There is a not-so-well-kept secret regarding European fashion designers: they care about American consumers’ opinions. With the United States comprising such a large portion of the fashion market, they have to care. With haute couture seemingly forever confined to European cities, the need to attract American buyers is rather empowering for American critics but problematic for European designers. Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion, by Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Dilys E. Blum, examines a situation where positive American reviews helped launch the career of one of today’s preeminent designers. Roberto Capucci, an Italian who began showing his work during the postwar period, was one of the lucky Europeans to enthrall American fashion experts even while critics on his own continent disparaged him.
A contest between French and Italian fashion arose after WWII with a conscious push in Italy to revitalize all of the nation’s arts. Italian government emphasized rebuilding the country’s textile industry, a traditionally important sector of Italian manufacturing. The natural extension of textile renaissance, especially during a nationwide artistic effort, was the rise of Italian fashion. Parisian designers viewed the existence of another European fashion hub not only as competition but as a direct assault on Parisian art and the French economy. Parisian critics accused Italian designers of copying French work and of attempting to steal American customers from established houses.
When Robert Capucci began showing his work in Italy, American critics agreed that Italian houses were not trying to usurp Paris’s position as the world’s fashion center, and that they were aesthetically and technically far from that supposed goal. After Capucci’s first high-fashion show in 1952, Vogue declared that he was “easily Italy’s most promising young designer.” While he benefited from American approval, he seemed to try to disengage from the battle between French and Italian houses. When major Italian houses decided to show only in Rome and establish the city as the fashion nexus of—at the least—Italy, Capucci stayed loyal to Florence. Later in his career, he moved to Paris for six years, where he had to withstand some criticism that resulted from his nationality. Decades into his career, Capucci’s work has not only managed to transcend national boundaries but all previous assumptions about fashion itself.