Italian Lifestyle and Fashion: As Italian as blue jeans
- WTI Magazine #91 May 14, 2017
From the unacknowledged tailors in Piedmont in the late 1600s to contemporary international fashion brands like Fiorucci and Diesel, Italians have played an important role in shaping this iconic wardrobe staple way back to its inception. What would you think if I told you that jeans – an icon of American life – are an Italian invention?
It all started in a small town near Turin near the end of the 16th century. The tailors of Chieri needed to supply the workers at the port of Genoa with comfortable yet resistant cloth. As corduroy, typically used for working garb, was in short supply, they came up with a new fabric: what we know today as jean cloth. Mariners and longshoremen wore garments made from the cloth to perform heavy-duty tasks. They also used it to cover the goods on the docks. Soon, the cloth became popular for its sturdiness, strength, and durability. Due to its distinctive color and its use dockside in Genoa, this fabric became known as ‘Blu di Genova’. Does this ring any bell? Let’s have a look at its French counterpart: ‘Blue de Gênes’. Still not enough? Let’s clear things out, then. The mystery lies in the way British traders and businessmen pronounced it: ‘Blue of Jeans’. Later, it simply became the term ‘blue jeans’ we still use now.
It did not take long before this fabric was exported to the United States. During the California Gold Rush, it rose to popularity among the forty-niners. Later, on May 20, 1873, a tailor from Reno, Nevada and his supplier were issued the patent for five-pocket denim waist-overalls. Their names were Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss. Levi’s trousers broke through the market and became popular among workers of all kinds through the end of the 1920s. It was a time of financial hardship, so jeans became an affordable option many people relied on even for leisure. However, it was during WWII that jeans became an international icon of American life. In fact, American soldiers based abroad wore them while on leave and so ended up popularizing them. Jeans stood as a symbol of freedom and values which Europeans were eager to adopt. At this point, jeans had already taken the trip back to Italy where they originated.
They made their way into the Italian market through the backdoor. In Tuscany, the demand for jeans was met by resellers known as cenciaioli (from Italian ‘cencio’, rag) who would resell secondhand jeans worn by American soldiers. As the demand increased, jeans manufacturers began to open all over the Italian peninsula. In 1952, the Bacci brothers founded Roy Roger’s in a town near Florence, Campi Bisenzio. In 1958, the Fratini brothers founded Rifle in Prato. During Cold War years, Rifle was the first company to export jeans to Eastern Europe due the Soviet embargo affecting American companies. It didn’t take long for the Italians to put their trademark ‘fine working hand’ on the cloth. Beginning in the 1960s, many Italian fashion companies began to make jeans. Then, Venetia and the Marches regions grew into key locations for the jeans industry on an international level. Nowadays, the Marches are known as ‘the Jeans Valley’ since many clothing factories in the region produce on the behalf of Moschino, Coveri, Trussardi, Benetton and Banana Republic. Italian contributions to this ubiquitous garment do not stop here. Three key personalities made the birth of Made in Italy jeans possible: Elio Fiorucci, Adriano Goldschmied, and Renzo Rosso.
Fiorucci was the first to transition jeans into pop culture. His store at San Babila square, in Milan, was a meeting point for fashion lovers and pop culture enthusiasts. Indeed, his advertising campaigns paid homage to works of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Along with Fiorucci, another key figure is Adriano Goldschmied. Known as ‘the godfather of denim, he is the founder of ‘Genius Group’. Over the years, he created and licensed multiple jeans brands like Gas, Replay, and Diesel that became household names worldwide. Goldschmied’s vision set him apart. In fact, he refashioned jeans as a luxury item, deconstructing its narrative as workwear. He originated the term ‘premium denim’. He invented a new way to market jeans. However, it was his former employee – Renzo Rosso – who revolutionized the jeans industry in an unprecedented way.
Goldschmied sold Diesel, the firm he had founded in 1978, to Rosso in 1985. In just a few years, Rosso cast Diesel as the quintessential denim brand. Rosso made a name for Diesel through controversial, thought-provoking, and yet creative advertising campaigns. These ads are a play on stereotypes and accepted values taken to the extreme. Jeans are not their main focus, the meanings lying underneath them are. Rosso’s brands sell more than fashion items. Each one invites you to share a unique lifestyle and worldview. Diesel is, indeed, a lifestyle. You are not just wearing jeans; you are living the brand and its values. Thanks to Rosso, jeans have become a means to make a strong statement to the world. By wearing a particular item, you are expressing who you are – and who you are not.
Italian contributions to human knowledge expand across many fields; from science to arts to fashion. But fashion, in particular, shows what the Italian creative mind along with its distinctive craftsmanship can achieve. In the case of jeans, Italians have played an important role in their evolution from the time they invented the cloth back in the 16th century. When jeans became a fashion item, Italians stylists immediately took on the larger challenge of design and took it to a whole level. They have led the way with inimitable drive, passion, and vision.
Special thanks to Patricia Gatto Puglia for her precious advice.