NO THANKS to chintzy embellishments, OTT fabrications (full-fur, full-leather, animal-everything!) and second-skin silhouettes, Italian fashion has in recent decades been synonymous with flamboyance, rather than recherche style. And as the Japanese rolled out their avant-garde designs, Belgians unleashed their brand of cerebral minimalism and the French continued to refine their forte in enduring elegance - Italian fashion seemed to have lagged behind. It no longer had the cool cred, its flashy aesthetics appealing to the nouveau riche rather than the really discerning.
But with at least three new Italian brands setting up shop here in October alone, as well as the opening of a 1,647 sq ft flagship dedicated to the prince of leopard prints himself, Roberto Cavalli, at Marina Bay Sands in September, Italian fashion is certainly sizzling again.
In fact, shopping mall Scotts Square has just unveiled an exhibition telling the story of Italian fashion from its birth in 1951 Florence to the present day. Called 60 Years of Made In Italy, it showcases Italian fashion from the haute couture era to the pret-a-porter creations of today, including Fernanda Gattinoni's "Impero" dress, worn by Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace (1956), a dress which earned the Lombardy-born designer an Oscar nomination for Best Costume.
"It's not right to say that Italian fashion is well-known only for extravagance. In fact, Italian fashion is 'elegance'," declares Alessia Tota, a fashion journalist who has curated the exhibition. "Some good examples would be pret-a-porter brands such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, Roberto Cavalli and many others that are renowned for their extravagant designs and have pushed the meaning of elegance to a new level for a modern age."
While the high fashion world is rife with talk about Milan Fashion Week losing its cachet, what with powerhouse editors such as Anna Wintour skipping the tail-end of the fashion capital's presentation to head to Paris's flurry of shows, most retailers are still bullish about moving their high-quality, statement products - in spite of the country's slow recovery from recession.
"If New York, Paris and London are the best locations to launch new designers, Milan Fashion week is always the highest value one and gathers most of the brands," asserts Eros Pennacchioni, chief executive officer of 40-year-old Italian leather goods brand Giudi. "It would be incorrect to assume that Italian fashion is slowing down. Its history and tradition are alive and well. The quality, originality and avant-garde of Italian fashion have not been affected by the economic crisis."
Having just opened its first boutique here at Mandarin Gallery, Giudi offers a taste of Italian craftsmanship at relatively attainable prices: handbags start from S$600 and cost no more than S$2,000. Another Italian brand that prides itself on affordable luxury is Boggi Milano, which officially unveils its store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands in two weeks.
"Consumers tend to, in fact, mix high-end products with mid-tier ones," says Paolo Selva Mario, business development manager for the classic Italian menswear brand. "This can be the case of seeing people wearing a Zara dress with a Prada bag. Luxury is changing and that is where Boggi, which offers very good quality at reasonable prices, steps in."
Indeed, with the exception of Cavalli, these new-to-market labels aren't trying to usurp the heavyweights of fashion with gowns dripped in bling or three-piece vicuna suits. They are about offering real-world chic to down-to-earth dressers. After all, these are the very people who pioneered the concept of sprezzatura, a studied nonchalance that often translated into effortless chic. But that's not to say they do not owe their existence to a heritage steeped in high glamour and unrivalled craftsmanship.
"Italians are famous for their eye for quality and precision, down to the smallest detail of a garment, from the texture and flow of the fabric used to the construction and composition of the garments, harmonising every little part of a dress," explains Ms Tota. "Apart from using the finest selection of rare and exclusive fabrics, Italian fashion houses are also renowned for the use of experimental materials and techniques for their collections."
Visitors to the 60 Years of Made In Italyexhibition can admire the use of small mirrors tailored with silver threads in a 1980 Salvatore Ferragamo dress, the innovative architectural pleated structure of 2005 Gianfranco Ferre and 1987 Krizia gowns, and 2001 Marella Ferrera's head-turning gold thread interlaced bodice. One brand that has epitomised the Italian dedication to using the best possible materials is Brunello Cucinelli, a cashmere and luxury lifestyle brand that will be opening a 2,000 sq ft boutique at Paragon in December. Its eponymous designer started the knitwear business in 1978, creating just five coloured cashmere sweaters for his first sample collection in the town of Perugia, famed for the trade.
Mr Cucinelli says: "Sales took off immediately, the business grew and the time soon came when I had to make a major decision, should I remain a good company like so many others or should I, in the words of American economist Theodore Levitt, whose fascinating ideas had inspired me to start the business in the first place, take a leap of faith and become the best at specialising in a unique product?"
After noticing that women would borrow cashmere sweaters from their husbands, brothers or fathers, and wear them with the sleeves rolled up and almost like a tunic, Mr Cucinelli decided to design pieces for women as well. He would make annual visits to China and Mongolia to source for the best wool, which is then processed and spun by skilled craftsmen in Solomeo, a 14th-century Perugian hamlet personally restored by the brand's founder.
Likewise, the use of rarefied materials lies at the root of family-run company Giudi, where all the leather used have been tanned exclusively with natural tannins of vegetable origins such as tree bark rather than pollution-causing chemicals.
"The know-how of Italian brands has long been recognised," says Mr Pennacchioni, whose father started Giudi along with his cousin. "There is no doubt that craftsmanship in Italy has a long history and tradition and this is something you can't replicate. People will always want the best quality products and Italian brands, like Giudi, are a guarantee of perfection."
And there is no forgetting the unique sense of Italian aesthetics that have evolved into edgy glamour over the years, from Donatella Versace's exciting collaborations with young talents to revive the hip quotient of the luxury house, to the cool-kid duds of young designer Cristiano Burani, who is showing his latest collection at Digital Fashion Week Singapore on Monday.
As Ms Tota proclaims: "Italian designers from the past 60 years have evolved to become some of the leaders in today's fashion industry and proving the test of time. Italian creativity will never die. It is part of Italian DNA."