MILAN — La Rinascente introduced miniskirts and bikinis to Milan and played a key role in launching Italy’s ready-to-wear. Ahead of the opening of a sprawling new flagship in Rome in September — 11 years in the making — the department store is celebrating its 100th anniversary in Milan with a gala dinner tonight and a preview of the exhibition “LR 100-Rinascente. Stories of Innovation” at the Royal Palace. The exhibit will officially open on Thursday and run until Sept. 24.
“La Rinascente was part of Milan’s transformation into a global point of reference and reflected the enormous changes and wave of modernization that followed World War II,” said Maria Canella, a fashion history professor at the Milan University who curated the exhibit with Sandrina Bandera, president of the modern and contemporary art Ma*Ga Museum in Gallarate, Italy. The concept and exhibition design were curated by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA/AMO studio.
Each of the 11 rooms that make up the exhibit are meant to surprise, said Canella, also through several different visual, physical and multimedia experiences. Canella said the progression through the rooms is not linear, but rather the journey shows different contributions, from billboards to photos, with a sort of emporium-like layout.
“The idea is for La Rinascente not to celebrate itself or the brand but the history of Milan and Italy,” explained Canella, who noted that the store was actually first founded in Milan in 1865 by the Bocconi brothers with that family name. La Rinascente is a moniker given by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio when Senatore Borletti bought the store in 1917. This was followed by expansion into a department store chain in other Italian cities. Giant Thailand-based Central Retail Corp. took control of La Rinascente in 2011.
The exhibit mirrors the transformation not only in fashion, which becomes more democratic, but also in the customers, the bodies of men and women, with more people doing sports and the advent of sexual liberation. “La Rinascente was the first in Milan to sell sensual innerwear, which reflected a new lifestyle. There was an acceleration of changes in society and culture after 1917 that are part of daily life and are often overshadowed by history and its big events,” Canella said.
A room is dedicated to products that were innovative in their day as seen by artists, such as denim jeans, the telephone or the washing machine.
La Rinascente’s collaboration with artists and designers, from Marcello Dudovich and Pierre Cardin to Gio Ponti, is also emphasized through the exhibit. Giorgio Armani famously worked at the Milan store before launching his collection and Canella underscored La Rinascente’s foresight in launching the Missoni brand, for example.
“Missoni’s first collection was displayed on blindfolded mannequins and, although it was sold out in a few days, the story goes that one man was heard saying to the models, ‘You are lucky you can’t see what you are wearing!’ La Rinascente was ahead of its own customers,” Canella said with a laugh. “It has educated the public after fascism and autocracy, it has been a witness of the birth of made in Italy.” She pointed to a strong exchange with American department stores, each showcasing the others’ collections. “La Rinascente has been seen as a guarantee of well-made and beautiful Italian products.”
Back then and today, Canella noted the retailer has always been a magnet for “strolling in to see what’s new.” It was also among the first stores to sell by mail order and to send catalogues to consumers’ homes.
After so many years, Canella said she was “impressed by the passion of those involved in telling the story of La Rinascente, people who are in love with the store.”