The motherland of Artisanal Fashion: Northern Italy
The regions of Northern Italy are home to hilly and arid agricultural land filled with smallholdings surrounded by villages, where families and small business produce and distribute crops and livestock. Yet the region is the source of an alternative scene of Artisanal Fashion labels. Whilst the commercial fashion industry has taken heed of small and medium scale producers working across areas such as Prato, Tuscany proves to be more than a “Made in Italy” label. Whether it be its mantra of “la dolce far niente” the “sweetness of doing nothing”, or its historic ties to fashion and art, the region has attracted a community of designers with an individualist vision who treasure slow artisanal production.
Northern Italy’s heritage and culture have made it a Mecca for Artisanal designers who challenge the stayed image of “Made in Italy” fashion—we pick apart the cultural facets that make the area influential to a counter-culture of fashion designers.
La dolce far niente
An Italian cultural export and ideology that’s pertinence to craft based industries is significant, is that of ‘la dolce far niente’. The ‘sweetness of doing nothing’, of a slow life comparable to a life of mindfulness in avoidance of stress and a fast paced life.
The mantra of ‘la dolce far niente’ is significant in the case of Artisanal fashion because it is at the centre of handcraft and artisanal production in the slow paced work with natural materials where individuals create unique pieces for the pleasure of personage. In the export of the Italian fashion industry this philosophy has not been promoted to consumers as an image of Italian lifestyle. Designers and houses such as Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci have promoted the art of ‘la dolce vita’, the Southern Italian glamour of the ‘sweet life’ as an authentic image of Italian lifestyle. ‘La dolce vita’ is an antithetical identity to the Tuscan craft identity of Artisanal labels that base themselves in the region whose essence can be found in ‘la dolce far niente’. The disparate natures of these philosophies are aesthetically visible in the subdued form and dark tones of Artisanal labels such as Guidi’s industrial aesthetic in contrast to the bright and embellished Siciliana depicted by Dolce & Gabbana.
‘La dolce far niente’ is no better typified than in the case of the Slow Food movement which is comparable to Artisanal Fashion, and both share a northern Italian identity. A number of artisanal creators reside in the northwest of Italy, often distant from the industrial hubs in northeastern regions, or the mass of fashion manufacturing sites in and around Milan.
Slow Food is an organisation started in 1989 to “prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteracting the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat”. The organisation was started in Bra, northwestern Italy an area that has in recent times suffered from the effects of industrialisation and globalisation. In the past 25 years the Slow Food movement has grown to international stature conducting international cultural and political events focused on education and igniting change in the perception of food. The parallels between the Slow Food movement and Artisanal fashion are apparent in their commitment to local identity, culture and traditions. The relationship between the town of Bra and craft is exemplified by a biennial festival celebrating international artisan cheesemakers, organised by the Slow Food movement.
Made in Italy
Tuscany has been home to textile producers for many hundreds of years with small and medium scale producers working across areas such as Prato. The commercial fashion industry has in recent years taken heed of this and designers such as Roberto Cavalli now base themselves in the region despite their East Asian production and southern Italian aesthetic.
To fashion consumers during the 1980s ‘Made In Italy’ was a campaign used to sell the quality of a nation, in both construction but also in aesthetic terms. This campaign was met with great success allowing the likes of Armani, Gucci and Prada to become household names under the umbrella of “Made in Italy”. This fashion branding of a nation wasn’t just successful for consumers but also to those at the highest tables of fashion; the likes of Tom Ford and Jimmy Choo all produce product in Italy, the latter noting “exceptional Italian craftsmanship” on its website. These sentiments about Italian craftsmanship and its timeless links to fashion are echoed in the minds of many luxury consumers.
Despite the uncovering of manufacturers’ often illegal wide scale use of immigrant labour employed by some of Italian fashion’s biggest brands such as Prada and Versace in 2007, increases in manufacturing legislation and a tightening of labour laws seem enough to reassure luxury consumers for whom this version of “Made in Italy” continues to stand its ground.
For Artisanal creators, “Made in Italy” goes beyond the surface and gives way to luxury goods that inhabit a distinctive aesthetic and whose roots are grounded in Northern Italy. Harnessing local resources and time-honoured craftsmanship, artisanal creations often celebrate the beauty of imperfection and show signs of the hand they were crafted from and area they were crafted in.
Florence is widely regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance in the arts and sciences. The Florentine republic gave birth to the likes of Botticelli, Machiavelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo and was the cultural centre of Italy and much of Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries. Artisanal labels’ dedication to craft has its roots in the Renaissance identity of Tuscany through the marriage of materials, artistic creation, poetic expression and a scientific approach.
The significance of the region to art is no better exemplified than by the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The Uffizi houses work by Caravaggio, Raphael, da Vinci, Bellini, Goya and Rembrandt and could be considered the most noteworthy location for renaissance art in the world. The often philosophical approach towards dress that is held by devotees of Artisanal labels can be related to the humanist approach that Machiavelli expresses in his political work The Prince. Machiavelli introduced individualism to renaissance Italy, maintaining the idea that society should be observed as a group of distinct individuals, as opposed to a homogenous herd. If there’s one way Artisanal devotees express and sculpt their individual identities, it’s through not only wardrobe but an interrogative approach to fashion that demands meaning.
Northern Italy serves as an oasis to Artisanal creators who challenge not only the popularised image of “Made in Italy” but also redefine perceptions of what luxury goods are. Often understated, and revolving around slow artisanal production the work of creators such as Layer-0 and Forme D’expression inhabit a space between craft, science, and art. Nevertheless fashion is an industry that exists to sell clothes, and a category in which artisanal creations are found alongside mass produced luxury items comparable in price but not in process nor approach. Northern Italy may be the motherland of a fashion counter-culture of independent Artisanal labels, but the expanding niche can be found worldwide. Read about How Slow Fashion gave way to a growing Artisanal Niche.