Journalists dubbed the late Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré the “architect of fashion.” His Milanese staff called him “l’architetto Ferré.” These were allusions to his youthful training in the field—but they were also an apt honorific given the deliberate, structured nature of his craft. “The concept of construction is the same,” Ferré once said. “Architecture is a search for a solution of form, shape, and color. So, too, is fashion. With both, you begin with a story.”
Ferré’s own story began after he graduated with an architectural degree in Milan in 1969. His first jobs in fashion were designing scarves and jewelry for Walter Albini, and T-shirts for Fiorucci. He launched his signature line in 1978 and was almost immediately recognized as one of Italy’s bright lights. As The New York Times reported in a 1981 feature, it was a “time when the whole fabric of fashion [was] itself changing—when the excesses of late-1970s retro dressing [had] given way to clothes that [were] simpler, easier to wear, and more fluid.”
Ferré’s suits toyed with androgyny—then a slightly racy, burgeoning trend—while his pared-down, luxe separates perfectly captured the era’s urban-casual attitude: modern, clean, and angular. And yet, from the very start, Ferré’s look was also steeped in nostalgia for Italy’s postwar past, with ultra-feminine angora sweaters, swingy coats, and nipped waists. “Ferré has energized and modernized a kind of 1950s Dolce Vita style,” Vogue reported in 1989, “an all-out movie-star fantasy.” He once described his double vision in a typically precise way as “a mix of the romantically diffused and the precisely focused.” Over the course of his career, Ferré explored both sides of that divide via the classic white shirt, his favorite blank canvas, creating the simplest renditions, as well as pieces roiled with ruffles, and even one that unfurled into a ball gown.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was his journeys through India as a young man—while working as an analyst for the Italian government’s trade department—that crystallized Ferré’s unique perspective. “When I begin to design, I start first with the most elementary of designs, the way they do in the East, in India,” he recalled in the 1980s, adding, with some prescience: “After traveling to those countries, I have become totally influenced by their uncontaminated way of dressing. We are moving quickly now toward that kind of simplicity in which all a woman really needs is that shirt, that pant, a belt and a good watch.” In response to the famous pronouncement by Diana Vreeland, Vogue’s former editor, that “pink is the navy blue of India,” Ferré countered, “Naturally, pink is the navy blue of India because it’s the cheapest of all dyes.”
“Modernity very often means revolt or negation,” he once said. “For me it has always meant understanding one’s own past and exigences.”
Ferré’s sudden death, due to a brain hemorrhage, shook the house to its foundations in 2007. After that, a string of lead designers would come and go, each attempting to revitalize the brand. (Ferré himself, when he was asked in 1998 about who should succeed him, had replied, “One thing’s for sure. Whoever he is, he’d better be strong.”)