Sustainability

At White Milano, designers returned to their roots

By Vogue Business
26 Feb 2020

The resounding message at this year’s international trade show White Milano, held from 20 to 23 February in conjunction with Milan Fashion Week: the future of fashion is sustainable and slow. 

The event, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, showcased over 500 brands, many of whom offered locally sourced handmade products as alternatives to fast fashion. The mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, opened the show, which is supported by Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Italian Trade Agency, in partnership with Confartigianato Imprese and the Municipality of Milan.

Made in Italy 

An emphasis on locally made fashion was front and centre at the show, particularly with eyes on Sicily. The goal was to spotlight artisan talent. “Ancient manufacturing is dying out — artisans are not passing their knowledge onto their children,” says Paola Savona, co-founder and art director of Sicilian brand Duerruote.

“We want people to know this tradition,” says Michele Carmicio of Gullo Filati, a featured Palermo-based crochet and knitwear label that uses pure and organic wools. “We work with young people to teach them the skills of the grannies.”

Featured brands included Giuliana Di Franco, who makes citrus fruit- and Sicilian mask-themed jewellery; Le Camene, whose artistic handmade bags feature picture frames, traditional masks, and wagon wheels; and Duerruote, whose pure silk, velvet, and cashmere dresses showcase ancient Sicilian patterns.

Patrizia Di Dio of La Vie En Rosalia, a capsule collection by La Vie en Rose, said it was culturally important to showcase the beauty of Italian design and culture, but equally essential for the Italian economy. Her collection, named for Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, features Sicilian traditional folk patterns, ceramic-inspired designs, citrus themes, and baroque architectural patterns.

“Italy is the most important place for fashion,” says Salar Milano co-founder Francesca Monaco.  Handbag label Salar Milano, which is known for its street-inspired, 1980s-style bags with loud chains and metallic features, was featured as White Milano’s special project, a show designation. “Right now in Italy, you could have very good production with a very good price,” adds White Milano co-founder Brenda Bellei Bizzi. 

Bellei Bizzi hopes the large Italian fashion houses, many of which have moved production abroad for financial reasons, will return to Italy. She also noted the devastating economic impacts of the coronavirus, another widely discussed topic at the fair, which she suggested might inspire the fashion houses to bring production back to Europe. (A number of Chinese buyers pulled out of the trade show because of the epidemic, while an outbreak of the virus in the region surrounding Milan prompted event closures across Milan Fashion Week, including Giorgio Armani’s live show.)

Spotlight on sustainability

Bellei Bizzi highlighted another benefit of producing in Italy: it can help designers ensure their manufacturing processes are sustainable.

“In Italy, there is Made in Italy culture, there is Made in Italy production, it’s a very short supply chain,” she says. “There are also a lot of certifications in Italy.”

But that alone does not guarantee that products are sustainable.

“What makes Made in Italy special is the heritage — the story behind it,” says Matteo Ward, the creative director of White Milano’s sustainable hub, GIVE A FOKus. But when it comes to sustainability, he said, it is nonetheless important to ask for certifications from suppliers.

For this edition of White, Ward and his team screened all 500+ brands on display, based on sustainability indicators such as water usage or whether or not they upcycle (“which is really the easiest thing that you can do in the fashion industry”, he said). They provided stickers for those who met their criteria to display at their booths.

He also curated GIVE A FOKus — a bridge between producers and the market when it comes to sustainability. The hub, which has previously looked at traceability, water, and the Fashion Revolution movement, had a special focus on fibres this year, along with the dyeing and finishing stages of production.

“Eighty per cent of the sustainability, or non-sustainability, of an item, is determined at the design and sourcing stage,” says Ward, whose own clothing line, Wråd, dyes its contemporary sportswear with recovered graphite powder using a 2,000-year-old technique developed by the Ancient Romans. “Once you make those decisions, you don’t go back.” 

Visitors to the hub entered through an immersive installation of five canvasses, each one highlighting the “morphology” of design, in his words. The next room showcased the physical elements of fashion — the fabrics themselves — highlighting producers and suppliers such as Italian fabric maker Albini Group that “put those elemental sources at the forefront of their DNA and sustainable development strategy”, according to Ward.

The 10 sustainable fashion startups on display included Arturo Stories, a one-year-old, made-in-Italy sock label that exclusively uses sustainably certified cotton, and Renoon, an Amsterdam-based app for sustainable products that allows customers to search for products based on their values.

Elsewhere at the trade show, an eco-friendly showroom curated by The Sustainables included the Ukrainian eyewear line Ochis, whose glasses and shades are made from coffee waste and natural fibres; Paris-based Calla, whose Babouche slippers are upcycled from vintage Berber rugs; and Kiev-based hemp textile manufacturer DevoHome.

Moroccan designer Artsi Ifrach, whose label Maison ARTC was a special guest at the trade show,  showcased a collection of glitzy, bespoke gowns made from recycled vintage designer pieces, in what he calls an haute couture sustainability process. His pieces, many of which include face masks and veils, are political while simultaneously paying homage to his Moroccan roots. Ifrach said he sees fashion as a language.

His message: “Let’s treat ourselves as a unique piece, because we are unique, each one of us, and let’s [return] creativity to where it belongs. And let’s educate ourselves not only to look glamorous but to act in a glamorous way and be responsible for the planet, understanding that we are the past, we are the present, we are the future.”

Return to luxury

According to Ifrach, designers need to “stop thinking as product managers or branding companies” and start thinking as designers again. He was not the only one calling for a return to quality and creativity.

Fernanda Blasco, whose handbag label Maison Etnad won the event’s Inside White award for distinguished emerging brands, believes an element of luxury and creativity has been lost as the industry pursues ever-faster production. She describes her pieces as “new luxury” and says what defines them is the people who hand make them and dedicate the time and energy to perfecting them.

“I think slow fashion is connected to high standards,” she says. “It means that you have people producing in good time, in good conditions, they like what they do, they are passionate.”

Ward agrees that retail has “lost its pace”. For him, shopping should be a way for people to disengage from their busy lives, enter a peaceful environment, and discover beauty in a relaxing setting. That, in his view, is what luxury means.

“That’s the shopping experience that I’ve lost,” he says. “Today, you walk into a store it’s just product after product after product, and there are just bored salespeople trying to sell you more product that you don’t need.”

But, Ward adds, it is starting to change. The industry is beginning to recognise that millennials, in particular, are keen to spend their money on experiences rather than owning expensive products. 

“The thing with Italy is, we’re lucky because we have a huge number of some of the best boutiques in the world and they always worked with that parameter in mind, to do research and to bring quality to their store, and have a fantastic customer experience.”

This article is sponsored by White Milano.

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