When you hear “Italian fashion” the city that comes to mind is “Milan,” right? You wouldn’t be wrong – the international northern Italian metropolis has been home to Italy’s fashion elite for several decades. But before Armani, Prada, Valentino, and Versace began showing on the Milan Fashion Week schedule, Florence, with its terracotta tiles and resplendent Duomo, emerged as the original fashion capital of Italy.
Over the past 50 years, Pitti Uomo has become the beating pulse of fashion in the city. Dubbed the "menswear mecca", the biannual event is the largest menswear trade show of its kind. Every January and June, 30,000 members of the international menswear industry – buyers, exhibitors, journalists, and spectators – descend upon Florence for four days of sartorial excellence. Their biannual presence marks the beginning of the new season and is pivotal for launching new projects in men’s fashion and determining future trends.
The artistic influence of Florence stretches back as far as the Renaissance period, when the Tuscan capital became known for its production of high quality, specialized, hand-made goods – from intricate straw baskets to fine leather. These strong artisan traditions continued into the 20th century and helped fuel the development of Florentine fashion – the city is home to several luxury powerhouses including Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, Gucci, Ermanno Scervino, and Salvatore Ferragamo.
Another local luminary is Pitti Uomo founder Giovanni Battista Giorgini. An aristocratic Italian from an antiquated Lucca family, Giorgini is a vital figure in the development of the Italian alta moda industry. The first to perceive the global opportunity represented by Italian craftsmanship, Giorgini invited key buyers and influencers from the United States to attend what he billed as the first ‘High Italian Fashion Show’ in 1951. These early womenswear shows staged in the Sala Bianca in Palazzo Pitti, Florence marked the birth of “Made in Italy” as an internationally recognized stamp of success and placed Florence on the map as a destination for style.
The success of the womenswear show soon gave way to menswear. In 1972 the first edition of Pitti Uomo took place, showcasing Italian tailoring and style to the foreign markets. It was an immediate success, although on a greatly reduced scale to that of today. "In the Seventies, it was much more formal inside the fair, very much divided between the two moments – the day and the night. In the day the buyers placed orders, numbers, quantities – they were very concentrated – and then, in the evening, we really enjoyed ourselves. I was 17, still at school, and to see all the buyers from all over the world, it was magical. Pitti is something that excites me even now," Claudio Marenzi, president of Sistema Moda Italia (The Italian Textile and Fashion Federation), the Italian fashion industry's representative body, told BOF.
It was in this context that designers the likes of Giorgio Armani showed their first collections; Armani in particular used the catwalk of Pitti Uomo 16 in 1979 to communicate his idea of menswear. “I saw the first collection of Giorgio Armani when he had the small booth but was already showing all the signs of becoming a giant – extremely important moments when the designers were hot,” recalls Stefano Ricci, former president of the Centro di Firenze per la Moda Italiana, and an exhibitor at the fair through his eponymous brand.
During the Seventies, Pitti Uomo became the hotbed for a number of other influential Italian names too: Ermenegildo Zegna, Valentino, and other big designer brands made by the GFT group all presented at the fair. This golden age for Italian sartorial style and “Made in Italy” manufacturing helped boost the Italian menswear profile to the masses and reinforce Pitti Uomo’s international reputation as the premier destination point for buyers and media.
The growing interest around the event called for an expansion in premises. In 1982, Pitti Uomo left its traditional home of the Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti and relocated its residence to its current home, the Fortezza da Basso. With its vast halls and open terraces totaling nearly 100,000 square meters, the Medicean fortress was the perfect playground for the decade's new era of mega brands to curate and personalize their own exhibitor spaces – a blueprint that remains much the same today.
“It evolved in the Seventies and Eighties into this trade show center with enormous booths for megabrands, many of which have now moved to Milan and other places. But that then opened up space for new and developing companies to enter the show,” Tom Kalenderian, the head of menswear at Barneys New York, added.
What began as a fair presenting 30-40 mostly Italian formal manufacturers soon evolved to become an incubator for the international menswear industry at large. During the '90s, the fair took its greatest evolutionary step to date by welcoming and actively seeking out, the best menswear designers from around the world.
The late Marco Rivetti, President of Pitti Immagine from 1987 to 1995, was responsible for pioneering this new global outlook. No longer just a patron of Italian style, Pitti became a global stage for the international menswear industry. Though the initial move was not met with a great response from the Italian market who believed it would impact their visibility, the opportunity to shop many of the best brands in the world under one roof provided an attractive proposition for buyers and media.
