fashion shapes (Il Mulino) is a collection of essays that question the challenges of the fashion industry today, from the characteristics that define a creative director to the construction of brand imaginaries, production practices, material and immaterial, of these same imaginations. to the ambivalent relationship that fashion establishes with art, from the lack of entirely Italian academic literature on the great themes of fashion to the historical delay with which our country, and its institutions, protect and amplify the heritage of Italian fashion. Maria Luisa Frisa, critic, curator and founder of the fashion design and multimedia arts course at the Iuav in Venice, has reworked these reflections, initially published in 2015, updating them in the light of what has happened in recent years: with her we talked about what it means to think and write about fashion and the many ramifications with the contemporary that this industry and this discipline manages to have.
Ⓢ In this updated edition of fashion shapes, take your thoughts from 2015 and build on everything that’s happened in the industry in the meantime. What do you think are the biggest changes that have taken place?
I have been asked several times, since 2015, to fix it, but I had always refused to do so. Then, especially during the first period of the pandemic, I realized that maybe it was time to write down the things I was thinking about, because writing them meant putting them in order. Fashion, and I will never tire of repeating it, is a complex system that involves all contemporary disciplines, from ecology to philosophy to gender studies, and at the same time it is a superficial system , because it manages to pass through everything that is produced by human thought. During the pandemic, we all experienced a kind of renunciation of our body: this denial was, in a way, also the denial of a desire, and at that time there was a lot of talk about how fashion had to slow down, if not s stop, but today we see that everything seems to have started again as before, the fashion shows, the parties, the red carpets. Still, I think it was predictable: fashion has to produce imaginaries, just like novels, but the pandemic has highlighted the need to work with the system, and especially with the production system, in a different way. . Just look at the repercussions that certain events have on the sector, from the war in Ukraine to the new confinements in China, which have made us all realize how much we need to work on a production network that is not only articulated but above all better controlled. The pandemic has given e-commerce an incredible boost, and it’s been helpful, but at the same time it’s brought the issue of sustainability into focus. The Italian system has held up despite the difficulties and even if we often feel embarrassed to talk about fashion in certain situations, we have to overcome this attitude and remember what fashion is, a sector that employs a lot of people. What would Milan be without fashion? If you think about it, something very similar is also happening in art, which is looking more and more fashionable. The major artistic events are frequented by dealers, gallery owners, collectors and others of the highest level.
Ⓢ It’s a question I’ve often asked myself, especially in recent months: to participate in fashion week in February when the war broke out it was surreal. In Milan, the time was not for an “institutional” response, while in Paris, on the first day of the shows, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode guest insiders to experience the shows “with sobriety and reflection on the dark times”. A sentence that makes you laugh and cry at the same time, but which tells the story of the attitude of the French towards fashion, which is very different from ours. As you write on page 69, “the difficulty of pursuing a reflection on Italian culture and fashion is also due to a delay in historical and critical academic training”. Where does this cultural bias come from?
After the fashion shows, Macron welcomes all French designers to the Elysée, recognizing the value they have in a country’s identity. In Italy, when it comes to fashion, there is always a tendency to simplify, think of the little academic literature that exists on the subject. Books are published without quoting the sources, full of errors, where the stories of this industry are reduced to salacious fairy tales: the problem is this, the lightness with which one speaks of this subject. Certainly there is a part that can be taken lightly, because of this superficiality that we were talking about before, but it does not apply to everything. And it’s also a political problem: we don’t have the necessary space for fashion in public universities, we don’t have a big fashion museum that is a catalyst for studies and events, we we haven’t trained enough people who can work on fashion-related heritage. Most Italian brands are no longer Italian and in the future it will be more and more like that: it’s a big problem.
Ⓢ Absolutely. In the book you define today’s creative director as “a curator”: how has he changed and what are the characteristics that define this role compared to “stylists”, a truly Italian word, but also compared to the design stars of the 90s?
The designer is almost a pioneer figure: when we say that Walter Albini is the first Italian fashion designer, because at that time the others were still tailors or couturiers, it is because the designer is the figure who creates this incredible combination of know-how, industry and media. It was he who gave life to the mass-produced quality product. Thus, personalities like Albini, like Giorgio Armani, like Gianfranco Ferré, are the perfect incarnation of this new fashion protagonist. The creative director, meanwhile, is the one who represents the great global challenge of fashion and accompanies the arrival of managers in fashion brands, when we realized that this sector could be transformed into a business. gigantic. In these new galaxies, creative directors must build a world, a vision that represents the brand they lead, creating a balance between that brand’s heritage and the contemporary. Then there is their personal identity. They appeal to style offices, it’s not that they’re there to design so to speak, but they express their own poetics. For some it is right, in my opinion, to speak of poetics, as in the case of Alessandro Michele who, through his gaze, opened up a vision that has to do with all the transformations that we are experiencing today, starting with sexual identities. Michele worked a lot on the erotic identity of Gucci, starting with what Tom Ford had done with it, and he built a certain idea of beauty, which is no longer unique: working with Silvia Calderoni, quoting Walter Benjamin or Donna Haraway in Notes from a Fashion Show [Benjamin era citato per la Resort 2023 che ha sfilato a Castel del Monte lo scorso 16 maggio, Haraway nella collezione Autunno Inverno 2018-2019, nda] maybe forcing people to seek more information about these personalities, in my opinion is a brave act. Of course there is a lot of communication in these operations, but that’s what fashion does: conveying the idea of the human post through a collection is an interesting gesture. And he succeeds because he starts from things that he feels are his, that he is passionate about. Now, I don’t want to sound too enthusiastic about fashion, because I have a lot of critical positions that I also address in the book, but I would like to be recognized for this ability to pass on languages and to make known things. And it’s interesting to note that some of the most interesting creative directors of the moment are Italian, like Pierpaolo Piccioli, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Riccardo Tisci, Francesco Risso, all people who have had a long apprenticeship, who have a typically Italian sensibility on product quality and of which they are also visionaries, each in their own way. The artistic director is a figure that perfectly reflects our times and is the one who holds people, ideas and things together.
Ⓢ I am okay. In the chapter devoted to fashion professions, you write about the explosive short-circuit that exists between the cultural values expressed by fashion and its production practices. The user/consumer has never had so many intervention tools to influence brand strategies, even through intermediary figures such as influencers who, as you write, are a kind of evolution of fashion editors newspapers. Do you think this is the much-desired democratization of fashion?
In my opinion, a distinction must be made: first of all, Italian fashion, which was born as a mass production of quality objects, has in itself a democratic element very similar to that of design. Another part of the question is the accessibility of fashion imaginations and this is probably what influencers are doing today, making a certain vision of fashion accessible. Of course it is difficult to find rich imaginations like those of Manuela Pavesi or Anna Piaggi, but I also think that seeing, being exposed to quality images stimulates research, even personal research. We all learned how to dress ourselves by watching how others dressed, emulation is a feeling that can serve to improve us, in its healthiest form. In his Dictionary of success, failure and clichés (Sellerio) Irene Brin helped people dress in the immediate post-war period, a time when a whole new segment of society had access to a host of novelties. Now I’m simplifying, but what I mean is that Instagram does not create democratization, on the contrary, it makes common a certain visual heritage of fashion. And then it’s up to each of us to choose the speeches to make.