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Thou shalt not have any other jeans but me

The history of denim in Italy between subcultures and revolutionary marketing

Thou shalt not have any other jeans but me The history of denim in Italy between subcultures and revolutionary marketing

From being the cornerstone of workwear to the symbol of the American Dream, denim has managed to embody the ambitions of entire generations of Italian youths between subcultures and revolutionary marketing. These days denim is a fabric transversal to age groups and social classes, but there has been a time – between the Fifties and the Eighties – when wearing a pair of jeans was a meaningful action, even holding political connotations. Throughout these decades, in fact, denim has evolved in its fits as much as in the values embodied. In recent times the denim market has proved to be quite fluid and distinctively revivalist, hosting both reproductions of classic workwear and proposing a return to straight cropped fits first, and baggy then. 

The influence of skate culture, typical of the mid-Nineties to the early Noughties fashion, therefore highlights how through the years denim has been able to intertwine its history with that of youth and countercultural phenomena. After all, jeans are rooted in the workwear of Genoese dockers first and American miners and farmers later, hence in the working-class. It's in fact from the bottom of society that come to the innovations that lead youth fashion to evolve, consequently shaping mainstream culture too. The moment when denim operates its transition from workwear to streetwear corresponds in fact with the Fifties, hence with the birth of the concept of teenagers. Back then, jeans, not yet stone washed but indigo – the so-called blue jeans –, became a cornerstone of the young American rebels who wore them with roll-ups and paired with hi-top sneakers, white canvas plimsolls or penny loafers. From then on, the semantics of denim change forever: its new casual dimension will end up absorbing its working-class and Far West connotations.

Lee, Levi's and denim as an opposition to the system

In Italy, despite the first rock'n'roll initiates started to appear by the late '50s, youth fashion was still bound to the Mediterranean formality and morality of the post-war years. It's with the Sixties that, finally, denim made its debut in the streets and clubs of Italy acquiring with the beat counterculture first, and with the hippies one then, explicit connotations of opposition to the system; an opposition that mostly finds in aesthetic details its reasons for being. Although born in Genoa, denim in the Sixties represented the latest trend exported by the United States, winners of the Second World War and new needle of the scale of global pop culture. The brands that mostly spread across Italy, therefore, were Lee, Wrangler and Levi's, mostly in its pre-shrunk 505 and 606 Orange Tab models. With the arrival of youth contestation, sporting jeans turns into an action that goes beyond nonconformism and pop trends, acquiring political connotations. With the rise of the divisions between right and left-wing youngsters, denim (also in its corduroy variant) would identify the comrades, setting them apart from the more formal and proto-punk aesthetic of the neo-fascists hanging by San Babila Square in Milan. Denim is hip, iconoclast, sexy, and comfortable too. Increasingly flared and low raised, jeans become a cornerstone of those living on the road, hitchhiking, gathering in communes, and dreaming of Woodstock and Gibson SGs. Denim, in fact, is a hit among the youths attending free festivals like those organised by Re Nudo magazine in Lambro Park, Milan.

Jesus: you shall have no jeans before me

The liberation from moral bonds inevitably encompasses the sphere of sexuality too. In 1971, the newborn brand Jesus Jeans was among the first to understand this with a provocatory ad campaign conceived by creative directors Michael Goettsche and Emanuele Pirella in partnership with photographer Oliviero Toscani. There is one iconic photo that, metaphorically, captures the mix of excitement and disdain that Jesus’ campaign raised: it's a riot between the police and protesters and on the background, ironically, stands a Jesus poster with the bottom of model Donna Jordan wrapped in a pair of outrageously tight – for those times – denim shorts. Who loves me follows me was the tagline, which followed another memorable and sacred writings-inspired slogan Thou shalt not have any other jeans but me. Poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini would even end up writing about these adverts on the pages of the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, whilst the militants of F.U.O.R.I. – the first Italian association in support of homosexual rights – perhaps misunderstanding the campaign's freeing message, would cover its posters with massive stickers in the city of Turin, blaming them of disrespecting the female body. The Seventies also represented the years when the rising demand for jeans led to an increase in the birth and in the commercial affirmation of a series of Italian denim firms. They often were rather precise imitations of the better-known Levi’s – from which they differed mostly because of their stitching and, although less frequently, their logos –, however on some occasions they became true Italian fashion icons. Simultaneously to the boom of autochthonous sportswear brands in the Serie A of the late '70s, Italian provinces were all about brands like Rifle, Jesus, Jeans West (Benetton), Fiorucci, Roy Rogers, Diesel, Spitfire, Chicago, Billy Blue, Americanino, Pooh, Carrera, Rica Lewis, and many other models that both in their names and brand identity looked up to the States for inspiration, but that actually represented Italian excellencies. 

