Even the Medicis would surely have marvelled at this. It is midday on a bitterly chill, mournfully overcast January day in Florence. Yet the scene inside the Fortezza da Basso – a fearsomely walled compound built in the 16th century for this city’s famously aesthetic ruling family – is no mere riot of colour: it is a mass uprising of masculine ostentation.
The parade starts outside the Fortezza’s spiky castellations, next to the taxi rank and the end of the covered footpath from the Fascist-era central station by which most of the 23,400 buyers visiting from menswear stores around the world arrive each day. These fashion professionals are here for the 91st edition of Pitti Uomo, the world’s largest menswear trade fair, and are charged with browsing the several thousands of new collections from brands hoping to catch their interest – and their orders.
Pitti Uomo began in 1972. It was, for years, an insiders’ event. But in 2010 all that changed for ever when the first “Pitti Peacocks” – as they are ambivalently described – first started to strut their way around the Fortezza.
Angelo Stante wears a shawl-collared overcoat and three-piece suit, all in a matching check so violent that it would have led Jeeves instantly to resign from the Wooster employ had Bertie dared to don it. When I ask if I can interview him, Stante rubs his black Peterson of Dublin pipe – in a design made as tribute to Sherlock Holmes – with tangible gratification. A riot of skull-bead chains links his pocket watch to his one-buttoned waistcoat. He has designed and had made every garment he is wearing, and is here to promote them. Before handing me a business card with a website address (that does not work), he adds: “My look is very gentleman – very Lord – from the classic school of English elegance. My aim is to create a collection that can be worn by the contemporary nobleman. I want it to be a distinct look, but appropriate for today.” Stante is as endearingly sincere as his outfit is screamingly inappropriate.
Giammarco Ermini, 27, wears a Sartoria Rossi suit, Boggi tie, Ordini shoes and some powerfully patterned socks by the Italian brand Gallo (of which I am a dedicated fan). But what attracts me and a gaggle of photographers is an overcoat louder and more aggressively orange than Donald Trump, which he says belonged to his father. He is explaining that he has been coming to Pitti for five years, first as a salesman of software to fashion businesses, then as a dapper dresser and colleague of blogger Marino Vizza, when suddenly he falls silent.
The reason is a barrel-chested American with close-cropped hair and a Canon slung around his neck who hails me and hands me a card. “Luke! You have to go and see this guy. He’s got it – he’s the real thing, a true dandy.” I thank him and turn back to Ermini, who seems impressed. For we have just been interrupted by the man who begat the Pitti Peacock phenomenon.
Scott Schuman started photographing well-dressed people on the streets of New York and around the world over a decade ago. It was arguably his blog – The Sartorialist – that created a vogue for street-style photography which, once a sub-genre, has become as significant as anything that occurs on the catwalks. He published his first book in 2009. Many of its images lovingly recorded the exquisitely furled lapels and glinting tie-pins of those traditional Pitti visitors with a sartorially extrovert mien.
Earlier that day, after bumping into him on the covered footpath from the station, I’d told Schuman – with whom I have shared many a fashion-show bench and lurked on many a sidewalk – that I was here on a Peacock hunt. He snorted, and said: “I call them Himbos…all these over-the-top guys started coming in around 2010, after my book came out. The great part of it was that it brought a lot of interest back to menswear. But like in anything – food, music, anything – when something becomes popular, some take it on a way you like while others take it in a totally different direction. Of course, they’re not wrong. It’s just not a style I love. I think a lot of these dandies are young guys who have never dressed up before and they feel ‘oh my god I want red socks! I want 15 bracelets! Look how dressed up I am!’ It’s their first time really playing with clothes so they go over the top. Subtlety? Nah! They feel ‘I want to dress up!’”
Dandyism has certainly spread to a wide demographic. Ages range from twenty-something to sixty-something. Most men wear suits, but there is a subset of more progressively attired casual-dandy. Most men are either clean-shaven or neatly bearded, but – again – there is a subset of extreme pogonophiles who wear beards of Rip Van Winklish proportions. Schuman says: “I think you’re seeing two camps of dandies. There are the Pitti Peacocks, often the young guys, who are not really living it yet – they are here playing at dress up. Then you have the guys who are real dandies. You can usually tell because they are really good at it and they are unique – as opposed to just loud and brash and a little bit tacky.”
The man Schuman had urged us to meet drifts into view, an exquisitely drafted curlicue. Hat, coat, suit, shirt, tie, gloves, tie-pin and moustache are a tonally complementary symphony of beiges, white and brown. This is Mickael-François Loir, 33, a Parisian and former banker who fled financial services – “I could not stay doing things that made no sense to me” – to live an aesthetic life inspired by his butterfly-hunter grandfather. Three years ago he founded a brand named Le Loir en Papillon that makes foulards and pins and assorted sundries decorated with carved insects, articulated blinking eyes, and other insignia drawn from the natural world. All of his clothes are either vintage or bespoke, and his attitude is just as elevated. “For me, elegance is not a matter of clothes but a matter of mind. You do not have to wear a bespoke suit to be a dandy or a gentlemen. A lot of people here come wearing new shoes, and at the end of the day they complain about how much their feet hurt. I have been wearing these shoes for years. I wear what I like – I don’t wear what people ask me to wear.”
The Village People are singing – they seem to be on a loop – when one of the key disseminators of the 21st-century Florentine dandy fad drifts into view. Wei Koh, an American-Singaporean entrepreneur and aesthete who founded The Rake – surely the only fashion magazine to feature Prince Michael of Kent on its cover – in 2008. I have seen him in outfits as outré as anything that kaleidoscopes around us but today, tellingly, he is hunched into a plain grey cashmere puffer jacket, black trousers, and anonymous – but expensive – English shoes. J’accuse: Koh, I suggest, is responsible for the dandy-riot we are witnessing. Wearily, he concedes: “Oh absolutely. We were part of the phenomenon by which everyone wanted to dress like the Duke of Windsor [another Rake icon] – but then everyone took it to a level that was tasteless.”
So what next? Koh becomes conspiratorial. “I think”, he says, “that we are about to see a new period of sobriety. We’ve had so much self-indulgence in terms of the overwhelmingness of pattern and colour. I associate it with when European art hit the rococo period and it became so nauseatingly decorative that people began to loathe themselves for creating that kind of art – and that ushered in the neo-classical period, which was all about refinement and classic paradigms.”
Koh has clearly been wrestling with his conscience – working hard to rationalise his part in the flowery festival of display around us. So jaded has he become, he confesses, that when he sees a Peacock stepping out in a double monkstrap shoe with the top strap undone – a key Peacock motif – “I want to take those shoes off and beat them over the head with them and say, ‘Listen – you’re not being cool, you’re being complicit’.”
The Peacocks care not a jot that those who opened this perfumed box of foppery wish to close it again. The next day, I am working in Pitti when the police suddenly descend to clear it. There is a bomb threat. I watch as a disposal officer in full protective gear uses a water cannon to explode the suspicious device – that turns out to be a handsome black leather manbag with lustrous white piping.