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The secrets of Italian style


Understated, luxurious – and utterly chic: no wonder the impeccable style of Italy’s best-dressed women is admired worldwide, says Clare Coulson

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Clare Coulson,

If you had to deconstruct a nation’s style, then the typical wardrobe of a chic Italian woman would probably be something like this: a crisp shirt, a luxurious cashmere sweater (she probably has a collection of them in beautiful colours), exquisitely cut tailoring and some simple pumps or moccasins, all offset with heirloom jewellery including a few bangles and a cocktail ring or two. It’s a luxurious, classic look, which transcends age, era, background and location.

This look – perfected and refined by the Italians over decades – may look simple, but takes some élan to really pull it off. ‘Great style comes from within, and Italians have an innate elegance which is effortless,’ explains stylist and one-time Milan resident Carmen Borgonovo. ‘They are natural and at ease with their style, and focus on understated and timeless luxury.’ But for Borgonovo there’s one critical reason that Italian women pull off this look so inimitably: ‘The key to their impeccable chic is they never look as if they are trying too hard. They achieve a perfect balance between constraint and sophistication.’

It’s a style brilliantly recorded in Italian Touch, a book commissioned by Diego Della Valle, owner of shoe empire Tod’s. The glossy volume is a stunning visual record of supremely stylish Italian families. In each and every picture, different generations gather in crisp shirts and chinos, car shoes and Ray-Bans, making the book a great starting point if you want to emulate their natural flair.

It’s also a style on which Italy’s fashion industry has been built, one that focuses always on craftsmanship and quality. This past summer, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London took a trip through the world of Italian fashion, charting its rise from the 1950s to the present day. What shone through was the skill of artisan producers who have built their businesses on supreme luxury: the most sumptuous cashmere, butter-soft leather bags and handmade shoes, beautiful fabrics made by Italian mills. It’s a heritage that was only really appreciated from the mid 20th century onwards, but has since become recognised and revered the world over. 

This autumn, it’s the eminently stylish wardrobe of Marella Agnelli bringing a fresh focus to the style of the nation. Look at any images of Agnelli, whether she’s wearing a beaded kaftan gown by Mila Schön to Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball in New York in 1966 or on board her yacht wearing something as relaxed as a pink towelling playsuit, and there is a simplicity thanks to clean-cut silhouettes and bold lines. But the effect is never dull because of her use of sumptuous materials, rich colour and beautiful accessories. Agnelli, like her best-dressed compatriots, has always had an innate sense of proportion and elegance. 

Often Agnelli’s choices – for daytime, at least – look supremely classic, but there’s a lightness and ease in the way in which it’s all put together. So if you were shopping for the perfect building blocks, it would go something like this: a really luxurious coat – the obvious choice is a belted camel coat by Max Mara, such as wide-lapelled version cinched with a knotted glossy leather belt from this autumn/winter collection. Wear it with the simplest of cream sweaters and perfectly cut trousers and you have an instantly chic look.

The Italians have a worldwide reputation for their exquisite tailoring which, championed by Giorgio Armani, is fluid and soft. This autumn Armani has cut his slightly slouchy trousers with a slightly cropped silhouette. But for real longevity you certainly need to invest in a classic tailored blazer and beautiful trousers.

Italian women do boyish shirts brilliantly – as demonstrated in many Prada and Miu Miu shows – but they are always expertly laundered. On top you’ll need some cashmere; thicker ply cashmeres will last and wear much better than cheaper high-street versions, and labels such as Malo produce some of the best in the world.

Keep accessories simple. You can’t go wrong with a chocolate leather intrecciato shoulder bag from a label such as Bottega Veneta: it will never date and will probably last a lifetime. Some classic moccasins from Tod’s or Car Shoe are the perfect end note. After all, what could be more Italian than a lightly tanned ankle peeping out above a camel suede loafer?

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