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A Retrospective: Etro’s Then and Now

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

By Marie Louise James

This past September, Etro celebrated 50 years with an exhibition at Milan’s Museo delle Culture (MUDEC) and a Milan Fashion Week runway show in the Porta Vittoria area of the city. Both the collection and exhibit addressed the past, present and future of the Italian family-run fashion house in different ways: one moved the brand’s legacy forward and the other looked back on its history as a textile design company characterized by a bohemian and cross-cultural spirit.

Etro’s 50th birthday – the tribute to brand history in “Generation Paisley”

A winding bulbous tree of patchwork cloth and paisley prints, vibrant 60s hues amid mannequins in swirling embellishments, and Persian tapestries lining every wall: enter the first room of Etro’s “Generation Paisley” exhibit and step into a dream-world display of its origins. Founded as a textile company in 1968, Etro originally supplied fashion houses with intricate textiles and designs – Valentino among the most famous examples — before delving into its own home décor (1985) and ready-to-wear lines (1996).

At the entrance of Etro’s “Generation Paisley” exhibit, the roots of this patchwork paisley tree unravel throughout each room, symbolizing both Etro’s origins as a textile company and the cross-cultural celebration that characterizes its bohemian, Mesopotamian-inspired style.
At the entrance of Etro’s “Generation Paisley” exhibit, the roots of this patchwork paisley tree unravel throughout each room, symbolizing both Etro’s origins as a textile company and the cross-cultural celebration that characterizes its bohemian, Mesopotamian-inspired style.

The paisley pattern became a staple of the brand by 1981, a floral teardrop motif with Mesopotamian origins popularized in Western fashion during the nineteenth century after the British Empire imported a variety of cashmere goods and textiles from India. As a result, Mesopotamia is cited as a “pillar of Etro’s work.” Becoming Etro’s emblem, the philosophy behind the paisley print has expanded with bohemian flair, now representing an ode to spirituality embodied by “The Tree of Life” that greets visitors in the first room.

Paisley drop clutches from the Etro Autumn 2015 collection on display in the “Generation Paisley” exhibit at the MUDEC in Milan. The paisley swirl – a floral teardrop with Mesopotamian and Indian origins – is the emblem of the brand.

A few eye-catching items in the exhibit’s archives include a patchwork purse resembling a chicken (with matching egg accessory), jeweled clutches in the shape of paisley teardrops, and — one of the lesser known standouts, as Kean Etro himself wistfully remarked in an interview — a tongue-in-cheek series of suit-jackets that paid homage to the tailor’s craft with yellow measuring tape appliqués sewn vertically and horizontally.

Complete with matching egg accessory, this mixed leather chicken bag from Etro’s 2002 Fall/Winter Collection will have you asking what came first: the chicken or the egg?

Kean Etro designed a series of playful suits for the 2007 Fall Menswear Collection to pay homage to the tailors behind the brand by quite literally incorporating yellow measuring tape appliqués into the design of the suit.

The MUDEC in Milan is one of the ideal places for an exhibition of this kind. Its permanent collection already boasts eclectic pieces from around the world, including a Chinese sedan chair, a taxidermized crocodile and nineteenth century tree-bark textiles from Papua New Guinea. Even the other temporary exhibition on Modigliani centers itself on the Italian artist’s inspiration from non-occidental artwork.

One of the rooms in “Generation Paisley” could even be a part of the museum’s permanent collection: an illuminated shelf filled with eclectic Roman busts, Samurai headpieces, coral decor, and engraved skulls. Next to a luxurious leather sitting chair, two antique globes; in front, two mannequins dressed in white textured Etro ensembles.

The paean to travel in this room of collector’s items echoed the kaleidoscopic tone of the backstage “mood board” collage at Etro’s Women’s Fashion Week runway show, a collection entitled “Pacific Zen.”

Etro’s 50th birthday – the SS19 Collection at Milan Fashion Week

While the obvious choice for an anniversary collection might be to revisit and recreate the brand’s most memorable looks, Vanessa Etro wisely decided not to revisit the archives for her Spring/Summer 2019 collection at Milan Fashion Week.

Instead, the exhibition did the talking — or rather, storytelling of the brand’s history. While the “Generation Paisley” display featured a 5-room trip down memory lane, Etro’s most recent collection instead continued the nomadic journey that they had established as a core of its brand DNA.

Borrowing details from various sources — samurai-style belts, Rastafarian knit beanies, silk head-wraps and copious paisley — the SS19 collection successfully tried to move forward, rather than explicitly look back on the brand’s signature bohemian Wanderlust style. With these elements, we obviously have to ask ourselves where the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation stands, but for decades Etro has been clear in acknowledging and celebrating its worldwide sources of inspiration. Vanessa Etro cites her muses for this collection as originating among “the skate and surfing scene of California, the denim and calligraphy of Japan, the Pacific and Hawaii. It’s really about being free, joyous.”

Streetwear becomes surf-wear as professional surfer Maribel Koucke walks down the Etro Spring/Summer 2019 show at Milan Fashion Week, beaming with a custom Etro surfboard under her arm to match her mix and match paisley print swimwear look.

Jewelry and earrings were crafted out of seashells and pearls, resembling the kind of souvenirs one could buy at a stand in a Caribbean beach vacation. Two of the models were even professional surfers Victoria Vergara and Maribel Koucke, both beaming in brightly colored 60s-print swimwear as they carried matching surfboards down the runway. Perhaps these touches to the show were a subtler evocation of “beachwear” and travel rather than, for example, the opulent sand and water backdrop at Chanel’s SS19 collection a few days later at Paris Fashion Week.

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