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Turning Fashion into Business: The Emergence of Milan as an International Fashion Hub

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2011

Elisabetta Merlo
ELISABETTA MERLO is associate professor at the Institute of Economic History, Bocconi University, Milan.
Francesca Polese
Francesca Polese is assistant professor at the Institute of Economic History, Bocconi University, Milan


The Italian fashion industry rose to a position of international prominence in the second half of the twentieth century. An important factor in the sector's global success was the opening up of the international, particularly the American, markets. The changes that occurred within the fashion industry after World War II, most critically the end of the Parisian monopoly, offered opportunities that were exploited differently by the various competitors. While cities like London and New York managed to promote themselves as alternatives to Paris, Italy was initially unable to create a single fashion capital. Florence, Rome, and Milan felt themselves equally entitled to become the staging ground for Italian fashion production, but Milan, benefiting from certain features of its productive structure, eventually emerged as the winner. The city's success was based on a long, steady accumulation of resources and the ability to harness its creative and managerial capabilities. The result was Milan's emergence as a fashion “superstar” in the 1970s.

Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2006

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1 Women's Wear Daily, 1 Oct. 1976, 50, 51.

2 More than 62 percent of the total turnover in the textile and clothing sectors is in foreign markets. The figure of 26.6 million euros in foreign sales of textile and clothing products in 2004 represents 16.6 percent of the whole Italian manufacturing industry's export value. Other fashion-related products (such as shoes, goldsmithery, leather products, cosmetics, and glasses) accounted for a further 10 million euro surplus in that year.

3 In the following pages, we focus on clothing. For our purposes, fashion can be defined as “clothing designed primarily for its expressive and decorative qualities, related closely to the short-term dictates of the market.” Breward, Christopher, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 5Google Scholar.

4 Within this scenario, the book by White, Nicola, Reconstructing Italian Fashion: America and the Development of the Italian Fashion Industry (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar, stands out because it often adopts an economic/business approach to Italian fashion and also because—like the present article—it stresses the strong influence of the United States in shaping Italian fashion in the post-World War II years. White's book can be considered an exception in Englishlanguage literature about Italian fashion, which is almost exclusively composed of catalogs produced in conjunction with exhibitions. Another example is the book by Steele, Valerie, Fashion, Italian Style (New Haven, 2003)Google Scholar, and her article “American Perception of the Italian Fashion, 1943–68,” in Italian Metamorphosis: Catalogue of the Exhibition Held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1995 (New Haven, 2003)Google Scholar.

5 The Quaderni was the continuation of the journal L'eco dei tessiti e delle confezioni, published between 1932 and 1936.

6 The most relevant business history of La Rinascente is Amatori, Franco, Proprietà e direzione: La Rinascente, 1919–1969 (Milan, 1989)Google Scholar. The documents we refer to are part of the Brustio family archives, which have been deposited at the Institute of Economic History of the Bocconi University of Milan.

7 On the French fashion industry during the Occupation, see Veillon, Dominique, La mode sous l'Occupation: Débrouillardise et coquetterie dans la France en guerre (1939–1945) (Paris, 1990)Google Scholar.

8 See Kawamura, Yuniya, The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion (Oxford, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Steele, Parisian Fashion.

9 The persistence of the perception of Paris as the “real” capital of the contemporary fashion business is stressed, among others, by Kawamura.

10 See Gilbert, David, “Urban Outfitting: The City and the Spaces of Fashion Culture,” in Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations, and Analysis, eds. Bruzzi, Stella and Gibson, Pamela Church (London, 2000), 724Google Scholar.

11 On London fashion, see Breward, Fashioning London. On the “great renunciation” see Flügel, John C., The Psychology of Clothes (London, 1930)Google Scholar.

12 On the “new” generation of British designers, see McRobbie, Angela, British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry? (London, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Morris, Brian, An Introduction to Mary Quant's London (London, 1973)Google Scholar; Quant, Mary, Quant by Quant (London, 1966)Google Scholar; Ash, Juliet, “Philosophy on the Catwalk,” in Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, eds. Ash, Juliet and Wilson, Elizabeth (Berkeley, 1992), 167–85Google Scholar.

13 See Green, Nancy L., Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (Durham, N.C., 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a comprehensive chronology of the emergence of New York as fashion capital, see Rantisi, Norma, “The Ascendance of New York Fashion,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28 (Mar. 2004): 86106CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 The role played by the institutional infrastructures in the New York City Garment District in fueling innovations and facing competitive pressures is stressed by Rantisi, Norma, “The Local Innovation System as a Source of ‘Variety’: Openness and Adaptability in New York City's Garment District,” Regional Studies 36 (2002): 587602CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 The most recent and exhaustive analysis of the problem of Americanization in Europe from an economic perspective is offered by Schröter, Harm, Americanization of the European Economy: A Compact Survey of American Economic Influence in Europe since the 1880s (Dordrecht, 2005)Google Scholar, which also contains a rich bibliography. See also Kipping, Matthias and Tiratsoo, Nick, eds., Americanisation in Twentieth Century Europe: Business, Culture, Politics (Lille, 2002)Google Scholar.

