MILAN — “Don’t report me for stalking,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi teased on Wednesday as he addressed top designers and fashion entrepreneurs at a lunch to kick off Milan Fashion Week — his second time doing so.

This story first appeared in the September 22, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“This is not a concession: The fashion industry deserves respect. I’m here for the second time, but it’s part of my duty. I intend to continue to open Milan Fashion Week and I hope that whoever will follow me will continue to do so,” he added, lamenting that the country’s economic recovery is slow and urging all of the attendees to dig in and work hard.

“While we don’t see signs of a pickup in the economy that are as strong as we would like for 2017, Italy is in an extraordinary phase,” said Renzi, ticking off international events coming up in the country, such as the G7 meeting in Sicily, for example.

Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera della Moda, trumpeted the relevance of Renzi’s unprecedented gesture to open fashion week for the second season in a row. “Finally, someone in his role who understands the importance of the sector,” he said.

Most of fashion’s heavy hitters showed up again, from Giorgio Armani to Donatella Versace. They assembled at Mudec, Milan’s museum of culture, for a preview of the exhibition “Crafting the Future.”

A lunch of shrimp salad and risotto followed in an industrial space a few steps away where La Scala’s set designs take shape.

Renzi warmly embraced Armani, who was in top form. “It’s good to see a young face,” the designer said of Renzi, the youngest leader in the history of the country. “Italy is a great nation, it’s good to be part of it,” continued Armani.

The designer said he hoped Renzi would be “engaged but detached” and that additional political steps would be taken “with a real future.”

“Renzi realized that fashion must be treated with respect,” said Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, adding that he was pleased the spotlight was on Italy’s craftsmanship. “A true patrimony,” he said.

Eraldo Poletto, the newly minted ceo of Salvatore Ferragamo, observing the models created by young designers working with the artisans, said, “Youth equals creativity. It’s a duty to create such moments to fan creativity. The true spirit of a company is its creativity.”

Sara Battaglia said Italy’s traditions “must be kept alive.” Jacopo Etro, together with his sister Veronica, noted that many young people are now approaching arts and crafts, “just as we see a return to agriculture or wine making.”

Guests included Francois-Henri Pinault; Marco Bizzarri; Stefano Sassi; Michele Norsa; Diego Della Valle; Ferruccio Ferragamo; Patrizio Bertelli; Silvia Venturini Fendi, seated on the left of Renzi (Donatella Versace was on his right); Tomas Maier and Carlo Beretta; Alberta and Massimo Ferretti; Laudomia Pucci; Brunello Cucinelli; Antonio Marras; Paolo Zegna; Matteo Marzotto; Angela Missoni; Renzo Rosso; Anna Molinari; Rodolfo Paglialunga; Lavinia Biagiotti; Tommaso Aquilano; Antonio Marras; Giambattista Valli; Riccardo Sciutto; Fabio D’Angelantonio; Lorenzo Serafini; Massimo Giorgetti; Gaia and Tomaso Trussardi; and Peter Dundas.

“We must be ambitious and make Milan even more international,” said the newly appointed mayor of the city, Giuseppe Sala, adding that one year after the international Expo, the city has seen a 13 percent increase in tourism.

Designers in attendance revealed a fascination with craft beyond fashion. Maier, for example, spent part of his summer vacation visiting the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Island, Maine.

“You can learn about glass, about metalwork, woods,” he said, noting the campus was designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Was the German-born designer tempted to enroll in one of its summer workshops — as the school is unheated and closes in winter?

“Well, I went to a Waldorf school, and we learned weaving and all those things in school,” he said, then adding, “There’s always room for improvement.”

Venturini Fendi said she yearns to do more gardening.

“It’s a kind of craft,” she said. “I think you have to have a lot of time. Nature, you have to follow her time, not impose your own.”

Alessandro Sartori, creative director at Ermenegildo Zegna, has a fast-paced craft hobby: Restoring vintage cars.

A 1968 Porsche coupe is his latest project. He leaves the body and mechanical work to experts, and “I do the leather, the finishes, the colors, the interior. It’s a passion of mine,” he said, flicking through photos on his iPhone to show his 1965 Ford Mercury, already gleaming.

Marco de Vincenzo said he unwinds by combing the flea markets of Milan for ceramics by Ugo Zaccagnini, particularly his animal figurines. “It’s very difficult to find,” he said.

“And I paint,” he added. “I always painted and I re-started this year. I use oil. It’s figurative — something in between cartoons and reality.”

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