Italy’s importance in the history of fashion truly cannot be understated. You would have to have lived under a rock your entire life not to be even vaguely familiar with the broad lineage of Italian brands, designers, fashion houses and high-end labels that have each contributed to the shape of style today.
What’s more, the story goes beyond the Italian brands themselves. Even in the 21st century, Italian manufacturing continues to be revered as some of the highest quality in the world, with countless family-owned businesses producing garments for brands including Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith and a long list of others. Put simply, fashion runs through the Italian blood.
That being said, the sheer scope of the topic, combined with the mythology surrounding many of its most famous players, has created a world that often feels impossible to grasp from the outside. Perhaps you know the names, but not their stories; or maybe you’re familiar with iconic designs but don’t know where they fit in the bigger picture.
Whatever your level of knowledge, there are probably dozens of elements to your style of dress that lead, one way or another, back to the Italian fashion houses. With that in mind, here’s a comprehensive guide to the essential Italian brands and how each of them made their names:
What to say about Valentino Garavani? A one-man fashion powerhouse, the designer studied fashion from an early age, eventually pursuing formal education in Paris. In 1960, he returned to Rome to open his own fashion house, and channelled the grandiose, opulent nature of the Parisian fashion houses into his own distinctly Italian brand.
Valentino made his name with the distinct shade of red he used for most of his dresses, to the point that it became known as “Valentino Red.” In the fifty years that followed, Valentino truly built an empire, establishing the Valentino brand as a red carpet staple with countless celebrity fans.
If Italian brands have a reputation for being ostentatious, it’s thanks to Valentino Garavani.
Dolce & Gabbana
Though it’s true that there’s a thread of glamour running through almost all Italian brands, Dolce & Gabbana is one label that really carries a particular level of flair.
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana founded the iconic label in 1985, and through every element of their brand – from runway shows to adverting campaigns to celebrity endorsements – the duo has created a universe of total opulence. Vogue magazine has cited the designers’ love of Italian cinema and classic 20th century glamour as key influences, whilst others have described their style as a truly home-grown, Mediterranean flair – something that encapsulates the myths, fantasies and realities of Italian luxury.
Put simply, Dolce & Gabbana make women look sexy; they make men look masculine; they make celebrities look like celebrities and they make style look… well, stylish. Top that off with vague, unsubstantiated whispers on the internet about connections to the mafia, and you can practically hear the cool oozing out of D&G.
If Valentino is ostentatious and Dolce & Gabbana is glamorous, then the house of Versace can only be described — in the best way possible – as brash and audacious.
Founded in 1978 by Gianni Versace, the Italian brand encapsulates everything we have come to imagine about luxury. This is a brand that looks expensive, feels expensive, and is – you guessed it! – expensive. Now approaching its fortieth year, Versace is known for its bright colors, bold patterns and vibrant graphic designs. Even the use of Medusa in the brand’s logo draws back to the Greek mythological character and her ability to completely consume whoever looked at her.
Since Gianni Versace’s murder in 1997, Donatella Versace took over as the label’s Creative Director, and has come to embody everything about the brand with her own larger-than-life style. The brand has continued to thrive in recent years, and, thanks to its ethos of wealth and hedonism, has become one of the most mentioned brands in rap lyrics, Migos or otherwise.
It’s also worth noting that Versace is one of very few global fashion brands that remains majority-owned by the original family. Fashion has always been full of drama, but the House of Versace truly is a dynasty.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: it’s pronounced “mos-KEY-no.” Founded in 1983 by Franco Moschino, the Italian brand has been one of the biggest influences on contemporary fashion as we know it.
Deviating from the typically insular and hierarchical notion of high fashion that so many of us have in our heads, Moschino embraced popular culture and everyday iconography in a way that nobody had thought to do before. Pop art, cultural ephemera, corporate branding, comic books and cuddly toys were all rich sources of inspiration for the Moschino brand.
The brand was notably shouted out alongside a number of other brands by Notorious B.I.G. in “Hypnotize,” and in the late 1990s, their all-over print jeans, flashy graphics and big logos became mainstays of the UK club scene (alongside the equally glamorous Gucci and Versace); cementing a strange connection between high-fashion Italian brands and street-level culture that has granted Moschino an enduring essence of authenticity.
In 2013, equally-quirky designer Jeremy Scott took over as the brand’s creative director, bringing his own next-level take on contemporary culture to a revered Italian fashion house. Love him or hate him, it’s pretty much a match made in heaven.
