By Giulia Piceni. Cover image: portrait of Walter Albini, Milan, 1971. Credit: Alfa Castaldi.
Walter Albini has been a mysterious and anonymous name for too long. Always keeping a gardenia’s bud in his jacket’s buttonhole, he strolled around with the attitude of a modern dandy while leaving a tuberose-perfume trail behind. From a distance, Albini would look like a mysterious character from a Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. He was amused by the mystery he had created upon his persona as much as he enjoyed drawing on his precious sketchbook, the page being the only place to let off the steam of his tumultuous temperament.
Born in Busto Arsizio and originally named Gualtiero Angelo, Walter Albini is a designer every fashion student has stumbled upon while delving into the Italian fashion system of the 1970s and the birth of the Made in Italy style. A name that fills the pages of many books, the Walter Albini label has recently surged from its glorious past thanks to the recent acquisition by Bidayat, Qatari society of Alsara Investment Group. After this fruitful operation, we have no more excuses: with his work, Albini has changed the history of contemporary fashion. Let’s try to summarise how he did it in five decisive steps.
1. WALTER ALBINI INVENTED THE READY-TO-WEAR FORMULA
In an era that saw the surge of sartorial artistry and, therefore, alta moda (Haute Couture, the made-to-measure) as the cornerstones of the fashion system, Walter Albini’s creativity looked to affordability. His collections weren’t only appealing for their style but even for the price, targeting the higher middle class. His 1972 show at Circolo del Giardino in Milan made a statement in this sense. For that occasion, the designer created almost two hundred looks for five selected brands and made them walk the runway in the exclusive location: modern ready-to-wear was born. Albini’s style was looking at the contemporary world; his products spoke to the broader public while preserving a sense of elitism; furthermore, he was among the first to showcase collections in spectacular venues such as Monte Carlo and Venice at Café Florian, to name a couple.
2. IN WALTER ALBINI’S WORK FASHION DIALOGUES WITH ART
An insatiable creative, Walter Albini made cross-disciplinarity the trademark of his persona. With his creativity fueled by drawing, he applied his skills to multiple creative areas. For example, he conceived the idea of his Milan showroom: a room entirely covered in mirrors that can be admired in a few scenes of the Amazon Prime series Made in Italy (2019).
His fascination for the art world was fearlessly manifested on different occasions as well; to accompany his brand’s AW 1977 collection, his exhibition Mostra Falli at Galleria Eros displayed a series of ceramic phallic sculptures that had the form of famous characters. For the following collection, SS 1977, titled Robes trouvées, he showcased garment collages at Galleria Anselmino in Milan. He was also a great collaborator for other contemporary designers, including Krizia and Etro, designing textile patterns for both.
3. HOW WALTER ALBINI INVENTED MADE IN ITALY AND THE FASHION WEEK FORMAT
Before the Second World War, the epicentre of fashion was only in Paris. The industry’s diamond tip became Florence along with Rome thanks to the buyer-strategies developed by Gian Battista Giorgini and where Walter Albini gave life to Collezioni Donna, the ancestor of Milano Fashion Week, transforming Milan into the centre of fashion.
His forward-looking vision he paved the way for the 1980s Made in Italy. The Italian fashion golden era of which Armani and Versace were the main characters, among others. Speaking of these two brands, it is essential to note that Walter Albini’s work had a great impact on them, anticipating their staple-pieces in his shows. For example, the deconstructed jacket for which Re Giorgio is eternally praised appeared for the first time during his 1973 FW show, while the jersey that made Gianni Versace the king of sexiness was the highlight of the draped silhouettes from SS 1980.
4. WALTER ALBINI DEFINED THE GENDERLESS STYLE
Albini’s main inspirations were indeed the 1920s and the 30s, to which he also paid tribute in his way of drawing. The sharp lines, defined silhouettes and sophisticated attire that define both eras were also found in the outcome of his garments, subtly alluding to the strong femininity the 1970s woman was looking at to. The beginning of the 20th century was also characterised by an exploration of the masculine wardrobe by the opposite sex, an aspect shown in the lesbo-chic trend of the 1920s perfectly represented by Tamara de Lempicka’s paintings.
Similarly, Walter Albini gave life to the so-called UNIMAX, a way of conceiving garments with cuts and colours that made them wearable by everyone. A precursor to genderless fashion, Walter Albini’s collections gave life to a fruitful exchange of references from one wardrobe to another.
5. THE GUCCI BY ALESSANDRO MICHELE BALACLAVA PIECE WAS A SECRET TRIBUTE TO ALBINI
Rumour has it that Gucci’s former creative director, Alessandro Michele, might be Walter Albini’s eligible successor. As he declared in the past, the Busto Arsizio-born designer has always been a great source of inspiration during his seven-year-long work at the Florentine fashion house. This was evidenced by the 1970s attires and prints that have revived Gucci and more disruptive elements like the balaclava, referencing Albini’s AW 1976 show Guerriglia Urbana.
Everything we can do is wait and see what happens next. In the meantime, this is the perfect time to discover a designer to whom history has been cruel, cancelling it from the broader fashion conversation and relegating it to books. Educating ourselves is the best way to pay tribute to this forgotten genius.
Giulia Piceni is an ndergraduate Arts Curating student at Istituto Marangoni Firenze.