To break through as a fashion brand, to resonate with a crowd, to create evocative and striking clothing is no easy feat. Authenticity is crucial now, and a label’s values must be front and center and devotedly followed. And given today’s trend-driven culture, originality has become scarce, turning novelty into a rare, precious good. Moreover, standing out as a brand becomes particularly challenging in Italy, where legacy fashion houses — Valentino, Prada, Versace — are inextricably sewn into the country’s fabric. And yet, in spite of it all, emerging designers showing this Milan Fashion Week are doing the seemingly impossible: Standing out from the pack to leave their stamp on the industry.
Below, three changemakers — Mauro Simionato of Vitelli, Alfredo Cortese of AC9, and Filippo Giuliani of Marco Rambaldi — share their motivations behind their creative processes and the realities of just how difficult the work can be. These designers pay homage to the legacy of Italian style while coincidentally expanding upon it, signaling they are confident in the direction the future of fashion should be heading. Not only are they breaking out amidst a sea of talent, but they are doing so unabashedly and with sharp points of view guiding the way. The new generation of independent talent is here — and they plan to shake things up.
Designer Mauro Simionato of Vitelli is a disruptor in the Italian knitwear scene, quietly rebelling against the pristine reputation that’s become characteristic of the niche industry subgroup. His work is colorful, genderless, textured, and, at times, schismatic. There’s an inherent subversion to Simionato’s work in that everything he creates feels unconventional and a bit bizarre; a black boat neck sweater with visible loose threads boasts excessively long sleeves that can either be scrunched to the wrists or dangle freely down to the floor.
Simionato compares the creative force behind Vitelli to the Cosmic Youth subculture of 1980-era Italy, a time when the club music scene was a Frankenstein-esque mash-up of different genres. “They were just randomly mixing all these genres to create this kind of new, slow pace and disco vibe with a lot of stuff on top. This kind of organic fluid mass that turns into something else and something new is the moving force for [Vitelli,]” describes Simionato.
When it comes to the design process, Simionato’s approach is one from a sustainable angle. “We don't start by taking out fabrics or receiving knits from agents, which is the usual style department approach. Instead, we start with what we find and collect from Italian knitting waste,” shares the designer. Quite literally, the label — which Simionato describes as a “strange, hybrid brand of crafts-slash-regeneration processes-slash-street culture” — subscribes to a philosophy of someone’s trash is another’s treasure.
Vitelli operates as a creative collective consisting of a small in-house team and a team of external, independent knitters across Northern Italy. “Our artisanal approach is very pure, and must remain so in every single collection,” he says. “We work closely with these small laboratories because the know-how and excellence they have — what we call mestiere — is quite unique,” says Simionato. Because of the brand’s relay race-like approach to production, Simionato believes Vitelli to be an intermediary, of sorts, within the industry. “I think we have an insider yet outsider position within the fashion system. I say we are in between the catwalk and the street — and I feel good in this balance,” he offers.
Alfredo Cortese’s career journey has been a long, winding, and utterly fascinating journey. “I started out as a chemist,” the designer details, describing how he originally studied science when attending university in his early 20s. “But then I decided to follow my passion for photojournalism, which brought me to fall in love with fashion. I couldn’t help but spend my time reading fashion magazines and past runways,” he admits. Cortese wasn’t done pivoting, though. Next, he worked at Milan-based fashion brands like N°21 for nearly a decade, and ultimately started his own brand AC9. “I wanted to express a part of me — my creative part — that I had been suffocating for too long and that was dying to come out.”
When Cortese first started the womenswear brand in 2019, people had expectations and preconceived notions of what his clothing would look like — but he relished in proving them wrong. “Given my Sicilian origins, everyone expected me to have a warmer aesthetic, more vibrant and Mediterranean-looking. But I am just the opposite,” Cortese illustrates. “I love elegance, precision, and, sometimes, rigor. But,” he admits, “then I do have this other part that’s sweet and carefree, which you could describe as typically Italian.”
