MILAN — There’ s a lot of talk about experiential moments now and a walk-through of the Etro “Generation Paisley” exhibition in Milan is definitely one of them.
In a room, a tree made with colorful swatches of Etro prints — down to the roots sprouting on the carpets, equally colorful and decorative — against the backdrop of patterned walls, the message is loud and clear: “We didn’t want to stage a clothes exhibition per se, but rather we wished to immerse visitors in our world, explaining how the dress is content before it takes shape,” said Veronica Etro, creative director of the women’s collections for the family-owned company. “As we work with prints, as we were born as a fabric atelier, every time it’s like being a painter with a white canvas. You must think of the techniques, the subjects…it’s a research, there is the archive, the history, so it was beautiful to share the work behind it all, which in the end makes us a little different.” Pointing to the tree, she said, “everything in the end stems from these paisley buds. This is the tree of life — a symbol of fertility from which all was born.”
Etro said she is often asked, ‘“Aren’t you tired of the paisley yet?’, and I’m not, because it’s a very fluid pattern. I like its double soul, it can be very aristocratic, very elegant, very traditional, but it can also be very psychedelic if you think of the Seventies…like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix wearing paisley…”
The exhibit is the company’s first and marks the 50th anniversary of the house. As the designer herself admits, this is a company that “for years produced a lot and communicated little. We have always been very discreet. This is the first time we open up a bit. Also because this job is like a wheel — always turning — and one from which you can never get off, you are always running.” She noted that working on the archives, “stopping for a second to regroup ideas” helped to focus. “For me it was emotional and also therapeutic. I almost cried when I saw the first pictures because you work hard, but at a certain point you must also be able to stop, say wow and value what you have done.”
The exhibit also displayed clothes from designers Franco Albini or Oscar de la Renta, for example, as the company originally provided fabrics for other brands. She credited her father Gerolamo, known as Gimmo, who founded the company in 1968 as a textile firm, for thinking of investing in ready-to-wear and lifestyle in the Eighties, expanding into collections that ranged from perfumes to suitcases. The exhibit was conceived and put together by the family, which includes siblings Kean, men’s creative director Ippolito, who oversees strategic management, and Jacopo.
The designer confessed it was hard to select only 50 models from the archives and the family enlisted London-based curator Judith Clark to help in the choice. The mannequins were not displayed in chronological order. “It’s almost casual, a bit as if in a dialogue with one another. There is no real fil rouge,” said Etro, although in another room, for example, the richest designs stand out with their golden embroideries and precious details.
Images from past shows run on huge videos to draw in “young people who my not know we did a show with oxen [leading carts through the streets of Milan in 2002] or on a train,” said Etro, whose favorite room displayed personal family photos, paintings and ad campaigns.
Visitors can easily agree with Etro on her belief that the clothes are a-temporal. “You can still wear them today. This is why they are in a casual order here.” Also, she said working with Clark has been “interesting because I see the clothes and I have my own personal memories of them, and perhaps I would not have thought of putting these two together, the paisley with the checks or the red with the gold one, so it was good to have an outside point of view.”
Despite all the colors, there is also a room with very clean white pieces, “to show that it’s not always about the color, that sometimes the content comes before the shape. Because the same design can have a completely different vibe if you change the coloring. This is also true for the paisley, which can be mixed with many different things with tartan, as you saw before.” Personal family collections — including home designs — pepper the space. “My favorite are the big necklaces,” she said.
The exhibit was inaugurated during Milan Fashion Week at the Mudec museum of cultures and runs until Oct. 14, but Etro said she wanted to keep it separate from her own show. “Initially we wanted to show here, but it would have been very difficult. It was a definite choice to keep the two things separate, although the exhibit was in my mind as something positive, [hence] the joyous patterns, this never-ending summer idea [of the spring collection].”
Etro also said the art museum fit with the family. “It’s very us…I went to art school, not a fashion school. It’s not just clothes, I love jewelry, fine arts, photography. It would be very boring to focus solely on clothes. There’s a lot more going on, you have to tell a story. It’s the whole package. My family traveled a lot and when I was a bit older, we went to India, Pakistan.…I loved it. I’ve always been in a creative field, but that’s what I’ m happy about. It’s not all fashion, it’s not just fashion!”