‘Forget Mr Berlusconi, we all have our problems,’ joked legendary fashion writer Colin McDowell last week in his speech marking the opening of Masters of Style, the new fashion photography exhibit at London’s Somerset House. Forget the scandal-prone Italian Prime Minister, McDowell insisted, and instead focus on ‘what Italian style is about. It’s about doing it properly, doing it without fuss, doing it chicly.’

Open until 14th August, Masters of Style brings together imagery from six major Italian fashion brands, each collection of photographs housed in temporary ‘pavilions’ in the Embankment Galleries. From the first ever Gucci print advertisement in 1922 to Madonna washing dishes in a 2008 Dolce and Gabbana tableau of Sicilian life, the images were all personally chosen by the respective designers. The Missoni selection is awash with the house’s iconic striped knits, and the Salvatore Ferragamo offering features far more shoes than it does people, while Giorgio Armani showcases his many collaborations with famed photographer duo Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot. Rounding off the exhibition, supermodels Amber Valletta and Christy Turlington are centre stage as Miuccia Prada’s 90’s muses.

prada 1988 campaign by albert watson
Prada campaign by Albert Watson, 1988

I managed to catch McDowell – who curated the exhibition at the request of sponsors Peroni Nastro Azzurro – while he was holding court in the middle of the Dolce and Gabbana pavilion. I asked him if it was difficult to select the designers to include in the show. ‘It was quite easy. There would have been others I would have liked but we didn’t have room. Then it was lovely because they chose the pictures, they wrote the captions, and then the photographers and models all said we could use the pictures without paying, which is very rare.’ When I tried to get him to name a favourite image from the exhibition McDowell wasn’t giving anything away: ‘I could, but I can’t. That’s exactly what the designers are waiting to see, I can’t do that.’ That’s just the kind of diplomatic tactic that Mr Berlusconi could do well to learn.

Masters of Style: Celebrating the Stories behind Italian Fashion is at Somerset House, Strand London WC2R 1LA until 14 August. For more info and to book tickets visit somersethouse.org.uk.

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