What I Saw at Pitti Uomo 90 – by Eugene Rabkin

Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,

I just left the 90th edition of Pitti Uomo, the Florentine mens trade fair that is increasingly becoming an important part of the menswear calendar. The fair’s management’s commitment to keeping Pitti Uomo global and relevant was especially evident than this season. There were 1,222 brands presenting their wares, of which over 44% were from abroad. This means that Pitti is well on its way of its stated goal of having a 50/50 split between Italian and non-Italian brands and visitors. 

The special events this season proved that Pitti’s visionary head of communications Lapo Cianchi firmly keeps his pulse on the current state of fashion. Three designers presented special projects this time – Gosha Rubchinksy, Visvim, and Raf Simons.

But the festivities began with the opening of Karl Lagerfeld’s photography exhibition called “Visions of Fashion” at the Palazzo Pitti. The exhibit, co-curated by the German art book publisher Gerhard Steidl, who is also Lagerfeld’s close collaborator and producer, was sweeping in its scope. It was sleek, pretty, and polished, the kind of thing that mostly leaves me cold. Which is not to say that the exhibit is not worth visiting – quite the contrary. I was especially impressed by one of the rooms where long white banners with Lagerfeld’s photography hung from its tall ceiling like some conqueror’s flags amidst the heavy crystal chandeliers. And, well, it’s at the Palazzo Pitti, which is a stunning space in itself.

The next evening the much-hyped Russian photographer-turned-designer Gosha Rubchinkiy presented his Spring/Summer 2017 collection. His vision of Russian “gopnik” (a word that signifies a Russian “inner city youth” who engages in occasional hooliganism) style, which mostly consists of sweatshirts, track pants and tees, has naturally found its base among the finer hipster neighborhoods of London and Tokyo due to its exoticism. Since I grew up with this stuff it does nothing for me, and I am not alone – every Russian journalist I spoke with is embarrassed by the brand.

This collection was the most commercial Rubchinskiy has presented to date. The center stage was taken by collaborations with second-grade sportswear companies – Fila, Kappa, and Sergio Tacchini. I used to wear this best of the 90s kitsch when I was fifteen, and I’m not proud of it, nor do I have some cute feelings of nostalgia that would make me want to don any of it again. But it will sell like hotcakes to those who buy clothes for a few Instagram winks and giggles. Rubchinskiy might as well have printed ruble signs on those sweatshirts. 

The most obnoxious of his offerings were the striped tops that said “RUSSIAN RENAISSANCE” in Cyrillic (apparently, Cyrillic is the new Chinese). But if Rubchinskiy is what Russia has to offer, I’m afraid its renaissance, at least in fashion, is over before it even began. Because while you can argue about the aesthetic intent and symbolic value of his clothes, there is one thing that is beyond argument – this collection had zero merit as fashion DESIGN (the only vaguely interesting silhouette was that of an oversized sweater over a dress shirt, paired with shorts, which Raf Simons already did ten years ago). Anyone with a large Instagram following can now slap their name on a sweatshirt and call it fashion, which does not bode well for fashion at all. 

As a matter of fact, I do not entirely blame Rubchinkiy for this. He is a smart guy and a good photographer, and I would not be surprised if he is simply toying with the fashion press who are falling over themselves to praise him, and having his Emperor’s New Clothes moment. 

The next morning’s show of the Japanese label Visvim was a sight for sore eyes after the previous evening’s fiasco. At ten in the morning we thronged to the magnificent Boboli Gardens, where Hiroki Nakamura and his wife Kelsi treated us to a dance performance by American sailors and servicewomen straight out of the 1940s, which followed by a show of expertly crafted clothes from the first American generation that went casual. Nakamura is a master of blending Americana – not the preppy, Ralph Lauren type, but that of mid-Century when America was still ruggedly simple – with Japanese cultural traditions. Throw in his obsession with craftsmanship and you get deceptively simple garments that are actually painstakingly made. Before you jump to political conclusions about Visvim, let me burst your bubble – Nakamura is not out to make a statement that goes beyond aesthetics and craftsmanship. He will happily talk to you for an hour about indigo dyeing, hand-painting t-shirts, and searching for the best suede in the world, but leave the politics at the door. 

I spoke with Nakamura briefly about whether he felt excited about staging his first show – he always sticks to a shworoom/lookbook presentation, because he wants you to see and touch his garments, whose magic is sometimes hidden when looked at from afar. True to his ethos, Nakamura said that a show is simply another expression of his vision, and it’s the garments themselves that matter in the end. But his crew clearly felt otherwise, because some of them were overcome with emotion after the show, whose end was met with enthusiastic applause, as much for the clothes as for just how FUN it all was.

As I wondered around the trade fair that afternoon, I got an email from the Pitti press office informing me that Karl Lagerfeld will be at Palazzo Pitti to see his photo exhibit (apparently we saw it before he did) and will give a brief press conference. So, back to the Palazzo it was. We waited and waited, until we ran out of time because of the Raf Simons show. So much for der Kaiser. 

So, it was all Raf on my last night at Pitti Uomo, and he delivered and then some. As we were ushered into the Stazione Leopolda, an abandoned train station, we were greeted by an installation featuring Simons’s archival pieces on disfigured mannequins amidst scaffolding. Industrial music played while we wandered around. I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store, being reminded of just how much Simons has done for men’s fashion. The all-standing show began at nine in the evening, and out went out look after look with prints by Robert Mapplethorpe. They were on oversized dress shirts, on aprons, and on totes. These were paired with Raf’s impressive tailoring. It was Simons showing the younguns how it’s done, and reclaiming his rightful spot as the leader of fashion that engages other aspects of culture. It was a show that touched not only because it happened so shortly after the horrific mass shooting at an Orlando gay club, but also reminded us of the time when culture still could be dangerous to society. That time has passed, for fashion as much as art. Fashion now mostly engages in empty gestures and self-referential giggles. Everyone is in on the hip joke – the designers, the press, and even the consumers. In such a milieu, to have Simons still earnestly trying to create something that matters is doubly refreshing. 


All photos courtesy of Pitti Immagine