Sicilians are a proud people, often defining themselves as Sicilians first, Italians second, and they love to reference their homeland in their work. Domenico Dolce, for example, is Sicilian, and most of Dolce and Gabbana’s fashion shows are elegant love letters to Southern Italy’s local culture, color and craft. Case in point: the Spring/Summer 2016 show, above.
I got to truly appreciate Southern Italian Style on a recent fashion excursion to Sicily (the triangular “rock” kicked by the “boot” of Italy). What I discovered on this friendly, sunny Mediterranean island, is that Sicily isn’t just living in the shadows of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, but its fashion industry is also overshadowed by more “fiery fashion” locations like Milan, Florence or Rome. The Italian Trade Agency, which supports the globalization of Italian firms, set out to change that perception and highlight local southern talent with “A Fashion Journey to Southern Italy.”
So I embarked with 60 buyers and editors hailing from all corners of the globe to Sicily’s eastern coast and the historical city of Catania. The event was held at the beautiful Monastero dei Benedettini, which right away set the tone for what we were to see. Designers set up their ready-to-wear and accessories around the inner perimeter, with enough cappuccino and pistacchio cannoli to keep us fortified through our jet lag. We met local designers, practiced our bad Italian, examined their accessories and ready-to-wear, and experienced first-hand why the region has such a strong historical and aesthetic influence on those who live there.
As the Made in Italy stamp often comes with a higher price tag, the trip also gave retailers the chance to learn more about the brands so they could relay the information back to their customers. While some local companies did participate in international trade shows and had representation in the United States, others were eager for this early opportunity for international exposure.
Homage to Sicily
The decision for any Southern Italian designer who wants to honor a strong heritage, is to take the best elements of the region–the rich history, the gorgeous blue sea, the fragrant lemon groves–and to create literal homages to the culture, or go a more modern way that encapsulates shifting fashion trends. There is no right or wrong answer, and I got to see many beautiful examples of both.
First, a look at some Sicilian homages:
Eugenio Vazzano, a true artist, makes functional collage out of treated local newspapers mixed with fabric scraps for a compelling result. This fun tote reminded me of the old men sitting on park benches, in no hurry to be anywhere, reading the newspaper and watching the city go by.
Some accessories brands took a literal approach, incorporating everything from a map of Sicily, ancient columns, fishing nets and even the prickly pear into designs. Marco Orestano’s bold statement necklaces literally tell stories and mythical legends from Sicily’s long sea-faring history. Other elements include olive tree wood and even mural mosaics from a church in Palermo.
The coffe bag is known as the “traditional Sicilian bag,” featuring bright reds, yellows and black, not to mention straw, pom-poms and decals that evoke Sicily’s history. One excellent example of this came from Sikuly Art & Tradition, who states that its mission is to “export Sicilian excellence in the world.”
Ceramics are an essential part of Italy, particularly Southern Italy, and they show up in both tourist gift shops as well as local’s homes. These were reflected in many accessories as well, either painted or printed, capturing the colors, designs and history.
Lemon groves are everywhere in Sicily, scenting the air and filling countless photos with sunny yellow. Here, they were a centerpiece at a buyer dinner, paired with the signature painted wagon that also turned up in numerous designs. Not surprisingly, lemons commonly appear in handpainted ceramic tiles and the company i Gioielli di Kiara incorporated that heritage directly into jewelry and leather goods with inset ceramic tiles.
In addition to ceramics, the company also uses the lava stones from the nearby volcano Mt. Etna in its jewelry, adding some story and lore to the finished items.
Retailer Pamela Rhoda from RB Fine Apparel in Rochester, NY, placed orders from local designers, and was also wowed by the tours that brought the group one step closer to the process behind the finished goods. “The guided tours to the factories gave us an appreciation for the dedication to craft and design that is instilled in the framework of the Italian fashion industry. I’m always inspired with so many ideas once I return home from a trip like we experienced. It’s the complete experience that helps you appreciate what makes Italian fashion so special. It’s the Italian lifestyle, architecture, landscapes, food, and much more. I came away with such a great feeling from this experience; really feeling the passion from designers.”
Sicilians have a long history with the sea, as evidenced by region’s delicious seafood dishes. Cities along the water feature fresh fish markets (Catania has a particularly colorful and lively one) and its easy to see how designers are inspired by them.
Not surprisingly, real shells and aquatic motifs were common on accessories and ready-to-wear, like the shells on jewelry and hats by Corte Degli Aranci by AntoRé.
But I was also particularly inspired by designers who put a more modern spin on things.The fishermen net bags, sometimes called Market Bags, are a hot trend in fashion in general, so it was particularly exciting to see how local designers would interpret them. The leather ones by Kiara & Co. are lined with contrast colored material for pops of contrast color and also to secure valuables.
Handbag and jewelry company Gattacci had a unique approach to covering its nation’s heritage: Plexiglas–a thoroughly modern material. Bold bags and oversized jewelry pieces in clear or opaque plexi featured mirrored or colored fish in a nod to Southern Italy’s fishing history. “The fish featured are anchovies, a typical dish of Sicily. We want to export a piece of our history, but the design has to stand on its own,” says the two Gattacci designers Sebastiano Tramontana and Valentina Bua.
Another popular motif? Branch coral of the Mediterranean sea rendered in a modern way that captures the huge resin trend happening in fashion now.
A MODERN APPROACH
While the designers above took traditional elements but modernized them for the more contemporary consumer, we also found lots of brands that took a completely new approach, keeping up with contemporary fashion trends that are at home anywhere in the world.
Carlotta Scarbeo took nautical ropes and twisted them into bold, daring pieces of jewelry shown in neutral hues or bright colors like red The ends clip shut with magnets, so they are easy to pull apart and tie into endless designs.
With the scorching sun, beach hats are key. This “non disturbare” was amusing to see after all the Do Not Disturb ones we’ve seen in English.
Meanwhile, Joy Italia captured the convertible trend perfectly, greeting buyers with a swatch book of flap-over options (that are also reversible) to convert this tote into something new each time. The vegan materials are animal friendly and easily updated each season.
We also had the treat to take a long drive out to the town of Leonforte to Giuliana di Franco‘s jewelry studio and showroom. It was amazing to see any designer so lucky as to have that view outside their window, and it was easy to see how the setting influenced her work.
We got a tour of how she makes the molds in wax, and finishes the pieces in colorful hand-applied enamel, all tying back to the Sicilian heritage.
A NIGHT OUT, SICILIAN STYLE
Despite the earthiness of the lemon groves and wagon wheels that so dominate the crafts, one can’t forget the Baroque heritage of the culture as well. A networking event held at the lavish Palazzo Biscari provided a closer look. Not gonna lie, it was pretty incredible. The finishing touch? The evening ended with a Fashion Catwalk right in the City Center of Catania, organized by “Accademia di Belle Arti.”
All in all, a fabulous trip on so many levels! Grazie mille, Sicilia!