It all started in a fashion galaxy far away (time, you see, goes very fast in the fashion universe...) when Bill Gaytten took inspiration for Dior's Autumn/Winter 2011-12 Haute Couture collection from the Memphis Milano movement. The same thread continued in Sergio Rossi's Spring/Summer 2013 collection and later on took a new incarnation with Prada's A/W 2015 designs, with their pastel shades that looked entirely lifted from Michele De Lucchi's Girmi prototypes.
So, in a way, seeing yesterday the 1981 "Suvretta" bookcase by Ettore Sottsass at the top of Arthur Arbesser runway inside the Stazione Leopolda in Florence, quite a few fashion and interior design connoisseurs must have heard "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", Bob Dylan's song that inspired the Memphis Milano designers, eerily echoing in their minds.
Further pieces scattered along the runway (such as Ettore Sottsass's "Beverly" sideboard, another iconic design from 1981) in a display designed by architect Luca Cipelletti, provided more clues to the main inspirations behind this collection.
Arthur Arbesser's Resort 2016 collection, showcased as part of the Florence-based Pitti event, displayed a strong link with interior design and in particular with revolutionary creators like the Memphis Milano group and Ettore Sottsass, one of Arbesser's design heroes.
Arbesser shares something with Sottsass, first and foremost his origins: the latter was born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1917, and then studied Architecture at the Politecnico of Turin in 1939, setting his own studio in Milan in 1947 and starting to work as design consultant for Olivetti in 1948.
Arbesser was born and raised in Vienna, studied at London's Central Saint Martins and then moved to Milan where he worked for seven years at Giorgio Armani, and where he recently started focusing on his own collections (he was among the finalists of the LVMH Prize 2015 won by design duo Marques'Almeida).
Arbesser did his own research and tried to come up with less exploited Memphis Milano aspects, reshifting his attention on Ettore Sottsass's collaboration (that lasted roughly 30 years) with the Montelupo Fiorentino-based company Manifattura Ceramica Bitossi.
Sottsass created for them several cercamic pieces, and, in 1959, he came up with an ambitious mural. Originally installed in 1960 in the main entrance of the Triennale di Milano, this monumetal ceramic painting in three parts featured a series of geometrical elements in brilliant colours.
Some of the patterns included in this work seem to have trickled down into Arbesser's boldly geometric prints and intarsia knits (made by a company based just outside Florence), that were definitely among the most vivid pieces of the collection.
The yellow, black and white palette of some of Sottsass's ceramic totems returned in the ample coats, trousers and shirts, but also in some of the knitwear, while orange and black shades called to mind Sottsass' geometrical vases, his Freemont cupboard or his iconic "Valentine" typewriter for Olivetti.
Further references to Bitossi's archival pieces (not necessarily made by Sottsass) could be spotted in one of the colours of the bright palette (a celebration of the main theme for this season's Pitti - "That's Pitticolor!"), an intense blue that called to mind the shades of the "Rimini Blu" ceramics series.
The minimalist elaborations of the ceramic bowls from the '60s found correspondences on the muted surface eleborations, while technical textures such as waxed effect denim pieces were maybe nods to the plastics by Abet Laminati favoured by Memphis Milano.
Shapes were simple and basic for both men and womenswear: the collection included six men's looks as a reference to Pitti Uomo, but it was mainly "agender" (or, as we called it in the '70s, unisex...), with lean dresses and wide pants, ample blouses and shirts.
There were also subtle clinical and medical moods in the nylon tops, laboratory coats and hospital operation uniforms in blue or bright orange, while light padded garments may have pointed not at madness, padded cells and straightjackets, but at a Japanese vision of samurais (an influence visible in some of the skirt shapes and fastenings). All the looks were accessorised with flat androgynous shoes designed in collaboration with Sergio Rossi.
Parallelisms could be made between these designs and Arthur Arbesser's Autumn/Winter 2015 collection: the latter was presented in Milan in February with a sort of installation format with paintings by contemporary artist Hermann Nitsch on the walls and models seated on Austrian-designed chairs listening to a Schubert composition played live on the piano, and featured mesmerising multi-coloured prints inspired by Vienna's Wiener Werkstätte.
This collection was showcased in a sort of arty environment and again featured very colourful graphic patterns, though Arbesser is clearly trying to combine in a stronger way feminine and masculine elements into his pieces.
Other designers such as Alessandro Michele at Gucci and J.W. Anderson are doing the same thing in their collections (though in both of them the feminine prevails over the masculine), but Arbesser is doing so via industrial elements, maybe following Miuccia Prada's lesson.
The display at the Stazione Leopolda was indeed slightly reminiscent of Prada's presentation for its Autumn/Winter 2013 menswear collection, but, rather than proving that those invisible yet tangible bridges between interior design and fashion can definitely be built, this collection was to be considered as a tribute to those industrial skills that Italy lost in the last 20 years or so.
What was missing? As stated in previous posts, Memphis was a reaction to years of rationalism, and a final shift from pure and clean lines to ebullient trends, it was a visual punch in the eye that made you instantly feel optimistic and brave about the present and the future.
At times you genuinely feel that Memphis Milano may turn into the albatross hanging on the neck of the fashion world: so far we have seen fashion mentioning, referencing, imitating and plagiarising the work of this group or infusing, as Arbesser did, some of its semantics into wearable (though not desperately new) garments.
Yet the revolutionary and radical message and the optimistic playfulness weren't certainly there and you were left wishing that, rather than paying tribute to or moving from Memphis Milano & Co, there will be one day a fashion designer interested in writing a manifesto with some of the original people involved in this group.
It would indeed be intriguing to hear from people like Michele De Lucchi if and in case how we could use fashion to criticise design itself, but also society, politics and modern anxieties and maybe build through it not a metaphor for a new existence, but a new life.
There are hopes, though, that we will get there: Arbesser, who self-financed his fashion house, hopes to grow little by little and step by step and develop his dialogue between art, fashion and architecture in a consistent way (there were no boundaries between them for people like his hero Sottsass, who used to see differences only in the techniques and not in the contents of these disciplines), while keeping a close eye on each and every detail of his designs, as Armani taught him to do.
Arbesser was a bit of a change for the Pitti organisers: while they seem to have spent the last few years desperately running after the next trendy thing to look more appealing to the high profile condescending bloggers they invited, they may have finally found something with more substance than uselessly grand or chaotic displays and presentations that generated media revenues and no sales. Have they learnt their lessons? Time will tell, but at the moment they are all getting excited about Katy Perry and other assorted celebrities at Moschino's menswear catwalk show tonight and that's definitely not a good sign...
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