Founded in 1921 by Guccio Gucci, the eponymous label is one of the oldest Italian brands in contemporary history.
Gucci founded his luggage label after being inspired by the luxury lifestyles of people he met whilst working in the Paris and London hotel trades. Combining this aesthetic with the skilled local craftsmanship of Tuscany, the company quickly became popular with Italian gentry and international shoppers who would visit his bottega.
Gucci also proved popular with the equestrian community, which inspired the label’s distinctive metal “horse bit” logo. In the decades that followed, the brand’s blend of quintessential luxury and Italian flare made it a mainstay of Hollywood fashion amongst celebrities and movie stars. In 1994, Tom Ford took over as Creative Director, injecting his own fearless approach to style into the brand.
In recent years, with Alessandro Michele at the brand’s creative helm, Gucci has reinvigorated its identity even further, embracing its popularity amongst younger consumers and celebrating an eccentricity rarely seen from a high-fashion institution. With its iconic green and red stripe, G monogram and whimsical air, there’s just something about Gucci that gives everything a touch more class.
Another historic Italian brand, the origin of Fendi can be traced back to 1925. Husband and wife Adele & Edoardo Fendi founded the label as a fur and leather goods shop in Rome. Though you might be most familiar with Fendi’s distinctive double-F monogram, they are revered as one of the global authorities on fur and are renowned for pioneering work in the field of fur fashion.
In the 1940s, the next generation of the Fendi family — five sisters Paola, Anna, Franca, Carla and Alda — took over operations and began injecting a new and youthful perspective to the label. In the 1960s, Karl Lagerfeld joined the label and pushed reinvention and experimentation, redefining furs that had fallen out of favor with the brand’s wealthy clientele and bringing a contemporary perspective to the historic brand.
By the 1990s, a growing network of family members began to put strain on the label, and the brand was sold to LVMH. Nonetheless, the brand still carries its classic identity of Italian style, empowered by decades of knowledge put into practice.
Surely a label that needs no introduction, the Giorgio Armani name is one that immediately conjures imagery of razor-sharp black suits, slick leather goods and the tasteful extravagance that only Italian brands can create.
Armani started his fashion empire in 1975, rooting his design vision in everyday people and the style of the streets. Such an approach has proved popular with fashion fans of all demographics, and now the brand has an extensive roster of diffusion labels including Emporio Armani, Armani Exchange, EA7 and Armani Jeans.
Like Versace, the Armani empire remains privately owned, which is actually quite poetic – if Versace is an exercise in Italian glamour, then Armani is an exercise in Italian class: toned-down, softly-spoken and effortlessly cool, but still making all the necessary statements.
Another historic Italian brand, Prada, like many others, has its roots in luxury leather luggage goods. Founded in 1913 by Mario Prada, the house quickly experienced meteoric success, and in 1919 was confirmed as an official supplier to the Italian royal household. This was signified by the iconic knotted rope that frames the label’s logo.
Prada entered a new phase throughout the 1970s when Mario Prada’s granddaughter Miuccia inherited the label, injecting a new energy and modern perspective into the brand (as is often the case with historic houses). Over the next four decades, Prada cemented its brand as a symbol of timeless, effortless chic, embodied by understated branding and minimalist designs.
One of the label’s signature motifs is its use of Saffiano leather, a textured leather printed with a cross-hatch pattern that is both hard-wearing and visually appealing. As for clothing designs, Prada has shown an eccentric flair in recent years, creating collections that ooze with color, patterns and flashy designs. However, this eccentricity is always tempered by a certain class that keeps everything in order.
Besides, if you’re looking for something really crazy, you’re better off checking out Prada’s daughter label…
Founded in 1993 by Miuccia Prada as an offshoot of the historic Prada brand, Miu Miu (pronounced “mew-mew”) takes its name from Miuccia’s family nickname, and is undoubtedly the youthful, exuberant Yin to Prada’s timeless, storied Yang.
Best known for its ready-to-wear and handbag collections, Miu Miu is never short of color and energy, and has an eccentric disregard for the rules more often seen in Japanese fashion. The Italian brand disregards minimal branding and softly-spoken lines; embracing chains, sequins, fur, gold, splashes of color and, indeed, anything guaranteed to turn heads instead.
That Miuccia Prada can move effortlessly between two polarized styles (Prada and Miu Miu) is nothing short of incredible, and she is no small part of what makes both of these Italian brands so iconic.