16 Among their publications on these issues, see See Romero, Federico and Segreto, Luciano, eds., Italia Europa Stati Uniti: L'integrazione internazionale dell'economia italiana (1945–3963), special issue of Studi storici 37 (1996)Google Scholar; Segreto, Luciano, “Sceptics and Ungrateful Friends vs. Dreaming Social Engineers: The Italian Business Community, the Italian Government, the United States, and the Comitato Nazionale per la produttività,” in Missionaries and Managers: American Influences on European Management Education, 1945–1960, eds. Gourvish, Terrence R. and Tiratsoo, Nick (Manchester, 1998)Google Scholar; Zamagni, Vera, “The Italian ‘Economic Miracle’ Revisited: New Markets and American Technology,” in Power in Europe? vol. 2: Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy and the Origins of the EEC, 1952–1957, eds. Nolfo, Ennio Di and Gruyter, W. De (Berlin, 1992)Google Scholar; Zamagni, Vera, “American Influence on the Italian Economy (1948–58),” in Italy in the Cold War: Politics, Culture, and Society, 1948–58, eds. Duggan, Christopher and Wagstaff, Christopher (Oxford, 1995)Google Scholar.

17 According to the data provided by Lombardo, Giorgio, L'Istituto Mobiliare Italiano, vol. 3: Centralità per la ricostruzione, 1945–54 (Bologna, 2000), 696Google Scholar, the textile and clothing industry had received over 21 billion lire and 239 million lire, respectively. Financial aid distributed to the Italian industry amounted to almost 367 billion lire.

18 From 1951, when 45 percent of the total active population was still employed in agriculture, to 1958, national incomes grew annually (at current prices) by 5.4 percent, while industrial input increased by 6.8 percent. The role of exports in supporting this growth has been much debated among scholars. As Giangiacomo Nardozzi argues, in The Italian ‘Economic Miracle,’” Rivista di storia economica 19 (2003)Google Scholar, “Exports were not the exogenous components of demand that launched the process of growth, at least not until 1958; as a matter of rising aggregate demand, the growth of the 1950s stemmed from domestic origins.” However, textile and footwear were among “the most export-oriented sectors, with a favourable balance of trade” (p. 148). On the analysis of Italy within the international division of labor, see Conti, Giuseppe, “La posizione dell'Italia nella divisione internazionale del lavoro,” in Specializzazione e competitività internazionale dell'Italia, ed. Alessandrini, Pietro (Bologna, 1978), 52Google Scholar; and Franca Falcone, “L'integrazione economica europea e la sua influenza sulla struttura delle esportazioni italiane,” in Specializzazione, ed. Alessandrini, 115–85. Moreover, figures show that the United States remained the major importer of outer clothing produced in Italy. See Moreschi, Giuliano, “L'industria italiana dell'abbigliamento,” in La Camera di Commercio di Milano 1 (1963): 27Google Scholar.

19 See Merlo, Elisabetta, “Le origini del sistema moda,” in Storia d'ltalia, vol. 19: La Moda, eds. Belfanti, Carlo Marco and Giusberti, Fabio (Torino, 2003)Google Scholar.

20 We can find the names of some of them listed among the thirty-six leading American fashion designers active in New York City at the beginning of the 1950s in Stuart, Jessie, The American Fashion Industry (Boston, 1951)Google Scholar. Among the best known Italian designers who started their careers working for the movie industry is the shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo (1898–1960). See Ferragamo, Salvatore, Shoemaker of Dreams (New York, 1972)Google Scholar; Museum, Salvatore Ferragamo, Materials and Creativity (Florence, 1997)Google Scholar; Somma, Giuseppe Di, “Salvatore Ferragamo: The Object of Design,” in Ideas, Models, Inventions, ed. Ricci, Stefania (Livorno, 2004), 6063Google Scholar.

21 Vergani, Guido, “Febbraio 1951: Nasce la moda italiana. Non c'era riuscito neppure Mussolini,” in 1951–2001: Made in Italy? ed. Settembrini, Luigi (Milan, 2001), 141Google Scholar.

22 For a detailed analysis of the Italian export trade, see Roccas, Massimo, “Le esportazioni nell'economia italiana,” in Storia economica d'Italia, vol. 3: Industrie, mercati, istituzioni, eds. Ciocca, Pierluigi and Toniolo, Gianni (Bari, 2003), 36135Google Scholar; and vol. 2: I vincoli e le opportunità. According to the author, between 1953 and 1964 clothing exports fell from 28 percent to 21 percent of total national exports. Within this general negative trend, however, between 1951 and 1961 there was an increase in Italian textile and clothing exports to the United States (from 5.8 percent to 10.5 percent). See also data in Vergani, “Febbraio 1951.”