Kalenderian told BOF: “Pitti Uomo is an emporium, a collection of amazing talent, which is such an incredible luxury in terms of providing to the buyer the ease of walking from booth to booth, without having to drive from city to city. As the show grew, as the show became more international, it became even more valuable because then they were working with people from countries other than Italy.”
In order to broaden the fair’s diversity, organizers traveled the world to scout out the best upcoming talent and thought leaders in menswear. A look back across Pitti Uomo’s guest designer list from the past 30 years is like reading who's who of the most influential names in menswear. Yohji Yamamoto, whose first monographic show also incidentally took place at the festival; Raf Simons has shown twice as has Undercover’s Jun Takahashi.
The Pitti Immagine board takes a strong position on maintaining the qualitative content of the fair and it's this rigorous list that is perhaps what has made it so enduring for over 50 years. There are few other shows where you can expect to see cult names like Dirk Bikkembergs and Gareth Pugh alongside major players like Jean Paul Gaulter, Jill Sander, and Vivienne Westwood. By keeping its finger on the pulse of menswear and the subtle style shifts that shape the market, Pitti has maintained its rightful position as an industry leader.
Another strategy that is key to the success of the fair, albeit a serendipitous one, is the prolific street style photography that occurs each season. As the ground zero for menswear style, Pitti is the gathering spot for the most stylish men in the world. It's basically the Olympics of street style, so it’s no wonder that the elite of menswear, along with the who’s who of street style photographers and wannabe posers flock to the Fortezza da Basso each season to take part in the action.
Legend has it that Japanese magazine LEON was the first publication to start documenting street style at Pitti Uomo in the late 00s. Editors from the publication would attend the fair each season to specifically document well-dressed men at the show as part of its biannual special called Snap! Like most Japanese magazines, the pages and photos within them were meticulously categorized by garment and details, providing a handy reference to those in need of sartorial inspiration.
While it is a regular occurrence now for the fort's grounds to be packed full of photographers lensing the latest looks, LEON was the first to have put a supposed "man in the street" at the center of attention of magazines. It wasn’t until years later that social media and influential photographers like Scott Schuman, a.k.a. The Sartorialist would arrive on the scene and push men’s street style into the zeitgeist of western media.
“You find some of the best-dressed men on the planet,” said Schuman who has been photographing said men against Florentine backdrops of peeling frescoes and marble piazzas for nearly a decade. “What those visuals mean to young guys all over the world is pretty staggering. There are people imitating Pitti street style in Cape Town,” he explained to Vogue.
Street style has had a huge impact in increasing awareness of Pitti Uomo and in turn, helped shape the trends that surround the event. Although the fair is widely recognized for its Pitti peacocks, the phenomenon of dapper dudes is just a slice of diverse street style on offer on the grounds. From streetwear to Americana and workwear, the street style at Pitti offers observers an early glimpse into the type of looks that will impact menswear in the coming seasons.
This evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed. Pitti has been taking note and been busy catering to the new generation of contemporary menswear enthusiasts by expanding its offering at the show. For starters, there are showcases like Fantastic Classic and Futuro Maschile, which display both classic and forward-looking interpretations of menswear. New destinations like ‘Dynamic Attitude’, ‘Superstyling’, and ‘S|Style Sustainable Style’ are testament to this evolution and its embracing of diversity, while the selection of high profile designers like Craig Green, Y Project, and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White demonstrate how they are trading in tradition for something new and progressive that represents today's modern male archetype.
This June, Pitti Uomo returns to a country heavily affected by the pandemic with its 102nd edition. The show will present its most diverse offering to date with a schedule of events and presentations that promote the latest evolution in menswear. The guest designers for the season include British-Jamaican designer Grace Wales Bonner, Danish menswear label Soulland, an installation organized by Giulio Sapio, and a special project curated by Ann Demeulemeester. Beyond these international names, the fair will present a special Scandinavian Manifesto with feature collections from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
While the show continued in different iterations throughout the pandemic, the SS23 edition will see the show return to what it does best: bringing people together. Unlike Milan, London, or Paris, Pitti's a one-stop shop, meaning everybody is gathered together in one place and you can discover brands and events in a single location. With international travel restrictions beginning to relax, organizers are already anticipating a positive attendance for this edition of Pitti Uomo as buyers and media look to return to the fashion month circuit for face-to-face meetings.
Keep an eye out on Highsnbobiety for our coverage live from the fair where we will bring you the latest street style and trends directly from the show floors.