All roads still lead to Rome
When in Rome, do as the Romans do: don't try to find trends on the catwalk. It's in the designers' ateliers and in their favorite historical places around town that you will be able to immerse yourself into Roman craftsmanship and heritage, and get bits and pieces of their inspiration. While Milan sticks to its commercial status quo, Rome has recently turned into a burgeoning platform for young designers, and slowly but firmly aims to reconquer its status as Italy's fashion capital – trends might come and go, but Rome is here to stay.
Romans love their city – they love their city to such an extent that they would invest everything and anything to keep their heritage alive. As the old saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day, and the city's rejuvenation has been a long and complicated process. But who would have thought that fashion could be part of this rejuvenation? In fact, three major Italian fashion houses recently expressed their commitment to investing in the renovation of Rome's most distinctive landmarks. Earlier in 2015, Bulgari announced its $2 million commitment to restore the Spanish Steps in Rome, while Fendi is about to invest $2.7 million into the restoration of the historical Trevi Fountain. But it was Tod’s that ended up making a gargantuan investment: a $34 million restoration of the Coliseum, an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome and also the largest of its kind in the world. But Italian fashion brands not only express their love for their capital by pulling out their cheque books, they also celebrate the city's lifestyle to keep its one-of-a-kind spirit alive. "Five years ago, the MAXXI and MACRO museums opened in Rome. This was a very special moment for us as creatives and for the city as well: lots of art galleries were opening and young designers launched their own space for tailoring, artists shared their ateliers...there was something in the air, and this is when we started A.I.," said Alessio de'Navasques, Co-Founder of A.I., Artisanal Intelligence, together with Clara Tosi Pamphili.
Clara Tosi Pamphili
"We actually started with a fashion publication, and then we took it to another level, and started to exhibit young talents during AltaRoma," he continued. In fact, A.I. is a project dedicated to Made in Italy craftsmanship and fashion. The event takes place twice a year in various galleries, artistic spaces, and ateliers around town, in order to reveal Rome's unusual and hardly accessible historical places, as well as emerging talents that deserve some exposure. "We want to talk about Rome, about its young designers, about its historical tailoring, its costume history – there is so much creativity in this city, and so much space for cultural projects," he added. This season's exhibition held at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni was particularly important for the project, as it was an anthology of the works that A.I. collected over the years – a showcase of 100 staged stories, which introduced new creative minds born and bred in Bella Italia. Speaking of creative minds, shortly before the start of AltaRoma – Rome's Couture week since 2002 – Valentino's Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli showcased their latest Haute Couture collection in Rome. A memorable moment, since the iconic fashion house was founded in Rome by Valentino Garavani in 1960, but had left the Eternal City for the City of Light in the early 1990s. To celebrate this comeback in full force, and both in the real and in digital worlds, Valentino's designer-duo introduced the #MirabiliaRomae hashtag (Latin for "wonderful Rome"), which took its toll on Instagram via journalists and invited guests who shared their Vacanze Romane moments on their social media accounts, showing their appreciation for Valentino's latest Couture outing and their love for the city's distinctive flair. In fact, Rome's one-of-a-kind flair inspired AltaRoma's board of directors, presided by Silvia Venturini Fendi, to turn things upside down, and to leave the fashion circus behind. Concentrate, narrow down, exclude, as Henry Miller would say: this season, AltaRoma was about putting Rome's creative avant-garde into the limelight, alongside a more restricted and less time consuming runway schedule. A dynamic makeover was expressed through a range of exhibitions and events dedicated to young designers, including the 11th edition of "Who Is On Next?" ― a group runway show and scouting project which promotes promising young designers, that launched talents such as Nicholas Kirkwood, Stella Jean, and Marco de Vincenzo, among others ― next to the first edition of “5+5,” a mentoring project for young designers led by AltaRoma and Vogue Italia, which introduced five well-established designers as mentors to five young up-and-coming design talents. In addition, AltaRoma presented "Portfolio Review," a new initiative which gave fashion, design, art, video, and photography graduates the opportunity to discuss their portfolios with editors from Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue. But the runway shows also had something to offer.
Luigi Borbone, a former architect who started his own Couture label in 2008, provided a collection that infused Italian-made craftsmanship with an international appeal – a Chinese appeal, to be more precise, one that was aimed at loosening the purse strings of an Asian clientele. "I design and produce everything here in Rome," stated Borbone. In fact, the designer's love for Italian craftsmanship is a family affair, as his family used to produce for Gucci and Pucci. "It was not easy to be accepted as a young Couture designer," he continued. "But I eventually established myself in Rome, and I must say, there is an increasing demand here for made-to-measure tailoring and unique creations, not only from locals, but also from clients abroad, who love to come to Rome to get a Couture piece which was especially made for them. Roman Couture seems to be a blooming business."
