The history of Italian fashion | Museum of Bags and Purses

Made in Italy and how the families of Italy built Italian fashion

For centuries, Italian design has involved a combination of tradition and craftsmanship with a luxurious, sensual look.

Catherine Buckland Tue 11 Dec | 4 min read

For centuries, Italian design has involved a combination of tradition and craftsmanship with a luxurious, sensual look.

To promote Milan and Italian design, the words ‘Made in Italy’ were introduced in the 1970s. For Italian designers, this served as a collective slogan and mark of quality. The temporary exhibition ‘Made in Italy’ is running at the Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses until the 17th February 2019. Catherine Buckland (Museum of Bags and Purses) explored the fascinating family heritage of Italian fashion brands and wrote this article with its fascinating history in mind.

Many of the biggest names in Italian fashion today are part of a long family tradition

From Coco Chanel to Calvin Klein, the fashion world loves the idea of a singular genius. Yet it often struggles to apply this narrative to Italian fashion. The assassination of Gianni Versace in 1997 prompted the world’s press to wonder if Donatella Versace could ever fill the (designer) shoes left by her brother.

And yet step into them she did, with the house continuing to be a favourite amongst maximalists and celebrities- notably Jennifer Lopez’s ‘green Versace dress’, one of Donatella’s early successes. (Lopez wore the dress to the 2000 Grammy Awards ceremony, and gained so much media attention that it prompted the invention of the Google Image Search function.) The house continued to be run by the Versace family- Santo Versace, the older brother, had been chief executive officer since the beginning- until earlier this year, where, despite the purchase of the brand by Michael Kors, Donatella intends to remain as chief designer.

The fashion world loves the idea of a singular genius. Yet it often struggles to apply this narrative to Italian fashion

The story is similar at Prada almost a century earlier. Mario Prada categorically refused to accept female relatives to work in his atelier- and yet after his death, both his daughter, and later, granddaughter, took the brand from luggage importer to international success, beginning with the ‘Vela’ Pocone range of handbags in the mid-1980s. It seems that in Italy, fashion follows family.

Display with Frog handbag
Bag from the exhibition Made in Italy

‘We are five’

What is notable in Italy is the number of cases where a designer’s family continues the house- sometimes for almost a century, when it comes to heritage brands such as Prada and Gucci. The Versace family is a modern example; the five Fendi sisters are a much earlier success story, taking over their parents’ fur and leather store in 1945. They credited much of their success to their family dynamic: to quote Alda Fendi: “We’ve gotten along because the men underestimated us- and because we are five.” The five sisters split the business between them, later hiring a young Karl Lagerfeld (sometimes referred to as the ‘sixth Fendi child’) to help propel the brand to its current status. Silvia Fendi, a granddaughter of the Fendi family, continues to work for the brand as creative director, and invented what is sometimes credited as being the first ‘It-Bag’ of the 1990s: the Fendi Baguette, a small bag carried under the arm (like its namesake), with over 100,000 sold in its first year.

Missoni made international headlines earlier this year for selling a stake in the firm for the first time. Since being founded in 1958 by husband and wife team Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, the brand has famously relied heavily on their family dynamic, often using relatives to model their new collections, the photoshoots to which are often shot within the family home, and publishing a cookbook featuring family recipes. Three generations of the family currently work for Missoni, with Rosita Missoni still running the home collection, her daughter Angela as current president and creative director, and, earlier this year, Margherita Maccapani Missoni returned to the brand as creative director of the younger M Missoni line.

What is so important about Italian fashion is how this valuing of heritage does not leave them caught in the past

What is so important about Italian fashion is how this valuing of heritage does not leave them caught in the past. Gucci- a brand that began in 1921 as an equestrian leather workshop- was criticised heavily in the 1990s for its hypersexualised advertising, and is currently leading the trend for ‘Geek Chic’ and sending models carrying baby dragons down the AW/18 runway.

Prada began as an importer of English luggage, and yet today, under the direction of Miuccia Prada, has become one of the fashion brands most associated with Italian style. Even Fendi, whose brand was built on fur to such a great extent that their catwalk shows were titled ‘haute fourrure’, have begun to present more animal-friendly alternatives on their runways. Family may be key for many Italian houses, but it is not used to justify remaining in the past. Their houses may well be run by the grand- and great-grand children of the founders, but their focus remains firmly fixed on the future.

Evening bag by Rubelli
display with Emilio Pucci items

Made in Italy

‘Made in Italy’, an exhibition of fashion and accessories created by leading Italian designers is on display at the Museum of Bags and Purses until the 17th February 2019. For this exhibition, the museum collaborated with the Italian Institute in Amsterdam and Italian collector Giorgio Forni from the Fondazione Sartirana Arte in Pavia. Forni’s world-renowned collection consists of hundreds of garments and accessories designed by Emilio Pucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, amongst many others. The Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam is the largest museum of its kind in the world, showing the history of the handbag in Western culture from the late Middle Ages to the present time.

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Catherine Buckland Tue 11 Dec | 4 min read

What people are saying

"Stunning" I would recommend a stopover for any fan of purses!
"Stunning"
One woman's acquiring a handbag led to a huge collection. Margaret Thatcher, Liz Taylor and Hilary Clinton's bags are all here.
"Loved this museum!"
Really gorgeous handbags with explanations. Fab restaurant there too and a tea shop.
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