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I think of this at a press lunch during Pitti Uomo, as a German cashmere buyer finishes off his third plate of complimentary pasta. Six feet four and 350 pounds, he wears an immaculate blue suit and a series of thin leather bracelets on his left arm. His English is perfect; conversing with strangers around the table, so too seems his French and Italian. I bet he even manages Urdu and Swahili with ease. His hair, however, has been greased back over his large forehead, as though with a paint scraper, to give him the simultaneous appearance of great gloss and great speed.
Seven hours later, I’m seated next to a staff reporter for Tokyo’s Asahi newspaper. Jet lagged and lonely, he looks off into space as the lights drop at Joseph Abboud. Like me, he’s seated front-row-center and can’t figure out why. "I’ve got two girls," he says to me, showing pictures of his daughters, happy smiling babies aged three and one. "They ask me, ‘Why is papa in Europe?’ It’s a good question."
He’s covered economic issues, he’s interviewed members of the Japanese parliament, and he’s written on the Euro crisis. Like me, he doesn’t speak much Italian, French, or German. His English isn’t much better than my Japanese. He’s not particularly into fashion, either, and glances furtively at his dowdy slip-ons. He shrugs. I shrug. We both turn back to the runway. He opens an empty notebook as the models walk past. By the end of the show he’s scribbled three loose ovals in the margins and a note about "luster" copied from the press brochure.
We smile at each other and both wonder why we’re not in Tokyo or New York, but instead in Florence for Pitti Uomo: the first major fashion event of the winter continental season. First held in the early 70’s, Pitti Uomo is a twice yearly trade show featuring hundreds of men’s fashion and accessories brands. Less wild than Milan, more commercial than Paris, less attitude than New York, hundreds of luxury brands from around the world exhibit seasonal wares from silk scarves to leather shoes to briefcases. There’s a luxury cookie maker. There’s a bespoke parfumeur. There’s even a company that sells socks costing more than your child's bicycle. Fashion buyers, critics, bloggers, stylists, and the general public walk around the booths and talk to designers, paw the goods, and gnash their teeth when the free gift bags run out.
He’s not particularly into fashion, either, and glances furtively at his dowdy slip-ons. He shrugs. I shrug.
Before the show at Abboud a small throng of these Pitti denizens crowded into a warehouse just southwest of the Station. It's been converted just for the evening but by day no doubt houses newsprint or fence posts, bundling twine or toilet seats. There is plenty of room and tickets are free to anybody who wanted one, but a small staging area had been partitioned off from the seating area, giving a cramped and crowded feel. The attendees drink cheap champagne and speak to each other, an awkward and manufactured gap in between them. This turns out to be just the right distance to ensure these fashionisti a photograph all to themselves as the cameramen swim around. A few are dressed in suits, some of the women in jackets; one man in sunglasses has a pompadour, a sleeveless fur vest, paisley pants, and a stainless steel watch chunkier than a whiskey barrel. By the end of the night I’ve scribbled three loose ovals in the margins of my notebook and a note about "luster" copied from the press brochure.
The next morning I get to see the main event at Pitti: it waits across town at the Fortezza da basso, the ancient castle whose ramparts less expel foreign invaders than invite them in for conventions and conferences. Outside the booths and shelving units is a courtyard lined with metal benches and stone barriers. There, a group of men gather every day to get their pictures taken. Bedecked in finery, they outdo each other in pomp and count their victories by the number of "daily updates" in which they've been featured on the GQ website. They look off at the clouds, they sip coffee, they scowl at someone walking past in the same pair of canvas espadrilles. They pretend they're unaware that a half-dozen cameras with lenses from the Hubble space telescope have captured their every breath.
A standard feature of the events — with his own court of toadying admirers — is a pudgy, aging Italian man with a bulbous nose and wavy hair. He wears lime sweaters and orange pants, or orange sweaters and lime pants, or lime shirts with an orange jacket, leaving at least one of the buckles on his exquisite double-monks undone. A loud blogger flown in from Florida calls these "house payment shoes." A button is left open here or there on his jacket or sweater, the cuff of a shirt is frayed, and he rolls his head from side to side, confused how each day he springs from Zeus’ closet fully clothed.
Models hired by the brands pose as the general public. Complete with makeup and perfect hair, they wear the very fashions on view that won’t be available on store shelves for six more months. Grumpy fashion buyers and textile experts finger samples and complain at the price, the lackluster hand to the fabrics, and the low thread count. Orbiters of a brighter star scurry and hiss when not lavished with attention; they clog the more popular brands for another photograph, an interview with the designer, or free samples.
This continues all week, day in and day out, through gallons of overpriced espresso, through linen-weave notebooks, through fountain pens gorged with lavender ink, until it’s time to board the train, change coats, and head off to Milan.