Over the past seven years, I have led multiple fashion-focused trips in partnership with Vogue to Paris, Milan and Rome and what I—and those who attend—love about them is that they are far more than shopping trips (though they will certainly increase your appreciation of what it takes to create fine things). They offer incredible insight and immersion into the social history and economic life of the specific locations while celebrating a daily ritual that can be too often taken for granted: clothing ourselves.
Just as we must eat every day, so we must dress ourselves every day, and in both of these exercises one can either go through the motions with minimal effort or elevate one's appreciation of the ritual. How? By embracing creative expression and modern innovation and gaining a deeper understanding of the origins, the craftsmanship and the context, in the case of fashion, for instance, of the stiletto, the Bar Jacket or the miniskirt.
Designer Elsa Schiaparelli once said, “Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.” But she, the woman who gave the world shocking pink, could have said the same of her métier -- and understanding where fashion comes from, what it represents and how it evolves makes getting dressed both more fun and more fulfilling. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once astutely observed that fashion is “the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” And those who dress with flair give joy not only to themselves, but also to those they meet or pass on the street.
“What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, as human contacts are so quick,” Italian designer Miuccia Prada once said. “Fashion is instant language.” And as a language, fashion also tells the story of a time and place, which is why our Indagare fashion trips to Paris and Milan are not “shopping trips,” though purchases often happen along the way.
Rather, they are deep dives into the psyches of the destinations as well as occasions to dress up and to find inspiration for daily life and, even, for healing. “In the hospital, I had an ad for the trip pinned up by my bed. I have always wanted to work in fashion, and this Paris trip was my dream,” explained a young California woman traveling with her mother on the first night of our most recent Paris fashion trip. She had suffered a severe sports injury a year before and, at one point, thought she might lose her foot. “Her rehab was brutal, but coming on this trip became part of the recovery goal,” her mother explained.
On our Paris trips, we often begin with a visit to the former home of Louis Vuitton, on the outskirts of Paris. Sitting in one of the best-preserved examples of an art nouveau interior, we hear the story of a teenager–Louis Vuitton–who walked to Paris in search of work, arriving in 1837, and ultimately revolutionized the art of packing with technical innovations like an unpickable lock and the flat-topped, stackable trunk.
Read more: Letter from Paris: Melissa’s Fall 2023
The Sun King, Louis XIV, may have planted the seeds to establish France as the ultimate trend-setter of global luxury when the fashions of his court spread around Europe in the 18th century. But it was Louis Vuitton’s innovations in the 19th-century, and those of his son, Georges, who furthered France’s export of its reputation for excellence when he emblazoned the trunks of the era’s elite with his father’s initials and opened international boutiques. Today, Bernard Arnault, the mastermind behind LVMH, continues that tradition of creating cult cravings that cross borders. With visits to archives and museums and private fashion shows, we toggled back and forth between the rich past that is so well preserved in Paris and the present, meeting with designers like Inès de la Fressange, Andrew Gn, Bruno Frissoni and Rabih Kayrouz, and noticed the threads that connect them all.
At the oldest surviving fashion house, we traveled back in time with a rare visit to the office of designer Jeanne Lanvin. A true time capsule on the Faubourg St. Honoré, the office, which remains exactly as it was designed in 1930 by Eugene Printz, contains hundreds of Madame Lanvin’s leather-bound albums of sketches and textiles that she collected on her travels. Lanvin, too, had humble origins.
The eldest of eleven children, she began working in a hatmaker’s shop to help feed her siblings at age 13. Her big break came when the dresses that she designed for her daughter, Marguerite, caught the attention of the aristocratic women who came to buy hats. By 1909, Lanvin was accepted into the syndicate of haute couture designers, and by the 1920s, she, who, as a woman, could not have a bank account in her own name, presided over a fashion empire with boutiques as far away as Brazil that offered men’s, women’s and children’s clothing as well as housewares.
Like her competitors Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Lanvin wasn’t just influencing the way women dressed in the 20th century but how they lived their lives. As early female entrepreneurs, all three were pioneers in fashion, business and independent living. Though Schiaparelli was born into a noble Italian family, she rebelled early, determined to be more than a well-bred wife. Both Lanvin and Schiapparelli divorced their first husbands and raised their daughters as working mothers. Their flowy skirts, sport collections and daring culottes allowed women to escape corsets and move more freely, but their personal lives also signaled a freer form of thinking.
