Milan versus Paris.

It’s a fashion battle that has raged for more than three decades as the kudos for creativity and commercialism seesaw between the two cities. Italy was the clear creative star in the Eighties and early Nineties but now is recognized more for its quality production and as the commercial engine of the global fashion machine. The creative axis has clearly shifted to Paris. That has some observers fretting over whether Milan has lost its edge — and what it needs to do to restore its former glories.

Making a well-tailored pair of pants or a butter-soft leather bag requires talent, but those skills don’t exactly grab headlines like a funky Trojan warrior hat or a rainbow-tiered organza dress.

Whether it means jigging the show calendar to better accommodate young designers, modernizing the country’s fashion schools or luring talent from abroad, various players in the global arena — including some of Italy’s most powerful designers — have suggestions on how Milan can spice up its act.

But most maintain that the best course is do little: Let Paris be Paris and Milan, Milan. Who needs buzz when the cash registers are ringing? (Albeit, a subdued, sporadic ring in these tough times.)

"The Italians have a sense of aesthetic beauty…but they’ve always used that creativity for commercial aims," noted Concetta Lanciaux, executive vice president of synergies at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and a longtime talent scout at the French giant. She pointed out that Italians have innovation in their blood: After all, they gave birth to luxury goods in the Renaissance.

"The French would not exist if it were not for Italy," she proclaimed.

But Miuccia Prada believes part of the problem is that conservative, financially minded Milan has its limits as a city.

"Milan is not fashionable because it doesn’t have enough hangouts or women who dress fashionably," she said. "It’s a matter of where the women are better-dressed rather than where the fashion show takes place."

It’s not just what’s presented on the runway that counts, she said. How people live fashion is more important. Among Milan’s ills are unexciting stores, she said, citing how more inventive retail concepts flourish in cities like London and New York. She challenges more retailers to follow her example of Prada’s high tech SoHo store with features like dressing-room doors that frost over when occupied.Gucci’s Tom Ford has a similar stance. "Fashion today is very global and nobody really cares where a fashion show is held," he said. Designing Gucci in Milan and Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, he noted that Milan is definitely the more industrial of the two but he spends such a concentrated amount of time focusing on the Gucci collection that he doesn’t really notice.

Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising at Barneys New York, said that although Milan is home to plenty of "directional" designers like Prada, the lack of urban vibe and multiculturalism takes its toll.

"The only way to get a buzz is to have that diversity," she said.

Still, Milan has plenty to offer in terms of what it does best: churn out some of the world’s best-tailored, extraordinary pieces that buyers use to fill their sales floors. Most observers agree that, although Milan can do better in terms of cultivating new talent and revving up its image, it can’t and shouldn’t try to outdo Paris in terms of showmanship.

"If we tried to do theatrical fashion shows like they do in Paris, I think we would be the losers," said Barbara Trebitsch, a fashion professor at Milan’s Domus Academy.

Giorgio Armani, Milan’s king of sensible chic, agrees that melodrama is overrated. "Is creativity a bunch of extreme clothes? Crinoline? Thirty-centimeter high wedges? A wooden dress?…Fashion, I’ll remind you, can be an artistic expression, but it is not art and it doesn’t live in perfect solitude, and it’s not enough for it to be on its own."

In fact, the need to be a commercial success in Italy can provide just the right dose of resistance to spur genius, according to John Richmond, who has chosen to work in Italy by teaming up with businessman Saverio Moschillo to produce and distribute his collection.

"Sometimes it’s easy to be creative when you don’t have to worry about selling anything," he said. His theory is that fashion is kind of like pop music: Some of the best songs are also number-one hits that sell. "That’s one of the reasons I show in Milan. I want to see people wearing the clothes," he said.One of the fashionistas’ biggest beefs about Milan is the show calendar. This issue is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, retailers and editors complain that the calendar is too long. They can’t afford the time or money to stay in Milan for nine days of shows. To help them out, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana concentrates the biggest and most important shows in the last five days or so. This angers smaller fashion houses and younger designers who get stuck with earlier dates before the big press and buyers arrive.

"For the Camera, I really believe that money counts more than talent," contended Stefano Guerriero. "It’s a bit ugly to say, but it’s a fact.How else do you explain the poor positioning of young designers in the calendar?"

Alessandro Dell’Acqua voiced similar gripes. "Take for example the situation of the [women’s] show calendar: 10 days of shows but the attention is all concentrated on the last five days, to the detriment of anyone who has to show in the first five," he said. "The French, unlike the Italians, protect their designers. They are proactive and they strongly provide for them."

Edward Buchanan, who together with Manuela Morin designs LeFlesh, can relate. "In Milan, you’re dealing with a lot of big groups and everyone does a million shows," he said. Editors faced with shrinking budgets "come when the first big advertiser shows and leave after the last big advertiser shows.

"All these young designers that don’t have bank accounts have to do presentations and they’re not being seen," said Buchanan. "They are being overlooked."

