The semi-annual men's fashion fair Pitti Uomo is having a successful relaunch this week, with more exhibitors, more visitors and an expanded programme for its 102nd edition. Ann Demeulemeester showed favourite looks from thirty years of archives, and Grace Wales Bonner showed in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
For the past two seasons, Pitti Uomo has continued as usual, albeit in a minor way. With a slimmed-down programme, far fewer exhibitors than before the pandemic and with almost exclusively European visitors. There was also something desolate about Florence, especially in winter: empty, quiet streets where, during ‘normal’ times, it is difficult to walk around.
Last week, the city and the fair seemed to revive. The tourists are back and, at first glance, everything seems to be as it used to be on the Fortezza da Basso fairgrounds.
The official visitor figures of organiser Pitti Immagine will be announced later this week. But they are in any case higher than in January, when Pitti had 548 exhibitors and some 8,000 professional visitors. At noon on Thursday, the visitor counter already stood at 9,000, the organisers announced on Thursday evening.
This time, over 700 exhibitors are present, less than at the last 'normal' edition, but still a step forward. The Americans are back, the Japanese – who used to be represented en masse – are too, albeit sparsely. Of the major fashion countries, only China still keeps its borders firmly closed. And Russia too is on the wane.
Spotlight on fashion from Ukraine
The Ukrainian fashion sector received a boost from Pitti Immagine, with the project Ukrainian Fashion Now!, a selection of eleven designers from Ukraine 'you need to know': Bobkova, Gudu, Gunia Project, Guzema, Katerina Kvit, Litkovskaya, Manufacture De Lin, Oberig, Poustovit, Viktor Anisimov and Yulia Yefimtchuk.
At the stands, there was more talk of war than of fashion. "Kiev is a little safer again," Olga Basovska, brand manager of Gudu, told me. "There is still an average of one bomb a week, but Kiev is big, so you take that risk. Sirens go off all the time, but many residents have come back, many shops have reopened. We try to get on with our lives and our work."
"Everything is more difficult, but we can continue to produce," echoed porcelain specialist Gunia Project. "And we can also deliver internationally."
Travelling is not easy. There is no flight to or from Kiev. Most of the designers had a days-long journey via Poland. “I tell everyone: if you don't need to, it's better not to travel," said Lilia Litkovskaya, who lives in Paris with her daughter and mother, and goes back and forth to Ukraine about twice a month. "It's just too tiring."
Wales Bonner in a Palazzo
Pitti traditionally organises a number of shows and presentations outside the fairgrounds. Before the pandemic, Pitti had evolved into a kind of mini fashion week, with different designers each time, usually an interesting combination of established names and up-and-coming talent. That tradition was rekindled this week.
The most important show in Florence was that of Wales Bonner, the label of London-based Grace Wales Bonner. Given a choice of historic venues, she chose the open courtyard of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, an impressive 485-year-old Renaissance palace that had never before been used for a fashion event. For her collection, Wales Bonner did research. Alessandro de Medici, the ruler of Florence until 1537, had a black mother. According to some sources, she was a maid who had a relationship with Duke Lorenzo, Alessandro's official father, or perhaps with Pope Clement VII. At a press conference, Wales Bonner said she wanted to address the presence of a black person at the time of the Renaissance. She also worked with artisans from Ghana and Burkina Faso and the artist Ibrahim Mahama, who made a giant patchwork of hand-stitched jute sacks used to transport cocoa from Ghana. She also worked with a tailor from Saville Row, Adidas, Charvet in Paris. Additionally, an artwork by Kerry James Marshall was featured as a print on an opening look.
Second time lucky for Ann Demeulemeester
The 'big name' of this edition of Pitti was Ann Demeulemeester. She had already been announced in January as the guest of honour, but her event was cancelled at the last minute after the covid-19 situation in Europe worsened again. The second time was good for the Belgian designer. At Stazione Leopolda, the former train station that is often used for shows – Chanel touched down there just last week – she lined up 47 dolls dressed in archival pieces.
"I just chose based on my gut feeling," Demeulemeester said during a preview.
"We have a huge archive. I have always kept a lot. I put aside at least ten ensembles from each collection. Over the years, this has grown into a gigantic collection. It is now being kept in Milan,” she said. “I have always thought: if one day I want to stop, or I get too old to design, then these pieces are, in a way, the future of the brand. When you see all those original clothes together, you understand my work. A talented designer can take that, and go his own way with it."
The line-up at Stazione Leopolda began in 1992. "With the first silhouette from my first show," the designer noted. The look, complete with a top of grey feathers, was worn by model Kirsten Owen in Paris at the time. Her pantaloons were not fully buttoned as Owen was pregnant, but nobody knew that.
"The rest followed automatically. I worked very intuitively: I want this, and this, and this. I had brought about ten extra looks with me, in case something was wrong. But I didn't need them. I didn't want to proclaim any grand theories. I thought: if I can put the past and the future in one line, on one stage, and if the clothes all tell one story together, form one whole – if it doesn't crash and burn – then I am very happy," Demeulemeester added.
Demeulemeester does not design clothes anymore. She announced her farewell in 2013 and was succeeded by Sébastien Meunier. In 2022, the company was acquired by Italian fashion entrepreneur Claudio Antonioli and the studio moved to Milan, where the collections are designed by an in-house team. Demeulemeester, who had kept away from fashion since 2013, suddenly seemed to be involved with her brand again.
Her function within the 'new' Ann Demeulemeester is not really defined, but she is involved with special projects, such as a perfume, or the event in Florence, which, by focusing on Demeulemeester's heritage, should strengthen the brand for the future. Meanwhile, she also continues with her line of table porcelain and furniture, in collaboration with the Belgian company Serax.
In time, Antonioli may want to appoint an official successor to Ann Demeulemeester. But for now, it remains a team effort. "I let the designers in Milan do their thing," she said. "I don't intervene." She said she sees her clothes as children. "They are grown up now, they can fly on their own wings. I am not allowed to intervene now, because that would mean starting all over again, and I have decided not to do that. I have always continued to evolve. I am still evolving. I am now working in other fields. You cannot do everything. I decided to quit fashion to give myself a chance to do something else."
Besides Wales Bonner and Demeulemeester, Pitti also gave carte blanche to Scandinavian label Soulland, with a beautiful show in a modernist marble amphitheatre, and Sapio, the label of a former Rick Owens collaborator, which made its debut yesterday.
In Florence, superstars were called in here and there: streetwear label Mauna-Kea introduced a capsule collection featuring NBA champion Jaren Jackson Junior. Shoes manufacturer Superga held a party in honour of brand ambassador Emily Ratajkowski. And then there was recently discredited photographer Bruce Weber, who shot a campaign film for Roy Rogers. The oldest Italian denim brand, still a family business, celebrates its seventieth anniversary this year.
The biggest fashion story remained sustainability in Florence, with a lot of attention to responsible fashion from many mainstream labels, such as Ecoalf and Save The Duck, which again made a big splash. The S/Style sustainable style section again gathered a number of interesting young sustainable labels, including Philip Huang, who is largely based in Thailand, and the Paris-based Belgian, Mworks.
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.