Chanel, who never married, pushed feminist fashion even further with her introduction of men’s tweeds and suits designed for women. Today, Chanel fashions remain so sought after that the flagship boutique on Rue Cambon requires an appointment. To better understand (or something) the reverence that the house of Chanel has for its heritage and traditions, including its longstanding embrace of innovation, we also visit its 19 Metiers campus, which its owners opened three years ago.
It is a collection of “les petits mains,” or little hands, the specialized artisans like Lesage, which is famous for its embroidery, and Gossens, which makes costume jewelry for Chanel and other haute couture houses. Here, the next generation is carrying on treasured techniques but is also pursuing new applications. These artisans and others we visited like haute couturier Rabih Kayrouz illuminated how fashion is really structural engineering via needle and thread. As one of our travelers exclaimed, “How a haute couture garment is made reminds me of how plans are drawn for a building. It requires creativity, context, expertise and craftsmanship. The way you dress is art, AND these pieces are wearable art, wearable architecture. Not to be tossed in a corner after a season but honored as heirlooms for generations.”
If French fashion illustrates the country’s obsession with heritage, excellence and artistry, Italian fashion celebrates global influences, homegrown ingenuity and family. In the 15th century, the Duke of Milan, Ludovica Sforza, began planting mulberry trees in the marshlands around Lake Como and established the first hub of silk production outside of China, thanks to silk worms that had been smuggled back to Italy. Still today, all of the top luxury brands, from Hermès to Dior, have their silks made in Como, as we saw first-hand on our most recent Milan trip when we visited the factory and saw next year’s designs in production.
And textile innovation has continued with cashmere kings like Loro Piana and knitwear engineers like Missoni; the latter’s headquarters thrum with looms spinning out the brand’s unmissable multicolored checks, waves and stripes. Ottavio Missoni, one of the grandsons of the founder, toured us through HQ, where designers and seamstresses finished the latest resort collection. Many of Milan's great fashion houses--including Armani, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Versace and Brunello Cucinelli--are still helmed by their founders or their family members. Diego Della Valle, who transformed his family’s business into the powerhouse of Tod’s, has created a gorgeous campus for his employees, many of whom are the second or third generations of their family to work in the company. “Made in Italy” is more than a slogan to Delle Della Valle and his fashion brethren, it is a point of pride and a refrain we heard on all of our stops in Milan, from smaller independent houses like Luisa Beccaria and jewelry ateliers like Buccellati and Pomellato to megabrands like Dolce & Gabbana, where we visited the haute couture salons.
The interplay between fashion and the arts is an element shared in both France and Italy as is the role of enterprise to give back to the community. Such important cultural contributions to the cities of Paris and Milan as the Louis Vuitton Foundation and the Prada Foundation are obvious demonstrations. Others like Diego Delle Della Valle’s support of the restoration of the Colosseum in Rome or Dolce & Gabbana’s support of Milan’s La Scala may not be as well known.
In this same spirit, we always hold our farewell dinner in Milan at the Villa Necchi, the extraordinary villa designed by the great Italian architect Piero Portaluppi that has played important roles as a symbol of Milanese elegance in films like I Am Love and The House of Gucci. Built for the Necchi family, the villa was inhabited by the patriarch’s two daughters their whole lives, before it was donated to FAI, a non-profit organization that protects historic Italian properties. In return for a FAI donation, we have the villa to ourselves and after exploring the family’s library, living rooms and art collection on the first floor and the bedrooms—and closets with their alligator handbags and personalized silk scarves signed by Marc Bohan–we retired to the dining room to share highlights of the trip.
In the candlelit dining room where fashionable spirits of the past hover still, some raved about special moments like meeting designers in their ateliers or touring the silk archives in Como, but the consistent theme was the joy of sharing these moments with a newfound group of friends bonded by curiosity and enchantment. I thought of the moment in Paris, when we gathered with former model and designer Inès de la Fressange, creative director of shoe brand Roger Vivier. She shared stories of Vivier, father of the stiletto, and of Karl Lagerfeld, longtime designer of Chanel. As mesmerizing as Inès was, though, the night’s highlight was when the young California girl slipped on a pair of Vivier heels. We, especially those of us who knew that she had been afraid she might lose her foot after her injury, all shared in a moment of Cinderella-like triumph as she stepped gingerly around the store, reminded that fashion is a language, but it is also the foundation of dreams and new inspiration.
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