IT WASN’T LONG AGO that the men’s shows were just a tiny blip in the fashion calendar: three days in Milan and three days in Paris were all that was needed to showcase the best in menswear every season. Not any more. With London Collections: Men celebrating its second run in the British capital this January and rumours that New York is also plotting its own men’s shows, it’s clear that everyone wants a piece of the growing pie that male fashion has become, thanks, in no small part, to the huge growth of the sector in the Asian market.
Savvy industry players, however, know that Pitti Uomo in Florence, the biannual trade fair that every January and June draws the top buyers and editors to that cultural haven in the heart of Tuscany, is a not-to-be-missed appointment for those looking for real and well-made garments.
What stands out at Pitti is the incredible variety of clothes that visitors can freely browse during the three-day event. Like at any other fair, some of the stuff shown is very hit-or-miss, but that hidden gem of a brand you discover at an independent boutique or a fashion-forward department store in Hong Kong, Tokyo or Seoul is likely to have been unveiled at Pitti. Only here can you meet an octogenarian Neapolitan tailor who’s on par with the best suit makers of Savile Row or an up-and-coming designer who works out of his studio apartment in Brooklyn. It’s this spirit of novelty and sense of discovery that make Pitti the favourite trade fair for serious buyers catering to discerning customers drawn to niche labels rather than household names.
Most of the exhibitors hail from Italy and other European countries with strong tailoring traditions, such as the UK or France, or places like Japan, a country that has contributed greatly to the renaissance in menswear we’ve witnessed over the last few years (buyers from Japan also accounted for the biggest share of visitors to the fair this year, with nations such as South Korea, Germany, Russia and China trailing closely).
Whereas the fashion weeks of Milan and Paris are often more about the surrounding parties and promotional gigs, at Pitti the focus is on the actual clothes. As you roam the beautiful Renaissance fortress that houses the pavilions, you can actually feel the garments; talk to the artisans who explain what’s behind the creation of a tailored jacket or a leather brogue; and even approach a top designer such as Brunello Cucinelli, who sits at his stand while expounding on the fine cashmere used to make his sweaters.
Pitti, in other words, is the thinking man’s version of fashion week: in much the same away that the region of Piedmont in Northern Italy was the catalyst for the slow-food movement, Pitti has become the proponent of slow wear, aiming to celebrate not just the famous houses that are synonymous with Italian fashion but also the art and the beauty of real clothes as they were once made by small family firms that are the backbone of Italian manufacturing.
Although in the last decade the fair has grown exponentially and started to show bigger brands alongside lesser-known designers – this year the headliners were Kenzo, which showed its autumn/winter 2013 men’s collection, and Ermanno Scervino, which unveiled its pre-autumn 2013 line – as you wander around sections of the fair such as Make, which displays the traditional arts of men’s tailoring, or New Beat(s), devoted to the new guard, you feel like you’re in a shopper’s paradise, a sprawling masculine department store, albeit one populated by a disproportionate number of dapper Italians and rakish gentlemen.
Also befitting a fair that has always veered towards a more intellectual approach, Pitti offers lectures, symposia and discussions that deal with the most pressing issues in the industry. This year, for instance, the launch of Dressing like a Man, a selection of clothes curated by Angelo Flaccavento and co-sponsored by online retailer yoox.com, where the pieces were instantly made available for purchase, was an occasion for luminaries such as Suzy Menkes to debate the role of the runway show in the 21st century and the influence of the Internet on the way men consume fashion.
In the end, though, the raison d’être of every trade show is the number of backroom deals successfully closed. After all, lofty and well-meaning discussions about the status of fashion only take you so far and are not the primary reason why buyers open their wallets to place orders. According to Raffaello Napoleone, the fair’s CEO, “The final figures are undoubtedly a positive sign for men’s fashion and for Made in Italy: at this time, foreign markets and, in particular, non-EU countries are the driving force behind the fashion economy, so for us the five percent growth in foreign buyers was much more significant than the drop in Italians, which clearly reflects our country’s difficult economic situation and the farreaching process of transformation in the fashion retail industry.”
In spite of the positive numbers, Pitti runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success. Although it feels almost intimate when compared with the circuslike atmosphere of New York, Milan and Paris, where scenesters and hangers-on outnumber industry people by a wide margin and care more about what happens outside the shows rather than inside them, street-style photographers are starting to have quite a presence here as well. They’re on the prowl for the stylishly clad gentlemen who, with their retro-inspired outfits, carefully groomed beards and dashing headwear, are the sartorial counterparts to the countless Anna Dello Russo wannabes stalking the sidewalks of New York or Paris at the women’s shows.
It’s quite telling that one of the sceptical doubters about Pitti’s future during my visit in January was none other than a taxi driver who, while extolling the great tradition of craftsmanship that once made Florence the capital of Italian fashion before Milan took over, also bemoaned the loss of all the artisans who not long ago populated the backstreets of the city. As we were driving by a small shoe boutique, or rather a cobbler, as he referred to it in his charming Tuscan patois, he revealed an unexpected anecdote about none other than this year’s Academy Award winner Daniel Day Lewis, who apparently apprenticed at the shop to learn how to make men’s leather shoes. It’s hard to know whether this is just an apocryphal yarn, an urban legend that has become part of the local lore, but this jewel of a story could only have come out of a place like Florence, where a smattering of lace workshops, basket weavers and leather-goods purveyors can still be found amid the international chains slowly invading the city.
Here’s to hoping that Pitti, unlike the Renaissance amusement park that Florence has become, won’t turn into just another stop on the fashion caravan that exhibits more performers rather than makers of beautiful things – those objects that can inspire a world-class actor to stop polishing his golden statuettes (three and counting) and instead try his hands at the far less glamorous task of stitching together the perfect pair of brogues.