You could describe the label’s look as a mix of hard and soft, but as Cortese points out, he is much more intentional with his process than the vague descriptor implies. “Underneath this seemingly disarming simplicity, I always hide very peculiar details and constructions that enrich an item of clothing. Moreover, I work very hard on the proportions of each element — it is my passion,” the designer says. “Every element of sensuality like lace, feathers, and sheer fabrics ... are never just put together to create an alternative mix, and they are never too romantic.” In other words, every detail, every lace applique placed just so, is intentional and part of a finely tuned balance of aesthetics that Cortese calculates to the nth degree.
Cortese cites AC9’s Spring/Summer 2022 Collection as being particularly representative of the brand’s point-of-view and tone. Simply dubbed “Alice,” the collection tells the story of the titular character from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel and Cortese’s imagined idea of her journey into maturity. “[While listening] to one of my playlists, Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ came on, and I was immediately immersed in the psychedelic world of [Alice's Adventures in Wonderland]. From then, I did a character analysis, which inspired me to design my collection,” Cortese recounts. “I started from Alice as brave, adventurous, determined to never give up, and fight back against adversities.”
The garments in the collection oscillate between girly and grunge, with models shrouded in sequins and silk and then, later, changing into denim and leather. Cortese describes the narrative of the collection as depicting the strength of a woman who remains steadfast and strong, even when faced with adversity and oppression. “[Alice] represents the progress that is finally happening to the female universe, which I hope will continue evermore,” he articulates.
“I always say that I want ‘to dress’ and not ‘to dress up’ someone with my collections,” Cortese illustrates, saying it’s you, not the clothing, that makes an outfit. This, he says, is a principle at the core of AC9. “Fashion helps us with our identity, it makes us feel like we belong to something, either to an imaginary world where we can hide or to our own proper self. I want to welcome people into my universe, without constraints.”
“For Italian fashion, if you’re not in the small box that everybody expects you to be in, you’ll stand out as if there is something wrong. And we are fed up with that,” Filippo Giuliani expresses over Zoom on an innocuous Monday morning. The art director is one of three creatives sitting at the helm of eclectic womenswear label Marco Rambaldi, alongside Marco himself and Giulia Geromel.
The brand — which will be featured on Valentino’s Instagram during Milan Fashion Week as part of the Pierpaolo Piccioli-led initiative of spotlighting nascent talent — is a poster child for maximalism. The expressive aesthetic is visible in Marco Rambaldi’s use of color — bright bubblegum pinks, buttery yellows, and electric blues — but also in its embodiment of an anything-goes, all-are-welcome doctrine. “Each season, we like to push the boundaries. We don't have a body type, we don't have a skin type, we don't have any set rules,” offers Giuliani. “It's more that we are looking for a different creature from the universe to bring it together. That spirit of individuality is an important, core part of our brand.
Giuliani details how the brand pulls inspiration from Italian subcultural punk and feminist movements from the 1970s, then modernizes the ideologies in order to appeal to modern-day consumers. “We start from the Italian heritage of this revolutionary, bourgeois left-wing moment from the ‘70s. But then the important thing is to bring something to the people from this new generation that they can actually relate to,” he offers. “We love to start from the past and then bring what is important for us into the future. Not today, not the present — we like to work for something that has yet to arrive that,” Giuliani says of the brand’s forward-thinking methodology.
This approach Marco Rambaldi utilizes, one that harkens back to the past yet is simultaneously grounded in reality, has proved to be especially resonant. Giuliani attributes this to the unfortunate fact that a lot of the oppressive systems radicals were waging against decades ago are still in place. “You think you're free, but in reality, you're not free; You don't get the same money that others do for doing the same work; Women don't get the same freedom to walk in the evening by themselves as men do,” Giuliani emphatically describes. “We understood that people respond to that, because [these issues] still matter and are still relevant after many, many years. They're still important, and we still have to fight for them.”
Giuliani does have hope, though, and he points to the crop of budding talent for progressing the industry. “There is this new wave of young designers that people are actually excited to talk about. They are obviously still working within and for the fashion system, but they are helping to slowly expand it, too,” he says, referring to the up-and-comers as double agents improving the industry from the inside. And with its sharp, radical perspective that centers around inclusivity and love, Marco Rambaldi is undoubtedly on the list of revolutionary emerging labels.