I am currently preparing to write a story for a magazine on Bianca Saunders, a young menswear designer from London, who recently travelled to the notorious Pitti Uomo, one of the most important men’s fashion tradeshows in the world that is held twice annually in Florence. In my research for my interview with her, I came across an piece on 1 Granary in which Saunders compared the fashion of London and Florence:
“…everyone was extremely focussed on the quality of design, rather than in London, where people pay more attention to silhouette, or to the materials used” – no surprise, given Pitti’s firm anchoring in the stubborn traditions of Italian tailoring; here, craft is valued over concept.
To me, the idea of craft over concept is a perceptive analysis of what I have observed of Florentine life thus far. Speaking to the domain of fashion, Italian style finds its basis primarily in the tried and true – the catch being that Italians were the first to try it. Leather jackets, particularly in Florence and Tuscany, all black, pea coats, berets, and sturdy, practical shoes are the Florentine uniform, embodying a unique display of the city’s time-honored history of leather and wool production, while also borrowing from Milanese and even Parisian je-ne-sais-quoi faux-effortlessness, and adapting to the functional demands of Florence, such as the terrain and weather. In this way, local style is a snapshot of the city and its values, holding both tradition and innovation in one hand.
The city’s history of art has a similar ethos, as the founding locus of the Renaissance movement and the extensive advancements that were made by hallowed names such as Giotto, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Da Vinci. At the Museo Bargello, there is a duo of panels known colloquially as the “Competition Panels” dating from 1401, when the patrons of the Duomo held a contest among Florentine artists to create a new set of gates. The winners – Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi – were awarded the top prize on account of their respectively unprecedented approaches to the craft; for his entry, Ghiberti reappropriated a lost Roman technique of gilding bronze, while Brunelleschi essentially invented the use of perspective in his panel. It is for reasons like these that Florence was an epicentre of art – for the technique and mastery of skill, rather than the repeated depictions of the same Biblical themes that every artist (and their uncle) reinterpreted. Florentines have long been attentive to how something is made, rather than simply what it depicts, as the contemporary art that I am typically drawn to in New York might do.
This alternative approach to creativity is incredibly enriching and, arguably, more challenging than the North American approach with which I have been raised. Fast fashion that falls apart, $5 graphic t-shirts, and the cheesy stock photography that decorates American institutions emphasise content, but don’t add value, per-say, to our lives. There is the old question that gets repeated continuously in creative circles as to if you can’t say something new, whether it is worth saying anything at all. I have long been fascinated by the French New Wave film movement of the late 50s and 60s, in which filmmakers tore up the existing dogma of style and technique and reinvented the way that movies were sequenced, shot, and edited; the content may not have differed wildly, but the method of conveying the story was radically inventive and revolutionised modern storytelling. The desire to make a dent like this is arguably fundamental to any creative pursuit, and it is inspiring to find myself in an ecosystem defined by this very perspective.
Funnily enough, while the spirit of innovation may apply to historical advancements in artisanal production and craftsmanship, the same attitude of efficiency and modernisation does not apply to all aspects of Florentine life – just as anyone who has waited an hour or more for the bus!