ROME—With a pistachio gelato in hand, and a digital SLR camera swinging on my shoulder, I head towards the Colosseum on my first day in Rome. As I walk through the ancient amphitheatre and streets, over 2,500 years of history are still noticeable in the city’s landscape. Rome isn’t typically associated with fashion, but more with the tourist attractions of the Vatican City, the Via del Corso, and the Colosseum. But only steps away from the massive, imposing Roman structure, arts, crafts, and creativity emerges from the cobblestones, like the ruins speckled throughout the streets of Rome.
Only one block away from the Colosseum is a building resembling a house, with two colourful lanterns casting a glow on the street. Inside, mixed-media sculptures make me feel as if I’ve fallen into a twisted version of Wonderland. An armoire of theatrical heads with wigs and funny expressions take the whimsy to surreal level. I stop in my tracks in front of a massive sculpture of a carnivorous lotus flower with a pair of five-inch stilettos for stamen. The curious store is curated by a group of craft designers who use recycled textiles and materials for their creations.
Using old objects, like a wine bottle, mirror, or bicycle wheels, the designers work in the shop to breathe new life into old junk. “Upcycling” is a term used for old materials reinvented into new products.
On the second level of the shop, Emanuela Naccarati, a fashion designer, creates her fashion line, Zora & Neva, by “upcycling” and salvaging old fabric.
She says Rome used to be the centre of couture fashion, but that has changed. “Rome is the worst place to do this job because it’s far from Milan. Milan is the centre of fashion in Italy, but in the past it was Rome. Very big couturiers used to work in Rome, but now these ateliers moved to Milan. But I want to remain here at the moment, because I think the people will change and our requests are changing,” she says.
Gabriele Corbyons, a stylist and fashion designer agrees. “As a fashion stylist, it would be easier for me living in Milan, but I love the city so much that I try to open up the vision of fashion…But I hope and think this is going to change and make Rome so shining as the time of the ancient Romans,” he says.
I walk up a narrow street and pass a Roman ruin, as scooters whizz down the hill. A few blocks away on Via Panisperna, in the heart of the boho-chic Monti district, is Le Gallinelle, a clothing store unlike any other I’ve seen. A fiberglass shark hangs from the ceiling, overlooking the garments with funky prints. In the back, a young woman is seated in front of a sewing machine as the other sales associates float around their client, an older woman. The location at Via del Boschetto used to be a butcher shop, and now, owner Wilma Silvestri creates vintage style clothing with a retro feel. There is even a selection of vintage pieces, including a gorgeous yellow suit that catches my eye.
Antonella Arneto works at Le Galinelle, and sews designs as well. Le Galinelle carries out custom work and alterations for clients. This authentic fashion source isn’t only a favourite for locals, but an attraction for many customers around the world. “Young old, everybody… we get a lot of tourists here,” Arneto says.
Even in the most visited areas, many showrooms are relics of Rome’s fashionable past, and offer local and foreign shoppers products crafted in Rome. From made-to-measure shirts for men at Byron, and custom cobblers like Beppino Rampin create an authentic network of Roman ateliers. Gone are the glitzy couturiers, but functional, classic and modern designers are scattered throughout the city, and concentrated in areas like the old ghetto and the Monti district near the Colosseum.
Creativity is present, but do Romans have a style identity? Naccarati doesn’t think so. “The Roman women don’t have a specific look because Rome is very big port. The tourists make the style sometimes,” she says.
The tourists shopping in fashion districts like the gentrified Piazza Spagna come from all over the world. The ones toting high-end designer shopping bags are often garbed in cargo pants, sensible shoes and cross-body travel purses. Earlier in the day, I saw a family of Asian tourists stopped for a photo in Burberry with the sales associate and their large shopping bags. Naccarati says the tourists who influence style come from other places in Italy other than Rome, like Florence or Milan.
Throughout my tour of Italy, I noticed distinct styles amongst the local men and women, and still, Roman style remains unique.
Corbyons says Roman style is eclectic, and reflects the city’s landscape of new and old. “The interesting thing about Rome is that you can find different kind of people and different styles. But people give a lot of attention about what they wear specifically in the Monti district. Mixing new and vintage style with a personal urban touch,” he says.
Most of the designers and shops I visited blended old with new, in contrast with the trendy fashion-forward designers in Milan. Roman fashion designers “always have a very big show of art in front of us, and so, in my opinion, it’s a continuous confront with the past,” Naccarati says, explaining the mix.
Confronting the past is the only way to face the future in fashion.