23 See Kipping and Tiratsoo, eds., Americanisation in Twentieth Century Europe.

24 See Power, Dominic and Scott, Allen J., eds., Cultural Industries and the Production of Culture (London, 2004)Google Scholar; and Scott, Allen J., The Cultural Economy of Cities: Essays on the Geography of Image-producing Industries (London, 2000)Google Scholar.

25 We borrow the definition of symbolic commodities from Scott, The Cultural Economy of Cities: “marketable outputs whose competitive qualities depend on the fact that they function at least in part as personal ornaments, modes of social display, forms of entertainment and distraction, or sources of information and self-awareness, i.e. as artifacts whose symbolic value to the consumer is high relative to their practical purpose,” p. 3.

26 Ibid., 5.

27 On the lack of a “cohesive sense of cultural and economic identity” in the fashion field that was perceived during the Fascist period as an “obstacle to the launch of Italian fashion abroad,” see Paulicelli, Eugenia, Fashion under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt (New York, 2004), 140–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 In the past, numerous attempts to establish an Italian style independent of the dominating French one had culminated in Benito Mussolini's strenuous efforts in the interwar years to emancipate Italian fashion from French “tyranny.” See Paulicelli, Fashion under Fascism.

29 The potential awaiting Italian artisan products in the U.S. market was well understood by numerous buyers, who had started touring Italy at the end of the 1940s. On the role of Florentine buyers, see Marcucci, Raffaella, ANIBO and Made in Italy: Storia dei buying offices in Italia (Florence, 2004)Google Scholar.

30 By organizing the event only a couple of days after the Parisian shows, Giorgini demonstrated the autonomous creativity of Italian designers. Moreover, Giorgini brought to his show not only high-fashion clothes, but also sportswear and boutique (or ready-to-wear) collections, which were exactly what the U.S. buyers were looking for and were unable to find in Paris.

31 The success of Giorgini's show is mirrored also in the figures concerning the sales and reproduction deals sealed on those occasions: in the third edition (January 1952), they amount to seven billion lire. In the first ten years, the number of foreign buyers attending Giorgini's shows increased by 9,000 percent. See Vergani, “Febbraio 1951,” 141.

32 See Vergani, Guido, La Sala Bianca : Nascito delta moda italiana (Milano, 1992), 26Google Scholar.

33 This view is expressed in an article in Newsweek (2 Aug. 1965), significantly titled “Battle of the Pitti Palace,” quoted by Steele, Fashion Italian Style, 45.

34 On Rome's attempts to assert itself as the national model of style from the end of the nineteenth century onward, see Griffo, G. C. Dauphiné, “Moda e costume a Roma capitale,” in Roma capitale, 1870–191: I piaceri e i giorni: la moda (Venice, 1983), 2751Google Scholar; Jonathan Morris, “Le vetrine della moda,” in La Moda, eds. Belfanti and Giusberti, 835–67; and Settembrini, Luigi, “From Haute Couture to Prêt-à-Porter,” in The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968, ed. Celant, Germano (New York, 1994), 484–94Google Scholar. The snapshot of Rome outlined here is largely drawn from this bibliography.

35 Among the ateliers that ceased their activities were Forquet in 1971; Carosa, De Barentzen, and Schubert in 1972; Antonelli in 1976; and Fabiani in 1977.

36 Settembrini, “From Haute Couture to Prêt-à-Porter,“ 486.

37 See Federico, Giovanni and Cohen, Jon, The Growth of the Italian Economy, 1820–1960 (Cambridge, 2001)Google Scholar; Zamagni, Vera, The Economic History of Italy, 1860–1990 (New York, 1993)Google Scholar.

38 Morris, Jonathan, The Political Economy of Shopkeeping in Milan, 1886–1922 (New York, 1993), 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 On this point, see the most exhaustive scholarly study on the contemporary history of Milanese fashion: Binaghi, Maria Teresa Olivari, “La moda: Le tendenze,” in Storia di Milano, vol. 18: Il Novecento (Rome, 1996), 516–17Google Scholar.

40 Carrarini, Rita, “La stampa di moda dall'Unità ad oggi,” in La Moda, Storia d'ltalia, vol. 19 (Torino, 2003), 796834Google Scholar.

41 Ibid., 813.

42 The Milan Sample Fair (Fiera Campionaria) was one of most important European industrial and commercial exhibitions. Data about visitors and exhibitors confirm the role it played in supporting the internationalization of the Italian economy.

43 Among the Milanese newspapers, the Eco delle industrie e dei commerci tessili e dell'abbigliamento, from which this information has been taken, provided a detailed daily follow-up of the textile and clothing exhibitions.