The eighties, subcultures and Made in Italy

If throughout the whole of the Seventies Italian brands were able to retain an important share in the market thanks to their lower prices compared to those of the American giants and their availability in local markets, with the advent of the Eighties and the development of the Made in Italy philosophy the rules of the game were set to change. Entrepreneur Walter Ricchetti of Sassuolo textile firm Sim and its manager Livio Grassi were among the first to understand the potential branded garments offered to the relaunch of national denim. Sim, hence, began the manufacture of branded jeans on behalf of Armani and Moschino. Similarly, other Italian Maisons like Valentino sensed this opportunity and increased their production of basic collections, in this case working with Italiana Manifatture. 

In the 1980s casual fashion started being conceived as a minimalist style with a classic vibe to it, hence the garment embodying workwear became something to wear with pride in Italy too. Pop 84 and Bolton and Cassidy – with its toucan sporting a polka-dot bow tie logo – understood this, but even better did Fiorucci that, on top of purchasing the rights for the Italian distribution of Wrangler, became a brand with a cult following – similarly to the contemporary Supreme or Palace. Not only Fiorucci turned into a status symbol for the Paninari, but in Milan even sprung the so-called Fioruccini scene, a cluster of teenagers who made their nearly militant passion for the brand with the two cherubs their distinctive trait. Thus, jeans become protagonists of the clubs like those where the initiates of the Afro Cosmic Disco scene gathered. One of these discos, ironically, was called Chicago, the same name as one of Italy's budget denim brands. It is perhaps to intercept the attention of this youth cluster that the brand Jeans Cobra issued “Discobra”, a promo vinyl sitting on the verge of Italo Disco and Synth Wave, a record that has now become a cult item among collectors of the genre. Similarly, Cfm International nodded to the Paninari and to the New Wave fans by labelling one of their jeans lines Spandau Ballet.

The youngsters sport Italian denim with pride, from the streets to the stadium curve where they mix regardless of their subculture in support of their football faith. Riding the wave of this phenomenon is Pooh, one of the many brands gravitating in the infinite galaxy of Italian denim. For the 1981-82 season, the brand became Ac Milan’s commercial sponsor revolutionising the kit of the Rossoneri. To renovate the club’s kit isn’t just the sponsor or the new modernist crest conceived by the design studio Zeta, but mostly the silhouette of the Pooh logo stitched on the shirt’s collar as if the jersey officially manufactured by Linea Milan actually was a branded garment. Pop 84 jeans soon followed this example by sponsoring Ascoli in the 1983-84 season and by signing a partnership with the Italian national football team in 1985, launching the slogan “The jeans of the champions”.

The American Dream as a turn in branding

The Eighties represented the peak of Italian denim, the decade when the country became the European leader in the production of basics. Newspaper La Repubblica, on October 23rd 1987, wrote about this War of the jeans, in which the colossus Levi’s even lagged behind, representing only 10% of the denim sold in the Belpaese. It's with the rebranding of the historical 501 that by the mid-'80s Levi’s intercepted the potential represented by its heritage and by all the ideas associated with the American Dream – from the cowboys to James Dean – to relaunch its brand on the European market. People aren’t simply buying Levi’s now, but 501s. The Levi’s 1985 ad campaign starring Nick Kamen undressing in a launderette hence marked the triumph of the American epic. The advert was a celebration of the aesthetic of the rebel without a cause and of denim as a minimalist but essential garment. 

After all, the Far West epic became pivotal to the identity of Americano and El Charro, two of the brands most loved by Paninari. The cowboy aesthetic therefore ended up intertwining with the Paninaro one when it came to double denim and Durango cowboy boots. The epitome of this golden age of Italian denim, able to establish a more than a conceptual bridge between the States and the Belpaese, is a photo where US president Ronald Reagan sports a pair of Closed, one of the many brands manufactured by the Rimini firm Cfm International owned by entrepreneur Aldo Ciavatta, which, low and behold, also produced the Red Button 601 jeans.

Italian denim – despite still living through haute couture Maisons and survivors of that glorious season – has become ingrained in the country’s pop culture, reminding us all of the years when people proudly wore Roy Rogers for jeans, as 883 sang in their 1995 generational anthem, Gli Anni