RealStyle by Patricia McLaughlin

WHERE ITALIAN FASHION CAME FROM

The V&A shows us how Italy regrew its fashion industry after WWII.

Photo for an ad campaign for Gianfranco Ferre, from "The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The elegance and drama Ferre draws from a white shirt worn with black trousers is typical of what the exhibition's curator sees as sprezzatura, or "nonchalant elegance." Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri.

Photo for an ad campaign for Gianfranco Ferre, from "The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The elegance and drama Ferre draws from a white shirt worn with black trousers is typical of what the exhibition's curator sees as sprezzatura, or "nonchalant elegance." Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri.

Devotees of luxury labels like Valentino, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Pucci and Gucci may be surprised to find that "The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014," on exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum through July 27, devotes so much space to someone they've never heard of: Maria Grimaldi, a dressmaker who worked in Turin in the 1950s, and happened to dress Margaret Abegg, the American wife of a prominent local textile manufacturer and art collector.

As it happened, Mrs. Abegg eventually donated a capsule wardrobe made by Ms. Grimaldi to the V&A: Two formal evening gowns, a day suit and a coat, along with several pairs of shoes and leather gloves. A printed card explains that, "although these dresses do not carry the name of a couture house, they use the best quality textiles and feature a very high standard of technical skill and precise detailing."

They aren't in the show only because the V&A happens to own them. The exhibition aims to track the rise of Italy as a modern fashion capital, from the end of World War II, which left much of the country in ruins, to the present. The war had diverted textile mills and garment factories to other uses, or left them in rubble. Equipment was outdated. What the Italian fashion industry had to rebuild on was a highly skilled potential workforce, people who knew how to produce beautifully made fabrics, precisely cut and tailored garments, exquisite laces and embroidery and leathers and furs.

There were many of them, artisans like Maria Grimaldi with the experience and technical skill to produce garments that -- as Mrs. Abegg noted when she donated her capsule wardrobe -- had been "much admired" when worn in Paris and New York, even though made by a dressmaker whose name was unknown there.

How many? According to another placard, in the 1950s, nearly 80 percent of Italian wardrobes were still being made by hand by local sartoria, or dressmakers, like Ms. Grimaldi.

Imagine if this country suddenly had to rebuild its garment industry from the ground up on the weaving and knitting and cutting and tailoring skills of your neighbors: How many potholders would you need to weave before you'd have enough for a winter coat?

As regional craft businesses revived and recovered, and designers and dressmakers catered to the postwar hunger for new clothes -- and especially for clothes with tiny waists and big skirts much like the ones that were coming out of the Paris couture -- a Florentine exporter/buying agent named Giovanni Battista Giorgini saw a need to build his country's brand as a fashion capital. He began inviting buyers and executives from luxury retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus to his home -- and eventually to the Sala Bianca, or White Salon, in Florence's Pitti Palace to see the new collections of designers like Simonetta, Valentino and Mila Schon, and they accepted.

Then came a stroke of pure luck: Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the '60s, lower production costs coupled with Italy's dependably sunny weather -- so much like Hollywood's -- began drawing movie producers to film on location in Italy or at Rome's Cinecitta Studios. American movie stars found themselves working in Rome and, naturally, when they could find the time, they went shopping. Stars like Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and Claudette Colbert came home wearing Ferragamo shoes, dresses from Valentino and Mila Schon, furs from Fendi. It was fabulous publicity for the Italians. (And also good for business in the traditional way since, unlike today, when designers line up to lend their clothes to actresses to wear on various red carpets, back then most of the stars actually paid for their clothes.)

The exhibition also shows how, as Giorgini achieved his dream, and Italy came to be recognized as a global fashion center, Italian designers developed their own distinctive approach to clothing. It incorporated a love of glamour and a respect for craft and precision tailoring with a prescient emphasis on comfort. Italian tailored suits were slimmer, more fluid and less constructed than traditional British tailoring. (The show includes a dinner jacket made for President John F. Kennedy by Angelo Litrico, now mostly forgotten, who also made suits for Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev.)

With their simultaneous appreciation of glamour and ease, the Italians had a natural gift for designing elegant sportswear, like the skiwear Emilio Pucci began his fashion career with. Exhibition curator Sonnet Stanfill sums up their spirit with the Italian word sprezzatura, "meaning nonchalant elegance, comfort in your own skin."