that dominated the era.

After we published the list, among the responses was a complaint that we’d failed to include enough Italians — an omission of which we were very aware even during the conversation itself. Thus, on a rainy Paris afternoon in late September, we checked back in with Golbin, the fashion authority and former chief curator of fashion and textiles at the city’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, to correct the mistake. What follows are her thoughts on some of the important collections that came after Giorgini’s show — an event so successful, Golbin says, that American media started to question whether Florence would replace Paris as the world’s fashion capital.

“Fashion at this time was about intense colors and soft shapes — and then Valentino showed a collection that was entirely white. It was a great success with journalists, but also with clients: Jacqueline Kennedy chose a discreet, long-sleeved piece encrusted with tonal white-on-white lace for her wedding to Aristotle Onassis, which changed the course of Valentino history. The media coverage that followed not only catapulted the designer to international fame; it also affirmed, on a worldwide scale, the quality and talent of Italian fashion. It wasn’t the first time white was at the center of a collection; André Courrèges had introduced it for spring 1965. But the difference was that Valentino chose soft, creamy whites — almost like a crisp, neutral color that could be more flattering and worn by all.”

“Walter Albini had quite a following in Italy when he released the first collection under his own name; he’d worked for many years as a consultant for several companies, including Mariuccia Mandelli’s Krizia. But what’s interesting is that just as Italian fashion was being recognized internationally, Albini came in and disrupted the entire ecosystem. At the time, you had specialized ready-to-wear manufacturers that employed freelance designers — then called stylists — to give a certain style to their productions, hence the job title. With this collection, Albini turned the paradigm around by having his name appear on the label. Finally, the freelancers’ creative input was recognized. The collection also had another very important impact: Albini decided to show it in Milan, which was the economic capital of Italy. He was quickly followed by other designers, such as Ottavio and Rosita Missoni and, later, Gianfranco Ferré. All of them started showing in Milan, which became the epicenter of women’s ready-to-wear in Italy.”

“Giorgio Armani, like Albini and many of the ready-to-wear designers who achieved success in the 1970s, also worked freelance for manufacturers. In the mid-1960s, Nino Cerruti, who was designing under his name and managing the family business, hired Armani to work for his company’s first apparel line, Hitman, where Armani was exposed to the production of men’s jackets on an industrial scale. During his time with Cerruti, Armani started deconstructing the garment, simplifying it so that it could be easily reproduced. He lightened the shoulder pads and eliminated the linings, and even changed the placement of the buttons, all with the goal to produce a much less rigid and formal garment. When he presented this spring 1976 collection, his first for women, it was immediately a success. His blazers for women (and men) ended up feeling more like sweaters than jackets. But Armani’s reputation as the King of the Blazer really came at the end of the decade with the film ‘American Gigolo’ (1980), when he designed Richard Gere’s entire wardrobe. Suddenly, the blazer wasn’t just a comfortable sweater-like jacket — it also had sex appeal.”

“Romeo Gigli has a special place in Italian fashion. His silhouette was a counterpoint to the power suits of the 1980s, and his poetic designs at the turn of the decade signaled a massive change. He brought soft, rounded forms that were both opulent and rich — but not bling-bling, which, in the ’80s, was the name of the game. With this collection, the signature shape he’d started working on a couple of years earlier was in full bloom, wrapping the wearer in luxurious, ornamented fabrics. The models in his presentation all walked very slowly in flat shoes — a complete 180 from the women who Versace and Dolce & Gabbana were dressing at that time. This was also around when Gigli hired someone who would write a very different story in fashion. That was Alexander McQueen.”

“Two words come to mind when thinking about Gucci: ‘power’ and ‘emotion.’ And that immediately brought me from Tom Ford’s porno-chic to Alessandro Michele’s geek-chic. I thought it was important to name these two designers who represent the duality of Gucci — together, they speak to the strength of the brand and what it’s brought to the fashion vocabulary. Even though fall 1995 is considered Ford’s breakout, the ’96 collection offered a certain refinement to his superglam aesthetic. It was both sharp and sleek, with a reduced color palette (mostly black and red) and a finale of iconic white jersey dresses referencing Charles and Ray Eames. Where the Ford era began with the revamping of the bamboo handbag, Michele — who knew the house well after many years in its design studio — started his own legacy with a fur-lined loafer. And that really distills the difference between them: Michele proposed a much more romantic vision for the brand, bringing in vintage references of glittery brocade and trimmings. With this collection, he celebrated personal style and a certain quirkiness that he has so fittingly developed.”

“This happened to be Gianni Versace’s last collection. He was shot just days after its debut outside of his Miami Beach home. It’s an important collection because of that. But it’s also memorable because of its stylistic restraint, even though it was staged at the Ritz in Paris and every supermodel was present. What’s interesting is that Versace himself described this period as minimalist. But it’s a very bold collection that’s strict, rigorous and daring. And it only had one recurring motif: a gold Byzantine cross. His iconic mesh dresses were presented in the finale, in blinding gold, draped on beautiful goddess bodies. And that’s how it ended — a striking close to an exceptional life.”

“How can we not include Fendi? Over its long history, the brand has had so many incredible moments. It was founded in the 1920s as a fur company, then transformed by five women — all daughters of the founders — who joined the business after the war. And then they brought in Karl Lagerfeld, who modernized the label during his 54-year tenure. This collection is quite exceptional: You have a Roman house that’s now part of a French luxury group, LVMH. At its creative helm, you have one of the founding granddaughters, Sylvia Venturini Fendi, as well as an English designer, Kim Jones — who invited an American, Marc Jacobs, to design part of the collection in celebration of the 35th anniversary of an emblematic It handbag, the Baguette, with a nod to the American jewelry icon Tiffany. And it was shown in New York City. I think that’s as good a place as any to end this story.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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