Scarcely over twenty years old, Marni might be the youngest Italian brand on this list – but the label, founded in 1994 by Consuelo Castiglioni, is a worthy mention, given its comparatively rapid rise to success.
The brand started out using the family’s fur business as an avenue to experiment with fur and textiles, but now creates full collections, including ready-to-wear, luggage, jewelry and accessories. Most noteworthy are the brand’s footwear designs, which blend timeless shoe styles with a unique flair.
Few high-fashion labels have created a sneaker as compelling as the aptly-named “Marni’s Sneaker” (even if it does borrow pretty heavily from a certain adidas EQT silhouette). However, the absolute favourite has to be their kilted derby shoes, which, depending on how they’re styled, can form part of any look – from classic to cute.
Marcelo Burlon is unquestionably one of the leading names in the new generation of Italian brands, with bold, geometric graphics and slimline contemporary cuts – as demonstrated in his collaborations with celebrities like Pusha T and Lebron James.
Though the Italian brand only produces T-shirts, sweats and accessories, Burlon has established a distinctive aesthetic that incorporates animals, camouflage and Patagonian symbols into striking graphic designs.
It could be argued that Burlon’s success in a country known for its historic factories and age-old production techniques highlights fashion’s evolution over the past two decades. It’s a world no longer controlled by a few dozen families, opening up instead to anyone with a unique perspective and fresh ideas.
Though the emerging Italian brand is still in its infancy, Palm Angels is quickly turning heads. Originally a photography project for Francesco Ragazzi (better known as the art director at Moncler), the label takes inspiration from the skateboarders of Venice and Manhattan beaches in L.A., after whom the project is named.
Though earlier collections left a lot to be desired, the brand has quickly developed and successfully channelled stylistic elements similar to those of its contemporaries, including extended cuts, camouflage patterns and a fearless blend of streetwear, high-fashion and contemporary style.
Part grunge, part catwalk and part Dogtown, the label has laid itself out as one to watch for 2017.
Launched in 2013 by Loris Messina and Simon Rizzo, Sunnei is a young Italian brand in all senses. The designs are modern, the cuts are contemporary, and you can see the influence of streetwear and street culture throughout the brand’s collections.
Messina and Rizzo have made no secret of their desire to shake up an Italian fashion landscape dominated by historic houses and cultural dogma, and their oversized fits and tracksuits do exactly that in a country dominated by silks, furs and luxury fabrics.
Indeed, their aesthetic is not dissimilar to those of Gosha Rubchinskiy or A-COLD-WALL*, but there’s also a mix of art and culture in every piece that would look at home in the collection of a Scandinavian brand like Soulland or Wood Wood. This isn’t Italian opulence or rustic charm – it’s laid-back cool done very well.
I know what you’re thinking: Moncler is French, right? This is true: the brand’s name is an abbreviation of the Grenoble village Monestier-de-Clermont, and it’s difficult to think of Moncler without imagining well-heeled French families skiing in the alps.
However, Moncler was bought out in 2003 by Remo Ruffini, and it was Ruffini who really pushed Moncler from being a high-end outdoors brand to an iconic symbol of the great outdoors.
As such, you can’t really talk about revered French master of the quilted jacket, Moncler, without also talking about the distinctly Italian flare that brought Moncler to collaborations with Thom Browne, Off-White, Pharrell Williams and FriendsWithYou.
Though the brand was acquired in full by its South-Korean subsidiary in 2007, FILA is one of the oldest (and largest) Italian sportswear brands, with a rich history to go with it.
For the first few decades of operation, the brand made mountaineering equipment. However, in the 1970s it ventured into the world of tennis and quickly found comfort in what would come to be known as the sportswear industry. Though the brand might have fallen out of favor with the streetwear crowd, FILA’s name in the late ’80s and early ’90s was synonymous with wealth.
Capitalizing on its Italian roots and a then-untapped well of potential in creating “luxury sportswear,” FILA was arguably one of the first companies to bring high-fashion prices to street-level fashion, and this formula made it a popular choice amongst rappers, dealers and all of the other usual suspects.
Its subsequent journey from the upper echelons to being an affordable alternative is a fascinating one, and Gary Warnett’s article on the subject is a must-read for any streetwear historians.
Another classic Italian brand that fell by the wayside, Sergio Tacchini has credible, authentic roots. Started in the late ’60s by the professional tennis player of the same name, the label was an endeavor to shake up the boring, all-white dress code of tennis with exciting colors and new materials. As the brand’s distinctively “high-fashion” logo suggests, the brand succeeded in bringing class and luxury to sportswear.