44 The importance of fabrics and clothes became so overwhelming that in 1957 the original stand became an autonomous fair—the MITAM (International Market Fabrics for Clothing in Milan)—conceived as an up-to-date exhibition of the latest novelties in fabrics and clothing design. Textile and tailoring firms met on these occasions with the aim of strengthening their collaboration. From 1965 until the last MITAM edition in 1975, the links between fashion and industry were encouraged by a competition between high-fashion models wearing fabrics provided by Italian textile companies.

45 One must bear in mind that, in 1951 and 1971, the census of workers in the clothing industry also included employees working in the furniture sector.

46 On the Prato district, see Becattini, Giacomo, The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: Prato in a Changing World, 1954–1993 (Florence, 2001)Google Scholar.

47 According to an advertisement in Quaderni for a department store with shops in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, a ready-made suit could cost from $30 to $105, while the price of a special order ranged from $135 to $145, and the price of a custom-made suit started at $195 (Quaderni dell'Associazione industriali dell'abbigliamento 8 [1950]: 815Google Scholar; hereafter Quaderni). We lack figures on the composition of the output of menswear, which, according to the Bureau of the Census of the Department of Commerce, in 1948 amounted to 23,411,600 suits, 6,193,800 coats, and 22,774,200 woolen trousers.

48 The consumption of clothes was studied in detail by a group that was formed to examine the textile industries. This group, which was part of the Comitato nazionale per la produttività (National Committee for Productivity), the interministerial organization set up in 1952 to study and disseminate information on means for increasing productivity, was created in 1953. It produced the study Il problema tessile italiano [The Italian Textile Problem], published in five volumes in 1957. The first volume is devoted to issues of consumption.

49 FACIS (Fabbrica Abbigliamento Confezionato in Serie) was a business unit of GFT (Gruppo Finanziario Tessile), which was founded in 1930 as a result of the merger of Lanifici Rivetti and Finanziaria Tessile. See Berta, Giuseppe, ed., Appunti sull'evoluzione del Gruppo GFT: Un'analisi condotta sui fondi dell'Archivio storico (Torino, 1989)Google Scholar. See also Quaderni 8 (1950): 37Google Scholar.

50 Size, typology, color, final price, maximum cost after shipping, and timing of delivery required by the American department stores were specified for each item in Quaderni 4 (1950): 320Google Scholar; 9 (1950): 3–8; and 41 (1952): 3–16.

51 Existing figures are not comparable because of the revision of the tariff system in July 1950. The revision replaced the old classification (“sewed garments,” which referred to the four categories of wool, cotton, silk, or artificial fibers) with a more articulated scheme based on specific clothing items (dresses and accessories). In the trade statistics for the years following 1950, the names of the categories of the tariff nomenclature were changed, grouped, or singled out. See Quaderni 7 (1950): 316Google Scholar.

52 Quaderni 17 (1951): 316Google Scholar.

53 Quaderni 15 (1951): 9Google Scholar.

54 Ibid., 11–16.

55 See the memorandum deposited in the Historical Archives of the Milan Chamber of Commerce, box 215.

57 Italian-American Business 3, no. 2 (1952): 3136Google Scholar.

58 See the complete list in Italian-American Business 5, no. 1 (1951): 3235Google Scholar.

59 Italian-American Business 2, no. 2 (1952): 57Google Scholar.

60 On such trade information, see, for example, Italian-American Business 12, no. 4 (1954): 1121Google Scholar. See the special issue, published in December 1955, containing the report by Franklin Lane, general secretary of AmCham, titled All'America i prodotti italiani all'Italia il capitale americano.

61 On the history of La Rinascente, see Amatori, Proprietà e direzione; Zamagni, Vera, “Alle origini della grande distribuzione in Italia,” Commercio 10 (1982)Google Scholar; Zamagni, Vera, La distribuzione commerciale in Italia fra le due guerre (Milan, 1981)Google Scholar.

62 See Amatori, Proprietà e direzione, 157, and Foot, John, Milan since the Miracle: City, Culture, and Identity (Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar.

63 See Relazione sul viaggio negli Stati Uniti d'America in the Brustio family archives, Economic History Institute, Bocconi University, MilanGoogle Scholar.

64 On Biki (real name, Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure: b. 1906, d. 1999), see the entry in Callan, Georgina O'Hara, The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers (New York, 1998)Google Scholar.

65 See Francesconi, Rodolfo, Azienda come cultura: La Rinascente (Milan, 1994), 3637Google Scholar.

66 Ibid., 28.

67 The relationship between Apem and the American companies is well explained by White, Reconstructing Italian Fashion, 57–58, 63–64. On Apem, see also Amatori, Proprietà e direzione, 193.

68 This is the case in White, Reconstructing Italian Fashion.

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