Low-key but in high spirits: AltaRoma’s January 2017 edition

ROME, Italy – Although a cohort of beautiful confections and new generation designs walked the Roman runways, it was the absence of the golden tresses and azure gaze of the late and lamented Franca Sozzani that was most keenly felt at the latest edition of AltaRoma, which took place between January 26 and 29, 2017. An occasion to reminisce and take stock of old hands and baby steps.

A decade ago, the partnership struck between AltaRoma and Sozzani’s Italian Vogue gave flight to the “Who Is On Next?” scouting competition opened a new venture for the couture oriented event slowly losing steam as some of its brightest names, including Valentino, left the Eternal City in search for international acclaim. Among its discoveries would rise some of the most exciting names of the past decade: Marco de Vicenzo, MSGM’s Massimo Giorgetti, Nicholas Kirkwood or Stella Jean. A number of alumni of the 2016 edition wore Heart Franca t-shirts as a discreet sign of remembrance and gratitude for the pioneering editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue whose passing in December after a year-long illness rocked the industry.

Despite a more compact schedule and the move to the more remote Guido Reni District (a redevelopment of former barracks), the winter edition offered further insight into why Rome is now a must-see on the global fashion calendar, despite an apparent dearth of bold face industry names this time around. Its highlights, the Artisanal Intelligence exhibition imagined by Clara Tosi Pamphili and Alessio de’ Navasques, the Academia Costume e Moda’s student showcase continued to express a certain vision of fashion as an endeavour of applied arts and crafts. The Secrets of Couture exhibition, one of AltaRoma president Silvia Venturini Fendi’s personal ideas, threw in stark relief the work of American photographer Jeff Bark with the delicate couture of four emerging names in this high-brow textile art: Hussein Bazaza (winner of WION Dubai in 2015), Antonio Grimaldi (whose work arrived late, owing to its show on the last day of Paris’ couture week), Krikor Jabotian and Aouadi Paris (who forewent a presentation altogether, despite rave reviews in the fashion capital). Across the street, in the MAXXI museum of 21st century arts, the Roman’s Romance talk, featuring Venturini Fendi, Valentino’s Pier Paolo Piccioli and Professor Maria Luisa Frisa, picked up on last summer’s discussion around Rome’s cultural influence and heritage.

What keeps AltaRoma going then? Two years ago, when its future was uncertain as funding dried up momentarily due to local authorities withdrawing financial support, its president Silvia Venturini Fendi spearheaded efforts to save the event, rallied creatives as well as Italy’s other fashion cities, Milan and Florence. AltaRoma lived to see another (and since, several other) edition and in doing so, cemented the position it had been occupying as the foremost incubator of Italy-based talent. On the runway and in exhibitions, this translated in the form of Brognano, Miahatami, Pugnetti Parma, Schield or , offering not only the brands but the creative minds behind them as the life-blood of an industry in dire need of deep reinvention.

Nicola Brognano, an Istituto Marangoni alum, wowed a “Who Is On Next?” jury including Vogue’s Suzy Menkes, the Camera Moda’s Carlo Capasa and Le Figaro’s Godfrey Deeny with his interpretation of high-low fashion in which he referenced the Fellini masterpiece Juliet of the Spirits and blended sportswear with couturesque flights of fancy. Currently overseeing the aesthetic transformation of Pinko, he showed a fall 2017 collection that ticked all the in-the-now boxes. Kowtowing to the street and sportswear trends that underpin customer desires today, he evoked an Eighties girl with big dreams and even bigger shoulder pads. Whether cinched in a ballgown or stalking the streets in a mini dress, Brognano’s girl plays fast and loose with her Hot Couture for a tasty visual treat that owes as much to styling as it does to the actual garments. A rare feat today.

Echoes of stories within the moving sands of history were reflected in Miahatami’s latest collection. Narguess Hatami tapped into her Persian heritage, looking towards the adornments of the Ghashghai and Bakhtiari tribes for the textures and palette of her season. Far from being a contrived folkloric reference, this nod to her roots became a highly desirable line up of contemporary shapes with a spicy kick of personality. The collection left little doubt as to why her take on multicultural wardrobe options made her a runner-up of WION, as its universally feminine and chic options walked by. From a bouclé sweater to a sweeping coat, Hatami embarks on a magically realistic voyage through style, there, then, here and now.

Within the Accessories competition, the names that stood out last season continued to charm with their latest wares.

Winner Filippo Pugnetti of Pugnetti Parma continued to explore his Lift collection, and offered only one new model, the lady-like Rose bag – a multi-access, multi-wear contraption that is as sexy as hell. But restraint in new creations is to be expected from this expert in understatement. Tapping into a wider notion of conscious consumption (and sometimes lack thereof), Pugnetti takes his time with each new model, developing them in Parma with economy of design in mind. Barely a scrap of leather is wasted in the construction, and this shows in the striking, recognizable, toothsome shapes he presents. His work is a masterful demonstration: not being wasteful does not have to equate being cheap, or compromising on aesthetics. Any major handbag brand would be well inspired to snap this genius of design optimisation up and give him the tools to truly take luxury accessory design into the future.

The wacky wonders of Schield never cease to amaze. After showing that melting under the Roman sun could be a gorgeous experience thanks to his Fluid collection or riffing on Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga, Sicilian designer Roberto Ferlito returned with a Victorian punk feather in his cap, a inspiration well-suited to the dramatic soul of Southern Italy. Delicate enamelled flowers and pearls amassed against the neck for statement chokers that are one-part steampunk neckbraces, one-part decadent dame. Giant doll faces peer out from cuffs or hang from the neck almost as totemic tchotchkes. It’s bizarre, it’s bold and it’s utterly unforgettable.

The sophisticated slippers that make you want to dance continued to charm at Akhal Tekè; Lulù and Anna Poletti continued to make the shirt Melampo’s hero item; Greta Boldini continued to chug along since winning WION in 2013. Even Gattinoni’s Midsummer Night’s Dream thang had something wonderfully invigorating – not to say anything about the Kids are Alright vibe of the art performance outside. Everywhere, it’s clear that Rome’s designers are deeply keyed into the shifts that brings haute couture techniques into an increasingly manufactured real life.

Why it matters: AltaRoma continues to empower “made in Italy” talent and while everything there won’t necessarily become mainstays on the global fashion circuit, it does offer the kind of real-world exposure and push-back that is serious lacking in many second-tier fashion weeks. Even though this is a risky gambit for many young brands, AltaRoma – along with its devout followers, press and guests alike – continues to echo a different stroke: one where fashion nurtures its young rather than consume them.

Lily Templeton

Writer, journalist, storyteller, editor - Based in Paris - Typing up a storm on real and virtual keyboards, thanks to a curiosity like a small gauge sieve, exploring the world of creation one question at the time.