A revolution is brewing on the staid catwalks of Italy
By Elisabetta Povoledo
MILAN Creating a buzz on the catwalk is old hat in the flashy world of fashion. But last week something rarely seen on a Milan runway made its shocking appearance: a roll of fat.
In fact, the entire show – a mix of casual and classic wear by several dozen designers – was modeled by women you’re likely see on the streets (or in the mirror).
“This was a courageous act,” said Vittorio Giulini, the former president of the National Fabrics and Apparel Association of Italy (Sistema Moda Italia), and the CEO of Liolà, a fashion brand that participated in the show.
“They held up their own,” said Giulini of the models, who included several women wearing an Italian size 50 – the equivalent of an American size 22, gasp.
The show plugged the creations of brands exhibiting at PluSize, the first salon at Milan’s fashion trade fair to showcase a market that has been largely ignored in Italy, despite the fact that research shows that 58.4 percent of Italian women wear a size 46 (the American 16) or larger.
“There’s a cultural revolution afoot,” said Francesco Casile, CEO of Casile & Casile Fashion Group, a distributor, and the organizer of the salon. “But it’s like we discovered hot water.”
Some in the fashion world are taking note that super-skinny models have created unrealistic expectations of beauty in young women, leading to an increase in eating disorders like anorexia. This month, organizers of Madrid fashion week said they would ban overly-thin models from the runways, and the mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, said she would like to follow suit, though nothing has come of it yet.
Because for Italian designers, thin is still in.
In the United States, and many north European countries, designers and manufacturers have long been catering to the high-fashion needs of women who can’t quite squeeze into runway sizes. But in Italy, there is still a stigma attached to curvaceous women, despite the fact that the classic image of the Mediterranean figure is anything but stick thin.
“The Italian market has always been designer conscious,” said Stefania Saviolo, co-director of the masters program in fashion management at Bocconi University in Milan. “So the concept of plus sizes is contrary to the idea of the look that the designer wants for his creations.”
Casile accused fashion branders of having a myopic view of the business potential of rounder women. “Italian designers snub” them, he said, adding: “They actually look at you badly when you suggest they expand their sizes.”
His fear is that if Italy does not act quickly and embrace the growing plus- size market, the country’s €42.5 billion fashion industry – which is already feeling the impact of competition from China – risks missing an important boat. “The British and the French are going to snatch this from under our noses,” he said. “This market could be ours. Let’s not let it get away.”
Enrico Finzi, a sociologist who has examined the plus-size market for Casile and Marly’s, another fashion brand, said that even retailers in Italy were not getting the message. “It’s stupid,” he said, “but boutiques think that they’ll look better if they only dress beautiful women. This is violence against women done by women, to force them to look like an ideal.”
But times are changing, partly because women from the baby-boom generation are aging and they are not content with wearing just any old thing. “Today a woman over 50 is still young, still wants to be fashionable, but she may not be size 0,” said Saviolo.
Paolo Bastianello, president of Marly’s, said: “Italian women are naturally curvy and they love to eat well, but they also want fashion.” The key, he continued, is not to “shun women into a plus-size ghetto” as many boutiques here tend to: “Women should be able to have a few extra kilos and not feel like they have to go trying on clothes in some dark corner.”
Last year, the brand Elena Miro was the first Italian company to use curvy models in a runway show (they did so again on Saturday). “It wasn’t easy to get on the calendar,” said a spokeswoman for Miroglio group, which owns Elena Miro and other brands. The Milan shows are “finally opening up.”
Ventures in the bigger size market seem to be paying off.
Four years ago, Marco and Vannis Marchi saw an opportunity in “comfortable sizes” and developed the Ajay line of their fashion brand Liu-Jo. “The market was wide open,” said Marco Marchi. “It always existed. We were just blind that we didn’t see it was there before.”
Response has been positive, sales increased by 73 percent last year, he said, because their creations made the most of the female form. “We want to dress women, not just cover them,” he said.
Giulini, of Liolà, said he believed that the plus-size market could be a boon to smaller Italian fashion brands that have been squeezed out of the global market “which is divided about equally between luxury brands like Gucci and mass phenomena like Zara,” he said.
“But,” he added, “this could be a special niche where women could find joy in being able to express who they are.”