FRANCA SOZZANI was telling a story over dinner at Donatella Versace’s palazzo on the Via Gesù. It was a parable, really, based on an anecdote about a party that the actress Silvana Mangano once planned for her daughter when she turned 18.
Before the party a friend pulled aside Mangano, a famous beauty, and gave her some maternal advice. It would be the daughter’s big day, she told the actress. Don’t spoil it. Wear something simple. Stay in the background. Permit her to shine.
Mangano apparently took this in and then, on the evening of the party, appeared at the head of the stairs radiant in a full-length dress, with a deep décolletage, diamonds and even evening gloves. Suddenly the mother become glamorous monster was the only woman in the room. The daughter never really had a chance.
As Ms. Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, related the tale, Mangano’s friend furiously grabbed the actress and demanded an explanation for the stunt.
Mangano looked at her coolly. “It’s for her own good,” she told her. “She has to learn how to fight.”
Ms. Sozzani’s point was that these are fighting times. The business of fashion is not only among the most important to the economy of this city and country, but is also deeply enmeshed in Italians’ cultural DNA. Can anybody predict when the global recession will end, she asked. Will it be the third quarter of this year, or 2010 or ever? Will things go back to the way they were, as everyone seems to be asking lately?
“No one knows,” Ms. Sozzani said. “But this is not the time to be weak.”
Flicking her jeweled lighter, and putting the flame to a Marlboro Light, Ms. Versace nodded her assent. As someone whose life script reads like the work of a fevered Greek dramatist, she is no stranger to tough times. “People say it will never go back to the way it was,” she said, meaning to the days of unbridled consumption — the 1980s, the 1990s, the early years of the 21st century.
“I don’t believe it,” added Ms. Versace, whose own unabashedly high standard of living was reputedly an element in the recent corporate dust-up that resulted in the ouster and replacement of her company’s chief executive. “They’re going to forget. They are going to want to enjoy their lives and spend again.”
Questionable and hopeful this assertion may be. And yet it has been commonly heard throughout the week in Milan. Even though the ranks of the international press and buyers in town for the twice-yearly men’s wear shows have thinned dramatically; even though American retailers are frankly skeptical of the effects the United States president’s economic stimulus package are likely to have on consumer habits; and even though stores in this city are generally so empty that the salesclerks are running out of ways to kill time, people remain optimistic.
Maybe it is an Italian thing, an inherited sense of the long view. Maybe it is delusional. Maybe it is both.
“Italians especially will always want fashion,” Riccardo Tisci, the Givenchy designer, said over a dinner of poached fish and cold white wine. It was served in a room where candlelight flickered on the faces of Ms. Versace’s assorted friends and colleagues and the busts of Roman ancients scattered atop gilded consoles.
“Even in the small cities,” Mr. Tisci added, “people will save their money to have, maybe not a big piece, but a small wallet from a designer. They will really think a lot and care a lot about the way they look.”
A week before his own presentation in Paris, Mr. Tisci had flown into Milan for the day to catch his first Versace show and to demonstrate his support for a designer he compared to “the flag of Italy.”
The clichéd Italian fondness for public show of one sort or another — for una bella figura — may get a little overplayed. Still, like most clichés, this one is rooted in something immutable and true. Ms. Sozzani’s fighting spirit and Ms. Versace’s optimism and Mr. Tisci’s confidence that human nature can trump transient inconvenient annoyances like a global credit crisis can in some ways be embodied by the national tendency to put a good face on things and encapsulated by a popular Alcoholics Anonymous slogan: fake it until you make it.
It is no secret that Donatella Versace has had problems with substance abuse, yet she has been drug-free for some time now, and drinks only ice water with dinner and does not — as so many people in this town do — dart for the bathroom every five minutes to “freshen up.”
So, when she suggests that fashion is certain to pull out of the slump it is in, and that the puritanical shame being shoveled out by the analyst Cassandras opposes something basic and pleasure-loving in human nature, a listener is inclined to respect her perspective on the business and the sobriety of her view.See previous Fashion Diaries from Milan: Vintage Delirium| A Confession About the ‘D’ Word at Cavalli