NEW YORK — More than anything, Valerie Steele wants viewers of her latest installment to realize Italian fashion is not something that sprung up in 1980.
For “Fashion, Italian Style,” which debuts tonight at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology here, the acting director drew upon the country’s rich design history beyond the Krizia, Missoni, Armani and Versace years. The three-room exhibition magnifies accessories, textiles and 100 women’s and men’s ensembles spanning from 1915 to this season.
“I think people will be surprised that Italian fashion didn’t arrive whole,” said Steele, the museum’s curator. “In fact, Italian fashion took off in a big way after World War II. There were fashion shows in Florence in 1951 and 1952. It’s easier to conceptualize Paris, because for 400 years, it was all centered. But Florence, Rome, and Milan are from different periods and had a variety of different ranges.”
Long before Versace poured Elizabeth Hurley into the now-famous safety pin dress, the Fontana sisters were busy stitching knockout numbers for Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida. “They were responsible for a whole moment in time,” Steele said.
The main installation is loosely set up in four sections to represent the country’s four regions. Outfits from northern-based companies like Armani and Prada are displayed in the northern section of the gallery and southerners like Dolce & Gabbana and Versace are in the southern part of the gallery. True to each respective area of Italy, Venetian Oriental architecture is the backdrop for the north, and Sicilian architecture sets up the south.
In the western part of the room, there is a Roman-type display inspired by the Spanish Steps, but absent the Vespa scooters, tourists and hundreds of steps. It showcases work by the Fontanas and others, and opposite that is what is supposed to be reminiscent of a Tuscan garden, complete with pebbles beneath the mannequins’ feet. Pucci, Max Mara, Gianfranco Ferré and other designers that hail from that region are represented there.
Steele made a minor concession to include a lavender hat covered in violets by the Italian-born Elsa Schiaparelli, even though she set up shop in Paris.
Textiles is another area where Italians have a rich history and Mario Boselli, Marzotto, Solbiati and Zegna are among those represented. Visitors can check out swatches of such mainstays as silk, wool and cashmere, as well as more technical fabrics, set against finished garments.
Roberto Cavalli and Massimo Ferragamo are among the designers expected to turn up for tonight’s festivities, which is sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission.