In the opening scene of Ruben Östlund’s 2022 Cannes Palme d’Or–winning film, Triangle of Sadness, the male protagonist, a slim white model, is asked to present two poses: “H&M”—full of laughter and fun, like a dude at a crowded bar drinking with friends, and “Balenciaga”—as stern and sombre as an Icelandic landscape. The two fashion looks—low- and high-brow, common versus luxury—represent two kinds of people: the masses and the elite. Who do you wish to be? And what can you afford?
For most people, the answer is simple: love the Gucci, buy the Zara. There’s no shame in that. As the iconic German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld said, what matters is style, not the price. The democratization of fashion, thanks to the likes of H&M, Uniqlo and Zara, have made good-looking clothing ubiquitous and affordable.
For many years, I was one of those people, aware of Prada the way one is aware of yachts or Porsche convertibles: as advertisements for the rich and famous. As a freelance writer, I had never even considered actually purchasing designer clothing. During two years of pandemic lockdowns, this changed.
As the global crisis grew, so too did my own panic. I developed “Covidsomnia,” waking in the middle of the night worried about the “what next.” Like so many, I found myself drawn to the screen, turning over in bed and scrolling. One sleepless night, I found a new Gucci blazer, 90 percent off the store price. I added to cart. When the package arrived, I was stunned by the quality of the materials: brass buttons, a tightly woven wool, the Gucci shoulders. I felt myself…transformed, though I wasn’t sure into what.
While friends joked they wore the same thing to work every day—jogging pants and hoodies—I upped my fashion game like never before, hunting down discounted silk ties from Kiton; handmade Gucci loafers with gold knitted bees; burgundy Prada suits. I had never owned such items in my life. And while I didn’t wear these clothes anywhere but my kitchen or living room, my wardrobe evolved in ways that surprised anyone who knew me. I felt like I was going somewhere, even if I was only travelling ten feet. It wasn’t just vanity. I was transported from this frail body—and frail, pandemic-ridden civilization—to a better, prettier place. I shopped, dressed up, and shopped some more.
It turns out I wasn’t alone. Brunello Cucinelli, one of Italy’s largest luxury clothing brands, reported that in 2021 there was a 31 percent increase in sales, 20 percent higher than any other in its forty-year existence (in the first half of 2022, Brunello Cucinelli was up an additional 32.5 percent). LVMH, the French fashion conglomerate, reported a more than 40 percent increase in sales. At the end of year two of the pandemic, with inflation rates through the roof and a global food and energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine, the high-end luxury fashion market was booming. These statistics are hard to fathom. In an era of Zoom parties, closed bars and restricted travel, why were so many people buying Loro Piana cashmere sweaters and Brioni suits? Why not save money for a winter of expensive oil and gas? Were they—like I was—hoping to be led to an elusive elsewhere through a strange game of dress-up? Was it a hope for better times? Just what had the pandemic and war done to fashion? To us? Had we developed an acute sense of endings? With a brutal war raging, viruses spreading, and a global climate catastrophe worsening by the month, perhaps we’d all adopted a “what the fuck” attitude. What’s the point in saving when the end of the world is near? Hell, we might as well look beautiful.
In June 2022 I travelled to Pitti Immagine Uomo in the heart of Firenze, Italy’s biggest men’s fashion fair, to try to answer these questions. Truth be told, after two years of being locked in my apartment, I mostly just wanted to see the beauty of an old city and be around well-dressed people. I wanted to go to parties and not think about anything deep. Under the pretense of writing, I was hoping to be submerged in the superficiality of the fashion world. I certainly found that. But I found something else, too.
The first day at the Pitti is damn hot—a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius. When I cross the street and enter Fortezza de Basso, flashing my press card, I feel like stripping naked—why am I wearing this beige double-breasted silk blazer? And yet when I enter the fourteenth century fortress grounds, following a long covered walkway that spills out onto the main piazza, I feel underdressed; I’m surrounded by men in their dandy-best. In the middle of the square is a sign denoting this year’s theme: “Island.” I’ve entered fashion paradise.
Pitti Uomo began in 1972 as a men’s fashion trade fair where mostly Italian designers displayed next year’s models. It’s still a trade fair; it is not open to the general public. For four decades, it was an important event in the men’s fashion world, though nothing as international as its counterparts in Paris or Milan. Pitti’s reputation changed in the early 2010s, when fashion-obsessed men came to Firenze dressed in their finest (and often outrageous) fashions. It was a symptom of the times. With Instagram just taking off, people made the pilgrimage to show off and compete for photographic attention. Thus was born the “Pitti peacock.”
Today they’re out in full view: in checkered fuchsia-and-gold blazers, in cream Fedoras, hands donning brightly coloured fans to quell the heat. This is more than Instagram vanity: it’s a hearkening to a time when people didn’t wear factory-repeated clothing. Goodbye, hoodies and sneakers. Arrivederci, H&M chinos. Seeking shade beneath a rooftop, a line of peacocks gather by the wall for photographs. Here I speak to Fredo, aged thirty-nine, German fashionista and journalist. He’s dressed in all Gucci: blue Gucci suit, burgundy Gucci shoes, outrageous Gucci sunglasses. I ask him what it is about Pitti that makes it so special.
“For one week, we live in a magic fashion paradise. We watch shows, go to parties, and Firenze opens up its private piazzas and buildings. There’s nowhere like this. After two years of lockdowns, and now a war in Ukraine, it gives us time to enjoy the beautiful things.”
Fredo, and his best friend Benjamin—aged forty-six, holding an SLR camera and leather Tom Ford purse, and wearing a gold-and-black polo with a gleaming gold chain around his neck—lead me through the fairgrounds. Hailing from Frankfurt, it’s Fredo’s sixth and Benjamin’s fifth Pitti. They seem to know everyone and anyone: in a way, they’ve come home. Ben snaps pictures of an older man in a straw Fedora and a perfectly tailored, cream-and-brown-striped, double-breasted linen suit. The man fans his younger girlfriend, dressed in a white polo, flailing white skirt and perfectly tilted white hat. It’s sexy, classy, a scene out of The Great Gatsby: classic 1920s opulence. A man in a bright yellow linen blazer, flaxen yellow Fedora and multicoloured flower pants conjures an odd theatricality, a kind of fetish dress-up that doubles as homage to handmade times. “Island”—it’s the perfect name. A respite from difficult times. Is that what fashion offers us? Is that why we’re all here?
Fredo and Benjamin lead me into the conference centre, three floors filled with 682 brands, each with their own stall. The biggest names, like Gucci and Prada, wait for next week in Milan, but Brunello Cucinelli is here. When we enter his sprawling pop-up store, Cucinelli himself greets us in a double-breasted suit, loose white linen pants and white sneakers. Cucinelli is the stuff of legends: the son of a poor farmer, he grew up in the Umbria village of Solomeo. He became interested in fashion in the late 1970s, designing colourful handmade cashmere sweaters for women and bringing them to fashion fairs in places like Düsseldorf. The sweaters sold well; over the years his name became synonymous with high-quality, handmade clothing, and his cashmere was always the best. He also charges through the roof: nowadays a blazer can cost four thousand euros. His brand suggests excellence and exclusivity.
An idealist in his enterprise, Cucinelli bases his business model on what he calls “a humane capitalism.” Sure, he charges exorbitant fees for his clothes, but he pays his employees 20 percent more than the Italian average, and gives 20 percent of his profits to charity, or as he says, “for humanity.” Cucinelli has also revamped his birth village. Home to the Cucinelli factory and employer of many of the town’s residents, he’s repaved the streets, renovated storefronts and restored the twelfth century church. He even built a 240-seat theatre, sixteenth century in design. In interviews, the man the New Yorker called “the Prince of Solomeo” is often known to quote Marcus Aurelius, Plato and Augustine; he prefers to talk philosophy rather than consumer reports.
Benjamin and Fredo are here, in part, to interview Cucinelli for a German philosophy magazine. I tag along. They tell me that part of Cucinelli’s love for Pitti is that it’s an approachable, friendly affair: Cucinelli, for all of his multimillion-dollar success, is a man loyal to the local fashion community of the Pitti. See him shake hands, slap people on the back, pinch people’s cheeks.
The big news is that Cucinelli is holding an invite-only dinner tonight. Benjamin and Fredo are going, and I’m determined to join them. I tell Cucinelli’s PR person—without really knowing what I’m saying—that I want to write about the latest in men’s fashion. She looks at me nonplussed. Then I add that I’m a poet, maybe Cucinelli would want to meet me, for I consider him a poet of the soul. The next thing I know, I’m on the guest list. I go home that afternoon, shower and change, then meet Benjamin and Fredo.
In the film La grande bellezza, director Paolo Sorrentino shows us a two-faced twenty-first century Rome: the lingering beauty of its ancient past and the superficiality of its upper-class residents today. At one party after another, the rich wear the best suits, in the best antique locales, drinking the best wines, spouting vapid philosophy as they struggle for the one thing they can’t buy—a sense of purpose amidst the deluge of hangovers. If you’ve seen the film, you get an idea of what the Brunello Cucinelli party is like, minus the line dancing. It’s both disarming and alluring.
Entering the multitiered garden, I’m greeted with a glass of prosecco by a man in a Cucinelli suit. We descend the terraces. A bar on one level, a buffet on another, another terrace with an even bigger buffet. Classical music is pumped through overhead speakers. Everyone is dressed perfectly. There are rumours movie stars Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey have flown in by private helicopter. Fredo, Benjamin and I sit at a table at the edge of the fifth terrace and take it all in: a sunset over the old duomo, an ancient city falling into shadow. The buffet—manned by Cucinelli’s personal chefs, with food enough for five hundred—stretches across some several dozen tables. The wine flows, and when the sun sets, it finally cools down. The food is Italy at its best: prosciutto, ricotta, fresh oil and bread. Cucinelli’s favourite rigatoni in his favourite cream tomato sauce. It’s extravagant and the three of us are getting drunk.
“La grande bellezza,” says Fredo, drinking gin and tonics like they’re going out of style. “I wish life could always be so beautiful.”
The grass is manicured a perfect green. Lush cedars and eucalyptus sway above us lazily, while water burbles from the mouths of fish and ancient Roman gods. It has that dreamy Italian thing so many tourists seek when visiting the country: paradise, for an hour or a selfie. I love it, but there’s something about it that unsettles me. Perhaps it’s the very unreality of the experience. Cucinelli’s humane capitalism, while we dwell in the garden of opulence and exclusivity, seems totally absurd. Not to mention the disasters of the world lurking outside.
“Isn’t it strange?” I say, noticing the alcohol hitting me quicker than I’d expected. “There’s a war going on fifteen hundred kilometres from here and we’re sitting here having a great time. Isn’t the fashion world a bit…unfair?”
“Actually, it’s your question that’s unfair, Jonathan,” Benjamin says, swilling Bolgheri to wash down the delicious pasta. “If I live in Kyiv or Donbas, I’m not thinking about a Gucci suit, and certainly not the Pitti Uomo. Fashion is for peaceful, prosperous times. It’s a privilege. Pass the rigatoni.”
A waiter refills our glasses.
“So it’s about escape,” I say. “The island.”
“Not only,” says Benjamin, munching on his food. He takes on a philosophical tone. “It’s about looking and feeling your best while you can. Because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
I let Benjamin’s thoughts sink in. He’s right: we can’t know the changes that lie ahead. The war, the pandemic, these dark times all reinforce that sentiment. And there’s nothing we can do about it. I try to settle into the beauty of this unreal world.
Benjamin instructs: “Don’t ever save your best clothes for a special day in the distant future. It’s a mistake I used to make. We need to wear our best things while we still can.”
Then he tells us about his German grandparents, forced to flee Breslau by foot at the end of January 1945. The whole city had to evacuate; the Russians were coming. Benjamin’s grandmother packed suitcases full of photo albums—their memories—as well as dishes and silver because they knew they could trade it for food. Then they bundled themselves in their warmest clothes; it was minus 20. They ran into their neighbour, who wore only a thin coat. Benjamin’s grandmother asked her why she wasn’t wearing her fur. The neighbour said, “Because I want to have something nice to wear when I come back.” But no one ever came back to Breslau.
“You see?” Benjamin concludes. “Saving for better times is a mistake. They might never come.”
I wake up the next morning to a nasty hangover. In my Airbnb, the air conditioning has stopped working. Startled, in a sweat, I check my phone and find a pic of Benjamin and Fredo: the two of them are drinking bellinis and laughing outrageously. The message: 10 a.m. Bagutta fashion party on such-and-such rooftop. I throw on some clothes and head over.
When I get there, Benjamin and Fredo are nowhere to be seen. A dozen or so models, young twentysomethings, strut about the terrace in oversized clothing. The view is spectacular. One of the models leans against the bar and drinks coffee. I try to be journalistic, warrant my press pass, ask how she likes Pitti. She says she’s enjoying it. A student at Polimoda, the famous Florence fashion school, she hopes one day to be a fashion designer. I notice she has an accent, not Italian, so I ask where she’s from.
“Gaza,” she says.
Her name is Noor Hijazi and she’s twenty-one years old. Vaguely, she tells me she’s from somewhere south of Gaza City.
I ask, “Why fashion?”
Noor explains that when she was ten, she drew anime. Then, she started to draw portraits. She was always drawing. One day when she was thirteen Noor’s mother asked if she could draw her a dress. Noor asked her mom to describe it. Noor drew it; her mother took it to a dressmaker.
“It was strange,” Noor said, smoking a cigarette. “It’s like I could see it all so clearly, like I needed to do it. When she was gone, I did twenty more drawings. When she got home my mother said, ‘The dressmaker was impressed. She thinks you should be a fashion designer.’ I decided this is what I’d do.”
Noor studied technique on YouTube. After a year, CNN Arabia did a short documentary about her. She got a scholarship to study English from the US State Department, took courses in public speaking and how to apply to schools in Europe and America. In June 2021, the Polimoda application due date was fast approaching. There was also a war with Israel—the worst bombardments in Gaza since 2014. On the final due date for the applications, the Israelis were bombing her neighbourhood. Her laptop wasn’t working. She did the entire application on her phone, even photoshopping her portfolio. She submitted it, was accepted, and she ran a GoFundMe campaign to raise enough money for her first year.
Leaving Gaza was part of her prerogative, she admits. “I don’t want to go back. This was the first year I saw a mountain, a river, the ocean. It’s beautiful. I don’t worry about bombs. I can live in my own room. And I love fashion.”
Noor tells me about her love of sewing, which she enjoys almost as much as drawing. But she adds, “Fashion is political too. When Louis Vuitton did their keffiyah bullshit, it was a real turning point. It opened my eyes.”
Noor is referring to June 2021, when Louis Vuitton designed a seven-hundred-euro keffiyah scarf. It was bad enough they were selling an object that symbolized the Palestinian resistance as a French fashion piece for exorbitant amounts of money; what really hurt Noor and other Palestinians was they made it blue and white, the colours of the Israeli national flag. The public backlash was intense—the online scarf protests made waves during the same 2021 war during which Noor applied to Polimoda—and it forced Vuitton to rescind their design. When Noor came to Italy, she wanted not only to make clothes but to represent her culture, as well. She used Handala, an image of Palestinian defiance created by the famous cartoonist Naji al-Ali, as the inspiration for several outfits. Noor wants to be the Bella Hadid of fashion design.
“Fashion,” she says, “is as much about politics and identity as it is about looking good.”
Later that afternoon, Benjamin and Fredo invite me to the Antony Morato event; it’ll be huge, a thousand people partying in an ancient auditorium. But Noor’s words ring in my head. The island invaded; politics, inescapable. For some, like Noor, fashion is an island of survival.
The heat is unbearable, 38 with the humidity. Looking for a bottle of water, I stumble into a small corner, a dozen stalls in the upper floor. It’s the first time I’ve been away from the crowds; there’s nobody but me and a few designers. A woman hands me a bottle of water and asks if I’m okay.
“Yeah,” I say. “Just tired.”
Looking around, I see I’ve landed in a special “focus on Ukraine” section. The woman who’s handed me the water is Lilia Litkovska, a designer from Kyiv now living in Paris. Posters for “Litkovska” line the walls of her small stall. She asks if I’m a buyer, did I want to see her catalogue? I tell her I’m a writer and lover of fashion, but I’d like to look. I flip through it, ask if it feels strange to be here given that there’s a war in her country. She says, of course, but it’s an excellent opportunity: she’s using it as a platform to speak.
“Fashion has the ability to reach more people than political protest, or a petition. It’s effective. People listen.”
I like her designs. There’s something military in a few of them; high shoulders and lapels. Some use recycled materials. It all feels natural, unforced, and I tell her that. Lilia, aged forty, explains that fashion is in her family—she’s from four generations of tailors. Lilia launched her collection in 2006, her brand in 2009.
While she comes from a fashion family, her parents were initially against her profession.
She studied economics in university; they wanted her to be a financial analyst. But fashion wouldn’t let her go. She needed, she discovered, to make beautiful things. Lilia loves the materials she plays with: cashmere, silk, wool. And she loves that the person who wears what she creates gets to transform what they buy into something of their own.
I ask how the war has changed her designs. Lilia explains she had already pivoted toward fashion as a form of cultural expression before the war. In 2019, she started to use Ukrainian traditional clothing and folk symbols in her work. She wasn’t sure the cause of this reorienting of her design; perhaps it was the birth of her first child. Now, in 2022, things have taken another turn.
She says, “I always loved the military uniform. When the war started, I was invited to the alternative fashion show in London. I used the yellow lines that our Ukrainian military wear, a line on the shoulder, chevrons and balaclavas too… The message is simple: even if we are wearing this kind of ugly outfit, our beauty cannot be taken away from us. We are ready to defend it.”
She shows me her “Artisanal line”—how it uses scraps of leftovers from old clothes. These vintage materials are brought to rural parts of Ukraine in the Carpathian Mountains, where craftswomen weave new fabric out of the leftovers.
“They’re doing this on hundred-year-old looms, all by hand,” explains Lilia. “This is very particular work, of a very old tradition, one that is dying out.”
With Russians bombing these same Carpathian villages, along with the rest of the country, Lilia is worried the looms might not survive the war. She tells me she bought a loom so that she can preserve the tradition and teach others how to use it too.
“Fashion,” she says, “is a way of keeping a tradition alive. The loom, the weaving, that’s knowledge. We can pass it on.”
That night at the Antony Morato party there are free drinks for everyone. Electronic dance music pulsates; the room shakes. Hundreds of people are crammed into an old auditorium in the old city. I confess I feel unprepared for this; Covid has de-socialized me and for all I know, the latest variant is making its way through the crowd. Nobody wears masks. As Fredo, Benjamin and I push our way to the front of the bar for our complimentary Negronis, I think about Lilia and Noor. Are they in this crowd of excess? Two women careen toward me; they’re wearing six-inch stilettos and laughing. Are they laughing at me, or themselves? Images of outer space flash across the back screen; we are going somewhere. Fredo, Benjamin and I stumble to the dance floor, close our eyes. The island speaks, the people dance. It’s what we’ve always wanted.