Of course, it’s the same complaint made by the struggling young designers in London, or even in Paris. And youth does not automatically translate into buzz — John Galliano is far from the starving young designer he was two decades ago in London, as is Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier or Marc Jacobs. And the fact is that a fair amount of the creative surge in Paris in recent years has come from non-French designers: for example, Galliano, McQueen, Jacobs, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto.Paris generally has been more welcoming of designers from other countries than Milan and its legendary status as the world’s fashion capital and the center of couture means foreign designers are more eager to show there than they are in Milan. Its infrastructure also is better-equipped to handle creative experimentation — a young designer desperate for new button designs or new embroidery has scores of companies to choose from. The irony, of course, is Paris’ ready-to-wear collections have a good chance of being produced in Italy rather than in France, which lacks Italy’s chain of small, family-owned factories.

Valerie Steele, acting director of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum and curator of its current "Fashion, Italian Style," said creativity can coexist with Milan’s no-nonsense business approach, much the same as it happens in a city like New York — although the Big Apple is going through a creativity crisis of its own at the moment.

"I think the talents are there and they are emerging," she said, citing some of Italy’s recent rising stars like Maurizio Pecoraro, Ennio Capasa, Antonio Marras and Alessandro Dell’Acqua.

And Milan is clearly trying. Mario Boselli, president of Italy’s Camera, said his organization has done all it can to fit its shows into nine days, the same length of the Paris show calendar. The Camera can’t schedule 20 or 30 shows a day during the brief period the press and buyers are in town, he said.

"Someone has to be at the beginning, the middle and the end," Boselli said. To the disgruntled, he responds: "Is it better to be in the first days with your own time slot or in the last days with a slot that coincides with a big brand’s show?"

He suggested that fashion’s biggest houses should go the extra mile to make scheduling easier. They shouldn’t wait until the last minute to request a time and they should avoid multiple shows. This season, Armani is planning two shows each for his Emporio and Giorgio Armani collections. Dolce & Gabbana, Gianfranco Ferré, Jil Sander and Prada are all planning two shows as well.

For what it’s worth, Armani said he favors shortening the calendar. But it should be based on a designer’s merit, not his age: "You can be young and good, but also young and untalented, young and boring, or a young person who copies."I think…the calendar should be made more compact," Armani added. "We should decrease the number of fashion shows, try to reduce the excessive presence of industrial brands…I think that in the last few years, the Camera Nazionale della Moda has attentively followed the most interesting young designers and inserted them in the official calendar."

If running around to all the shows isn’t time-consuming enough, retailers also have to balance a bunch of private showroom appointments around town. Janet Brown said she feels she has more time to seek out fresh, new designers in Paris.

"The places we go to look for fashion in Paris are esoteric," Brown said. A jam-packed schedule makes it harder to find that latest boy wonder in a rattrap apartment in a sixth-floor walk-up.

"I don’t have the time to do it in Milan," she said. "It’s almost a breather in Paris."

Richmond concurs that Milan isn’t the easiest place for a designer starting from scratch. A city like London is a more conducive atmosphere, "where the press and buyers go to see the latest to have left college."

Another task for Milan is learning how to give designers the freedom (read: money) that they need to perform their craft. This is particularly challenging for public companies that have to publish balance sheets and answer to shareholders. But most textile and apparel manufacturers in Italy remain family-owned, apart from such large players as IT Holdings and Marzotto.

Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based consultant to firms like LVMH and Charles Jourdan, believes that companies need to put the designer front and center to be successful in the long run.

"After 30 years of work, I’m keeping my faith in talent, and only in talent: It is the energy of fashion. Money will come later through marketing and managing done in a smart way," said Picart. "But be sure: Without talent, fashion is only a grocery business."

Stefano Gabbana agreed that companies need to attend to their designers as carefully as they do their annual reports.

"Companies and young designers expect success immediately and that’s not how it works. Actually it’s worse if a designer has an immediate boom because it’s usually followed by huge crash," he said. "Nurturing a designer is much like nurturing a flower — it needs sunlight and water and time to really grow and mature. I find today that’s all been compromised and designers aren’t given the time or the environment to really evolve and learn."Another setback thwarting the growth of new talent sits with Italy’s fashion schools, some claim. According to Roberto Cavalli, they’re stodgy and traditional just at a moment when they need to emphasize the fantasy element of design and make use of computer technology.

"We designers should form a school and every designer should teach a lesson," he said. The best profs? Cavalli said designers like himself and Dolce & Gabbana, who are producing colorful, inventive clothes to lure shoppers in tough economic times.

"Those that have colorful collections aren’t experiencing the crisis," said Cavalli, who last season marched models in sexy corsets onto what looked like a set for "Madame Butterfly." "Designers have to be artists, they have to show what they are capable of doing, not just give a name to a label."

Although Milan can often seem the David to Paris’ Goliath, Janet Brown said there are times when Milan proves to stand up to the giant and then some. While she stocks up on the funky or obscure in Paris, it is only after she gets her "basic cake" like handmade Kiton jackets and Jil Sander trousers in Milan.

Statistics show Brown is not the only one with that shopping strategy: Italy exports about $40 billion worth of textiles, clothes and leather goods a year compared to France’s $9 billion.

"You can never mitigate the importance of Milan," Brown said. "Paris adds the spice, adds the music and puts the pieces of the fashion world together…. But Milan’s role is that of the great anchor."

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