Byline: Courtney Colavita

MILAN — As fall collections week here reaches a dizzying pace, Italians are taking a moment between the shows and parties to look back and celebrate 50 years of Moda Italiana.
To mark the anniversary, Pitti Immagine and Florence’s Center for Italian Fashion have organized a five-day retrospective, which opened Wednesday and runs through Sunday, on the life and work of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, the creative force behind the first Italian fashion show. Held in the Four Seasons Hotel, the “Birth of Italian Fashion” exhibit features photos, articles and archival material documenting the Italian women’s wear shows from 1951 to 1961.
Italian fashion today may be a $45 billion industry, but 50 years ago the concept of a commercial fashion force seemed far-fetched. Italy was still recovering from World War II, and Paris was the unrivaled fashion capital. Giorgini, however, recognized his country’s potential and set out to organize a collective Italian fashion show.
In February 1951, Giorgini finally realized his dream, hosting the first Italian show at his home, Villa Torrigiani, in Florence. The Fontana sisters, Emilio Pucci, Jole Veneziani and other Italian designers showed their designs in Giorgini’s library.
The determined pioneer had even convinced American journalists and buyers — who were on their way home after the Paris shows — to attend. After the event, designers, press and buyers celebrated with a meal of lasagna and tortellini.
Last month, members of the first generation of Italian designers gathered in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti to celebrate that triumphant night.
“He had the vision, the talent and the organizational know-how to create and promote an autonomous fashion force that is today a global industry,” said Ferruccio Ferragamo, president of Florence’s Center for Italian Fashion and chief executive of Ferragamo.
His father, Salvatore, was a member of fashion’s pioneering generation, having opened his first shop in Florence in 1936.
More than 300 guests, including Micol and Giovanna Fontana, Hubert de Givenchy, Principessa Irene Galitzine and a crowd of elegant ladies decked in gray wool suits, fur stoles, and pearls, gathered in the Sala Bianca — where Giorgini later held the shows.
The celebration kicked off with a reading of a one-act play describing the days leading up to the first fashion show on Feb. 12, 1951. Eight actors from the Italian radio program Teatro Giornale portrayed everyone from Giorgini to Micol Fontana. A soulful saxophone played in the background, and by the end of the reading, many in the audience were crying.
“I’m sure my legs were trembling. It was so accurate. [Giovanni] wanted us to show, but we were hesitant,” said Micol Fontana. “We had already dressed Linda Christian for her wedding, but the French were an institution and we were just some Italian dressmakers with an idea.”
Micol’s sister, Giovanna, recalled being the most reluctant of the three sisters to show.
“I would always say, ‘How can we do this? It’s too difficult to compete with the French.’ ” she said. “They would tell me, ‘Your opinion doesn’t count. You’re the minority and we’re going ahead with this.’ What could I do, but follow my sisters?”
The French were also skeptical about Giorgini and his proposition.
“I had heard about some of the Italian designers, such as Pucci and Veneziani, but I have to say I was really surprised by the success of those first shows,” said Hubert de Givenchy, during a roundtable discussion following the performance. “He created the idea of Made in Italy and we in Paris watched it grow with our own eyes. I think his greatest idea was bringing American buyers to Florence — he really went after them.”
As part of the commemoration, Pitti Immagine has produced a set of six CD-ROMs containing more than 5,000 photos and documents from the Giorgini archive. The set, which was donated to the Costume Gallery at Palazzo Pitti, includes correspondence, invitations, clippings and photographs of the first fashion shows.
Giorgini remained at the helm of the Florentine fashion events until 1965. Following his departure, the Sala Bianca continued to thrive as the main venue for Italian designers. Everyone from Valentino and Krizia to Missoni and even Armani showed at the Sala Bianca until it closed in 1982, and the shows were transferred to Milan.
Although Milan is now the heart of Italian fashion, in many ways Florence is still its soul. It has a thriving textile and leather industry and a storied past.
“That’s what makes Italy so special. In France, fashion is only in Paris,” said Mario Boselli, chairman of Pitti Immagine and of the National Chamber of Fashion. “But if you talk about Italy, fashion is in Milan, Florence and also in Rome. It’s an integrated process. Every part works together and brings its own richness to the whole system.”