Sometimes shocking, often game-changing, always visionary, certain designers become the name on everyone’s lips for a millisecond. Then they’re gone, no longer part of contemporary conversation, and barely even a footnote in the fashion history tomes that threaten the slender legs of the chicest coffee tables. If we stumble upon their names, we sit back and wonder, How can we not be talking about them anymore? In this series, Fashion’s Unsung Designers, I will spotlight some of those who I believe deserve, not only to be remembered, but perhaps name-dropped over cocktails.
Before Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace became the monolithic cornerstones of late twentieth-century Italian fashion, there was another figure: Walter Albini. Likened to Yves Saint Laurent by WWD, he pioneered the event that became known as Milan Fashion Week, by breaking with the tradition of showcasing fashion in Florence’s historic Palazzo Pitti and showing in Milan. A revolutionary move which the other houses soon copied and Milan, of course, remains the host of fashion week to this day. Albini is all but unknown internationally and surprisingly forgotten in Italy, yet his influence runs through every palazzo of Italian fashion. Compare his work (below left) with Armani (below right).
A gifted illustrator, Albini graduated from the Institute of Art, Design and Fashion in Turin and, at 17, headed to Paris where he illustrated fashion for newspapers and magazines. There he met an elderly Coco Chanel who left an enduring impression on the budding designer, as well as a young Karl Lagerfeld. But it was an encounter with the late Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia that changed his course when she persuaded him to return to Italy and work for her.
A decadent dandy figure, a cross between Halston and Cecil Beaton, Albini understood the power of the total look and devoted as much attention to the fabric design of a foulard as the drape of an evening gown. His inspirations were far reaching––from Klimt and Art Deco, to Wallis Simpson and Marlene Dietrich, from Bauhaus graphics to the drawings of Erté––but all imbued with a silver screen aura associated with his preferred era, 1920 to 1940.
One reason why he isn’t so celebrated at home might be that he began his career as an illustrator and perhaps became pigeonholed. But the more knowledgeable of his peers understood that this was precisely his strength. His great friend, Anna Piaggi, said, “To get to the garment, Walter started from a drawing. His drawings were not summary sketches but proper illustrations, which from time to time suggested the themes of the collections and were inseparable from the environment that represented them.”
From these drawings so lovingly detailed and ornately colored, the garments were conjured. He took it a step further and reintroduced fashion illustration into advertisements for the first time since illustration’s heyday in the 20s and 30s. After designing for a raft of labels including Krizia, Gianni Baldini, and Cadet (where, incidentally, Franco Moschino also cut his teeth but some years later), Albini arrived at Milan fashion week for Fall 1972 as the sole designer behind five different houses each specializing in specific categories from outerwear to knitwear. The labels he united into one show, something never done before, were Basile, Escargots, Callaghan, Misterfox and Diamant’s. Impressed, Joan Burnstein of Brown’s in London, who would later famously champion a young John Galliano, helped introduce him to the English market via a London fashion show.
Beloved by press but without financial backing, Albini often found himself hustling despite the international acclaim. Inevitably, the struggle informed his process. In 1972, unable to find a producer for outerwear in time for his runway show, he created the unstructured jacket, known in Italian as la giacca camicia (the blouse jacket). He wasn’t averse to controversy printing images of the Virgin Mary on shirts long before Dolce & Gabbana. While his womenswear recalled the dreamy and seductive glamour of Daisy Buchanan but transplanted from East Egg to a uniquely Italian location with cypress trees and medieval villas, his menswear evoked lounge lizards, boaters and flâneurs who sported Oxford Bags in Prince of Wales check and two-tone brogues. Then, in 1975, he abruptly reversed these codes and showed his menswear on women, thereby predicting the concept of unisex dressing by many years. Despite struggling financially through 1974 and 1975, he launched an haute couture collection, but found himself back designing for others by the end of the decade.
Despite his lack of widespread acclaim, he is often cited as the forefather of Italian ready-to-wear. Manolo Blahnik, said “Walter Albini is still for me today the essence of Italian High Fashion…I will never forget the show at Caffè Florian in Venice. Wonderful moments. A collection that made one think of Chanel, in a very Italian way. Gardenias all over the place, the essence of sophistication. Walter has always been extremely modern. When I think of Italian fashion, I think of Albini and no one else.”
The Sunday Times gushed in 1973, “With the exception of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, no other designer has had a greater impact in recent years.” But still, his name has diminished while those have remained bright. And after he had laid the groundwork for those to come after, and for the 80s and 90s boom years of the Made in Italy label, he died, reportedly of AIDS, in 1983.
He was 42.