by Carrie Osborn, Abbey Road staff
I know, I know. You hear “Italian fashion” and think “Milan,” right? You wouldn’t be wrong – the international northern Italian metropolis has been home to Italy’s couture shows for several decades. But before Fashion Week in Milan, Florence played a huge role in the development of the Italian alta moda industry.
During the Renaissance, the political, social, and artistic life of the city of Florence was all tied together thanks to the power of the artisan guilds. You can think of these guilds as something similar to our modern concept of a union. The influence of the guilds extended beyond the realm of their craft, and actually affected the governing of the city in a fairly democratic way. This system led to a strong Florentine tradition centered around high quality, specialized, hand-made goods – from intricate straw baskets to fine leather. The city’s leaders showed off their power by wearing the best Florentine-made fabrics and brocades.
These strong artisan traditions continued into the 20th century and helped fuel the development of a profitable industry in Florence. In the late 1920s, Salvatore Ferragamo started to gain fame for designing personalized, hand-made shoes in styles that were revolutionary for the time. His fame continued to grow as he was asked to design unique shoes for famous movie stars like Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and Marilyn Monroe. Ferragamo kept wooden forms of the feet of each of his famous clients, so that each pair of shoes could be specifically designed to fit the individual’s foot. Today Ferragamo’s shoes are considered to be works of art, and you can tour the Ferragamo Museum on Florence’s main fashion street, via dei Tornabuoni, to see some of his most famous shoes and the wooden molds of some of his star clients!
Fashion historians date the birth of the modern Italian fashion industry to 1952. The first ever Italian runway show was held that year in the sala bianca of Florence’s historic Palazzo Pitti. For the first time, Italy was recognized as a producer of high-quality, stylish clothing that could compete in an international market with other major fashion capitals. The emergence of a strong Italian fashion industry helped to reinvigorate Italy’s suffering economy during the dark post-war years. This early fashion show featured clothing designed by a famous Florentine whose brand is still recognized today by its bold colors and abstract patterns, Emilio Pucci.
Florence’s fashion legacy is still alive and well today. Pitti Immagine was established to pay tribute to the history made in Florence in the 1950s, and continues to represent Italian brands on the international market with anual shows and exhibitions – the most prominent of which is Pitti Uomini, Italian Fashion Week that focuses on menswear.