The designers themselves chalk this up to an obsession with tradition and a risk-averse climate, a combination that may prove detrimental to their careers. “This is a really tough period for fashion and for business in general, both in Italy and abroad,” explains Ilaria Nistri, who launched her namesake label in 2006. “Even so, I think that a lot of international markets are willing to take bigger risks than the Italian market, which always focuses on the same names.”
Nistri has experienced this dichotomy firsthand. After showing one of her early collections at Tranoi in Paris, she received hearty support from international buyers, including a major department store that helped launch her label to the media. Nonetheless, Nistri emphatically claims that this wouldn’t have happened in Italy. “The Italian market is afraid to take risks. They may promote a new designer if he’s working for an established company, but very seldom do so with an unknown name.”
This sentiment is echoed by Albino D’Amato, who is one of the rare young designers to achieve international recognition. “The industry prefers to invest in more commercial and remunerative projects that are devoid of any aesthetic value,” he says. “Milan has great talent, but established brands are fighting to conquer more space, which doesn’t leave many opportunities for newcomers.”
Despite the obstacles facing them, most young Italian designers still have a strong reverence for the nation’s traditional craftsmanship and refinement, one that they are striving to reconcile with their own voices. Carta e Costura and Silvio Betterelli share an aesthetic that combines emotion and drama with clinically precise tailoring, while a.VE Ante Vesperum Edicta has a cerebral approach to silhouette that’s reminiscent of Prada and Marni. Gabriele Colangelo meshes an Armani-esque sleekness and elegance with a slightly futuristic spin—his s/s ’09 collection’s gunmetal tube dresses and skinny pants make the wearer look as though they’re crafted from molten steel, while fanned-out pleating gave an almost mechanical air to his tunics.
Sensuality also remains a hallmark of this new crop of Italian designers, most notably in their use of materials. Nistri’s fluid s/s ’09 collection is remarkable for its leather pieces, woven with silk georgette on dresses and rendered into detachable accent pieces on blouses, while D’Amato’s winter collection is a luscious frenzy of suede, jacquard, wool, taffeta and brocade.
While the support provided by national institutions may not be on the level of places like London, it’s slowly starting to increase. Vogue Italia sponsors a high-profile initiative called “Who’s On Next,” which has honored most of the aforementioned designers in recent years, while the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana has upped its support with the introduction of the Fashion Incubator Project, which showcased five up-and-coming designers in Milan and Tokyo. The Camera della Moda has also announced plans for the Fashion Institute of Milan, which is being pitched as a rival to experimental fashion schools like Central Saint Martins in London and Parsons in New York.
At the end of the day, however, it’s the designers’ love of fashion that will ultimately ensure their due credit. “The advantage of being an Italian designer is that you grow up eating bread and fashion,” explains the enigmatic Normaluisa, a designer known for her ultra-feminine cocktail dresses. “We breathe fashion and feel it in our own blood, in our own hearts.”