MILAN — Most Americans think only of Paris when they think of couture — but Stefano Dominella, president of Alta Roma, wants to change that.

This story first appeared in the January 27, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As the couture shows kicked off in Rome on Sunday and at a time when many question the future of Italy’s couture, Dominella and Alta Roma — the body that organizes the Italian shows — are challenged with the dual task of rejuvenating the shows while reestablishing a connection between the category and Italy’s extensive manufacturing base.

Dominella has worked over the past two years to freshen up a dusty exhibition and 2004, he said, could mark a turnaround, with the comeback of international press and buyers. In particular, Dominella is keen to create a bond with the U.S. Saks Fifth Avenue is in talks with Alta Roma to hold trunk shows in its new Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, store and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where Saks will open a branch in April.

“We have a strong interest in the Italian design out of Rome, which we believe has a sensibility that is well-liked by our customers in the Middle East and we would like to introduce new designers in that market,” said David Pilnick, senior vice president of international business ventures at Saks Fifth Avenue, whose buyers started attending the shows in Rome last year.

Dominella plans to take some of the collections to Washington, Hong Kong and Taiwan this summer. “We have many wives of U.S. state governors coming to the couture shows in Rome, we think it’s our turn to go to Washington,” said Dominella.

Dominella has invited designers Diane von Furstenberg, Zac Posen and Proenza Schouler to the July edition, at the same time as students from the Fashion Institute of Technology, who will present their collections in Rome. In prior editions, Dominella invited students from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and from Antwerp’s Fashion Institute.

The January edition is being cosponsored by the Italian movie studio Cinecitta’ Entertainment, with an investment of about $2 million. Furthering the link between fashion and film, Cinecitta’ has helped produce an animated cartoon featuring a fashion show at the Coliseum, with characters depicting the likes of Madonna, George Clooney, Sophia Loren and Queen Elizabeth II. In addition, eight short movies — by such directors as Marco Bellocchio and Ferzan Ozpetek — will be shown before some of the shows.

“The connection between Hollywood, Cinecitta’ and Rome couture goes back to the Fifties, and our first p.r.s were stars such as Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn,” said Dominella, who is also president of Gattinoni, a historical couture maison in the capital. Dominella has also worked at Valentino and was head of the European Institute of Design for 14 years. “This time, it’s movies for fashion, rather than the other way around,” he added.

“I want Alta Roma to look ahead, to be proactive and to support the industry, not only the final customer,” said Dominella in an interview a few days before the shows. To this end, Dominella was pleased with the return of product men from manufacturing companies such as Sportswear International, Aeffe, Max Mara and Miroglio.

“Dominella sees far ahead; he has a clear strategy in his mind and has definitely turned around the exhibition,” said Mauro Davico, head of communications at Miroglio, which controls the Gilles Rosier brand. “He has the ability to identify changes in the industry and knows how important it is for industrialists and designers to communicate and link.”

The image of the couture shows in Rome waned during the Seventies and Eighties, with the increasing strength of the couture shows in Paris and the advent of ready-to-wear. “We felt the need to diversify the project and internationalize the shows in Rome, without relying on the city as a draw and without considering fashion a way to attract tourism — Rome certainly doesn’t need us for that,” said Dominella.

Accordingly, historical couturiers such as Raffaella Curiel and Gattinoni alternate with a selection of young designers such as Roberto Musso, available in the U.S. at Barney’s and Linda Dresner, and guests like A.F. Vandevorst. Also, Dominella each season asks young designers to re-create collections for historical maisons: this season, Marco Coretti is designing for Sorelle Fontana.

In two years, the shows have grown to number 40 from 16, with 52 presentations expected in July. Personal career awards were instituted: Last summer, one was given to Krizia’s Mariuccia Mandelli; this season, it is being presented to Mariella Burani, whose group controls the Mila Schön and Andrea Pfister businesses, among others.

Dominella also focused on new ways to present the clothes, forgoing the traditional runway. “I rather see [the presentations] as performances in locations that are completely decorated by the designer,” said Dominella. Shows are now held mainly at the new Auditorium, the concert and theater halls designed by Renzo Piano, or, in the summer edition, in one of the capital’s main streets. In July, an edition inspired by the Olympics, part of the shows will be held in Via Giulia, with Renaissance palaces as a backdrop.

Dominella is quick to squelch any talk of rivalry with Milan or Florence. “This is Italy, where different fashion poles can easily coexist,” he said. “I want to raise the level of the exhibition to make it as valid as [shows in] London, Berlin or Moscow, without aspiring to compete with Paris.”