ROME'S MOVERS & SHAKERS
Alessandro di Cola
Far away from the runway, in the outskirts of Rome, is where the ateliers of some young creatives are to be found. There, Alessandro di Cola, a contemporary artist whose work was also exhibited at A.I. this season, started Shootingbag 1981, an artistic project dedicated to women's hand-bags. Di Cola's pieces are all hand-made in his atelier and customized with anodized and burned aluminum, as well as with recycled wood, leather, fur, animal bones, and horse hair. "Fashion is a great opportunity for me to express what I've learned through my art practices here in Rome – it allows me to take my metal treatment experiences to another level," the artist said, while presenting a range of customized hand-bags from his latest collection, his 5th collection so far, which he sells only on particular request. Alessandro di Cola studied at the Rome University of Fine Arts, where he specialized in bronze and aluminum sculpture, and ended up working in his father's artisanal welding and carpentry business – a métier that eventually determined his work as a designer, and which was not so much influenced by the city's heritage, but a lot by la famiglia. That said, heritage is everywhere in Rome and it obviously influences the designers and creatives around town. However, some designers see heritage as a double-edged sword.
According to Livia Lazzari, designer of Voodoo Jewels, heritage is a precious tool, but it's broad, and the dose equals the poison. "Our heritage is too omnipresent," stated the young designer, who was born and bred in Rome. "We need to look beyond our history, we need to be less proud to be Romans, we need to look into the future to create something strong," she added. In fact, Lazzari learned her trade in a jewelry company in the North of Italy, but returned to Rome soon after completing her training in order to establish her brand in her native city. "I do all the jewelry by myself and I work with local craftsmen for the stone setting and for the metal melting techniques," Lazzari explained while showing some of her latest jewelry pieces, which were mingling tribal adornments with the opulence of Rome's baroque aesthetics. "Roman designers must work twice as hard as Milanese ones," she added. "We don't have a fashion oriented business structure here in Rome, so we actually need to showcase in Milan, or abroad at some stage, if we want to attract an international audience. That said, what's great about not having a commercial base for fashion is that we're not influenced by seasonal trends – we're completely free to design without any commercial restrictions."
Elise Perrotta, for her part, agreed with Livia Lazzari's statements on the creative freedom of Roman fashion designers. "In an absurd way, Rome can be more authentic and real in terms of design as it is not as international as many other fashion cities," she stated. Perrotta is a Chelsea College of Arts graduate who specializes in knitwear and worked for Costume National before starting her own eponymous brand. She recently received a sponsorship from a Shanghai-based manufacturer to complete her first womenswear collection entirely crafted from knitwear, and exhibited her work at A.I. as well. "My collection is a work in progress. I just came back from Shanghai and I'm still working on my knitwear here in Italy," she added. "Part of me definitely identifies with Rome. It's a place where the idea of Italian fashion and craftsmanship started, and I like the fact that AltaRoma is pushing the promotion of young designers...Milan is very commercial and product-oriented, so maybe it can work better for us young designers to start off in Rome. At least I hope so," she smiled.
Back in Rome on the historical Via Giulia, an iconic hub for creativity of all genres, Ludovica Amati – Rome's wild child per se – established her atelier, where she celebrates all things feminine and mystical. "For me, doing clothes is just the end of a chapter...fashion in terms of fashion is dead; it's about art in general: it's performance, it's music, it's cinema, it's photography – fashion is now a synthesis of all these things," explained the designer. "I travelled a lot in my life, and I've always been curious about discovering and absorbing different cultures," she added, referring to trabalho de concentração, her latest outing which focused on the traditional patterns of a Peru-based indigenous tribe, that were adorning Amati's many chimerical women's outfits. Her long-time friend Asia Argento actually staged the collection, together with Emma de Caunes, in Paris earlier this year. "I was born here, but I moved to many places including London, New York, and Ibiza, among others, and my atelier moved with me, obviously. But I eventually felt that I needed to come back to my roots, and I established my atelier here on Via Giulia. You can feel a lot of beauty here; there is a lot of creativity at the moment in Rome. You can feel this energy – it's a true revival. Our heritage means a lot and we're very blessed to have it," she concluded.
The question whether Rome will regain its place as the capital of Italian fashion remains open. But who needs such a prestigious status when the prestige itself is already in every corner of this city?