Fashion people love to hate Milan. The schedule is too crammed, the complaint goes, with shows that are too corporate and lack the wow factor of Paris. There’s not enough young blood, which London has in droves. And you only go to Milan to see accessories, not directional and season-defining ready-to-wear.
Things, however, are starting to change. Although it’s true that in recent years Milan has felt like an easily overlooked pit stop between exciting London and glamorous Paris, drawing media only because of the presence of big advertisers, a series of buzz-creating moves has put it back on the fashion radar.
With Gucci going through a complete revamp and new designers at houses such as Pucci and Roberto Cavalli, Milan has become a hot topic, leading some observers to herald, perhaps prematurely, a new Italian Renaissance. Whether or not it’s all manufactured hype or there’s actually some substance behind Milan’s newfound verve, you can’t deny that the city has finally welcomed new names. Designers such as Fausto Puglisi, Arthur Arbesser and Marco de Vincenzo have become the poster children for a new generation of Milanese talent.
Although all three show in Milan, their aesthetics couldn’t be more different, something that has always been typical of the city, where labels as disparate as quirky Marni, intellectual Prada, sexy Versace, glamorous Dolce & Gabbana and sober Giorgio Armani can all coexist and thrive.
Sicilian-born de Vincenzo has made a name for himself thanks to his show-stopping frocks that feature lavish embellishments and display his penchant for unexpected and bold colour combinations.
De Vincenzo honed his craft at Roman house Fendi, where he’s been designing handbags for the last 15 years (he’s still based in Rome and consults for the house). Unlike many other up-and-coming designers who can’t wait to start their companies right after graduation, he wasn’t too eager to put his own name on a label when barely out of school, aware of the importance of apprenticing at a respected brand.
“I think today the temptation to start a career on your own is very strong,” he says when we meet him a few days after his spring/summer 2016 show. “But after school, I wasn’t ready to and didn’t want to start my brand. I wanted to learn on the field, which gave me a lot of rigour and discipline.”
Fendi was the perfect training ground for de Vincenzo and a cohort of fellow designers who learned the ropes of the trade at the Italian maison, from Giambattista Valli to Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli and Alessandro Michele. “I’m in love with this company,” de Vincenzo explains. “I’ve never wanted to leave and I still work very closely with them. It’s a wonderful school of creativity, a company that’s always been very courageous. It’s a brand that every season changes its skin and tells a new story.
“When I joined, it was still a family company, the years right after the Baguette. They were the years that shaped me because I realised that even a few people with the right ideas can build a dream. One of the things that Silvia taught me is that if you have many ideas, you have to use them right away. Don’t save them for the future, for another season, because by then they’ll be gone and you’ll come up with something else. At Fendi I learned how to turn crazy ideas into reality.”
From the stunning fringed dresses of his spring/summer 2015 collection to the Eastern-inflected palette of his most recent effort, autumn/winter 2016, de Vincenzo is never at a loss for ideas – but realising them has been the hard part, as he reveals when reminiscing about the challenges of his first years, before fashion conglomerate LVMH (Fendi’s owner) decided to invest in his fledgling label in 2014.
“I started on my own, with my personal savings, and it was very hard,” he says. “I was being successful but I didn’t realise how important it was to have a team that produced and distributed the pieces. Because you can make nice stuff but if you can’t deliver it to stores in time, there’s no point. LVMH gave me a lot of credibility, but also a team that helped with logistics and production. It’s vital because otherwise you’re just making beautiful things with no commercial aspect and that’s not what fashion is.
“I’ve always been very creative, but I’ve never had the entrepreneurial spirit, so I needed someone to help me with strategies and stuff like that. I am interested in knowing what sells and so on, but I’m first and foremost a design-er, otherwise everything becomes a product, and I want to be free to design.”
De Vincenzo also had to grapple with the difficulties of establishing a brand in a country not necessarily known for its support of independent brands. “I used to think that Italy was too slow in embracing young talent but now things have changed,” he reflects.
“If I’d been in London I would have probably started my brand when I was 25, not 30, because the problem in Italy is the whole system, which until recently was very complex and kept you from making things happen. The press was also slow and didn’t understand that Italy needed a new generation, but now it’s different. There’s a new energy and I’m happy I stayed.”
Another reason why de Vincenzo wants to keep showing in Milan is the freedom the city gives him to do his own thing without being pigeonholed into one aesthetic. His Sicilian background, for instance, is hardly evident in his oeuvre, which is not tied to a stereotypical image of Italy but is instead informed by the culture at large and his own personal obsessions that return in subtle ways season after season.
“I think that the success of the Made in Italy in the ‘90s was the mix of all these different personalities such as Armani, Versace ... I miss that time of such different and strong personalities. That’s the strength of Italian fashion.
“It’s also the culture here, which is so varied that any designer can cultivate his own aesthetic. In London, for instance, there’s more like a wave of designers that are often similar in what they do, say digital prints.”
When looking at de Vincenzo’s work, it becomes clear that he’s not married to any particular vision. Although tropes such as strong colour juxtapositions and heavy embellishments are recurring themes, you’ll never find him doing the same thing twice.
“I love brands that constantly change,” says de Vincenzo. “I can never do the same thing. I like to be free to explore and tell a story even though as you grow you develop recognisable codes. I’m always fascinated by designers like Miuccia Prada, who can create iconic pieces every season. It’s some kind of adrenaline you get.”
“Some brands you can’t wait to see what they’ll do next, what they’re going to come up with. Other brands are more consistent and repetitive and I like those too but I’m more attracted by the novelty factor.”
De Vincenzo has clearly grasped what designing in the 21st century means. Whether you’re a young label or a legacy brand, you need the wow factor to appeal to a generation of digitally savvy consumers who are bombarded with choices on a daily basis.
With the invaluable experience he gained at Fendi and the recent backing of LVMH, it’s surprising that a big fashion house hasn’t knocked on his door to offer him the top job. But perhaps it’s better that way, so he can focus on building his own label and making it into a success story in a country that needs to stop resting on its laurels and start figuring out how to foster the growth of designers such as this talented young man.