During the heyday of European football’s casual culture in the 1980s, the Italian brand was coveted amongst football fans. As the story goes, football fans who travelled to Europe to support their teams were deemed a cut above the home supporters. When they travelled to Italian cities for a match, they’d shoplift their favourite Italian sportswear from shop-owners who were completely unprepared for a gang of thirty football hooligans fired up for the game.
They say any publicity is good publicity, and if people are risking arrest in a foreign country just to own your clothes, you must be doing something right. In 2007, the brand declared bankruptcy and was sold to a Hong Kong businessman. Perhaps the brand’s recent collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy will open it up to a new generation of consumers, though, and reinvigorate the classic, casual style that made Sergio Tacchini a symbol of Italian sportswear.
Founded in 1976 by Renzo Rosso and Adriano Goldschmied, Diesel is a premium Italian brand that specializes in Italian-made denim. Though it’s arguably one of the most familiar names in fashion, the true identity of Diesel is a bit of a mystery, and this is no accident.
Over its forty-year history, the brand has built a reputation through its esoteric and absurd advert campaigns that speak about philosophy and conceptual thinking more than the actual clothing. At its essence, Diesel makes menswear and womenswear with subtle stylistic twists. Classic wardrobe essentials are reinvented with an eccentric perspective, and there’s heavy emphasis on individuality and self-expression.
The result is an Italian brand that channels the famous Groucho Marx quote: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Pure anti-everything.
Stone Island / C.P. Company
When many of us think of Italian brands, we imagine luxurious silks, wools, leathers and furs – the quintessential Italian opulence. It’s precisely this association that makes Massimo Osti’s two clothing labels such fascinating anomalies.
Surely one of the most under-celebrated figures in contemporary menswear design, Osti’s creative process is truly unparalleled, and his approach to fabric has been described as less tailoring than “creating a recipe”. Unique textile blends, pioneering experimentations in production and truly left-field thinking has seen Stone Island and C.P. Company produce some of the most fascinating clothing ever seen, including jackets that change color according to the temperature, “self-healing” fabrics and cotton fabric bonded to stainless steel.
C.P. Company was launched in 1978 and was quickly followed by Stone Island in 1982. Both pushed the envelope in terms of form, fashion and functionality like no other brand before. Again, the era’s football casuals were fond of Stone Island’s stunning, immaculately-designed, hyper-technical gear that kept them warm during long stands on the terraces and dry on the walk back to the train station.
Though recent years have seen the latter brand expand into the U.S. and claim its hard-earned streetwear kudos through collaborations with Supreme and Nike, Stone Island and C.P. Company’s significance in terms of ground-breaking fashion design cannot be overstated.
With its bright, sunny logo and effortless laid-back aesthetic, one look at ellesse leads you to only one conclusion: tennis brand, right? Strangely, however, this is only half the story.
Leonardo Servadio (L.S…. ellesse… get it?) originally founded his brand in 1959 as a skiwear company and endeavored to bridge the gap between sportswear and style. The logo symbolizes both a tennis ball and a pair of ski-tips and, throughout the brand’s history, has encapsulated the fantasy of sport as leisure, weather on the tennis court or the ski slopes.
In later decades, ellesse branched out into football, running, athletics and other sports, but its deep connection to tennis has always endured. Recent collaborations with the likes of Wood-Wood and elka have revived the brand with a healthy dose of Scandinavian design, but it remains somewhat at the edges of the casual fashion world these days, which is a great shame.
It’s one thing to master a particular style or aesthetic; it’s another thing entirely to master a textile itself. Like Scotland’s Harrison Tweed, John Smedley’s Sea Island cotton or Horween’s tanned leathers, Loro Piana is the absolute authority on the very finest wools, most famously merino wool and cashmere.
The brand produces an extensive range of its own designs, and they’re just as you’d expect: classic, unfettered and timeless clothing. However, the Italian textile house also supplies its fabrics to many other brands. In the streetwear world, Supreme has made regular use of Loro Piana wool in its more premium releases, whilst Noah has used the brand’s luxurious, humanely-collected baby camel wool to produce the ultimate baller garm: a $600 Loro Piana hooded sweatshirt.
The Loro Piana logo is a seal of quality in itself – there simply isn’t such thing as a poor quality Loro Piana garment.