As the fashion houses of Paris play musical chairs with their star designers and London ushers forth dazzling new talent, it’s heartening to be reminded that in Milan a sense of stability prevails at the heritage labels that define polished Italian style. This year, four long-established brands will be raising a glass to mark important anniversaries and continuing success. Trussardi celebrates 100 years as a byword for classic design, Gucci and Max Mara also have landmark birthdays and Tod’s is fresh from its own earlier in the year. In a nervous, post-recession landscape, what has been their secret?
Despite Gucci’s prominence as the quintessential Italian house, its story actually starts at the Savoy in London. It was there that a young bellboy named Guccio Gucci would handle the exquisite luggage of the guests. Experiencing a moment of inspiration, he returned to his native Florence intent on combining the classic English style with Italian craft and workmanship and a powerhouse was born. It’s a similar tale at Trussardi where its founder took advantage of the leather know-how of Italy to set up a luxury leather glove business in 1911, which has since branched out into accessories and clothing.
Also reliant on leather is Tod’s, the luxury shoes and accessories brand which has made neat leather boat shoes its mainstay and turned 110 at the start of 2011, while Max Mara marks 60 years since couturier Achille Maramotti established the House of Max Mara as a rival to the dressmakers of Paris. Founding the label at a time when the eyes of the world were keenly watching Italy and its burgeoning film industry, he went on to use the opportunity to dress the great and the good of la dolce vita.
The key to the success of these brands is a solid tradition of Italian craftsmanship, handed down from generation to generation: an almost antique ideal in an industry aimed at the shock of the new. But in making excellence in execution a mainstay, they’ve stood the test of time and become bywords for luxury.
‘Excellence and discreet sophistication’ are what Trussardi credits as the reason that it has endured for a century, and it’s a sentiment that rings true across the brands; classic, sophisticated, timeless style is their founding tenet. With the exception of vampish, high-octane Gucci, which this season under the direction of Frida Giannini offers glamorous 70s silhouettes that look ready for an evening at Studio 54, these labels are models of tasteful, understated elegance; a potent style tool that, unlike the ebb and flow of trends, never expires.
A knack for producing classic clothes and accessories that don’t date have steered them through 60s youthquakes, punk, minimalism and everything in between. Tod’s leather deck shoes in nutmeg, pistachio and cerulean have become iconic and count Cindy Crawford and Gwyneth Paltrow as fans. Max Mara’s streamlined, exquisitely cut coats and sleek corporate wear are the alpha female’s style weapon of choice, and at Trussardi polite cocktail dresses rub shoulders with neat blouses and pencil skirts.
This isn’t to say that they’re short on innovation and experimentation. At Tod’s a line of sports shoes has furthered its position as a titan of footwear, and the brand sponsors the annual Whitechapel Gallery party in London, an event renowned for the hip, edgy art crowd it attracts and which lends a youthful, cultural edge to the label’s identity. Max Mara has recently collaborated on an exhibition of photographs of famous women wearing one of its classic wool coats, and at Trussardi the label continues to evolve to encompass a restaurant, an art foundation and an interior-design branch.
As crops of fresh young things infiltrate the fashion firmament every season and digital technology becomes the norm, it’s encouraging when a house shows serious staying power while continuing to develop its niche. The next decade may prove a challenge, but these grandes dames are suitably attired to forge on ahead. And they’ll no doubt be doing it with calm and grace in a classic charcoal shift and a pair of butterscotch deck shoes.