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Designers as Artists, Meta-fashion Exhibition Rule the Conversation at 2024 ITS Awards

TRIESTE, Italy — “You have been another strong, conscious and revolutionary generation of ITS [contestants]. Everybody gained a human and professional experience.”

So said Barbara Franchin, the founder and mastermind of the International Talent Support fashion contest, known as ITS, showing appreciation for the 16 finalists of the 2023-2024 edition.

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Franchin was visibly emotional. ITS has gone through highs and lows over its 20-plus-year history and as much as finding a new home in the CRTrieste Foundation’s spaces in 2020 seemed an accomplished mission when it opened two years ago, Franchin’s ambition to do better and bigger leaves her with more needs to be fulfilled.

“We need Italian fashion companies to stand by our side, to share the experience with us…knowing that we can give back the outputs we receive [from talents] yearly. We need financial support in this operation, which is not only for us, but also really for anyone living on this planet. We need investments in culture, even when they do not offer immediate return on investment,” she said, noting her aim is to find a new home for ITS of about 75,000 to 105,000 square feet.

She pointed to the French support system for fashion contests, without naming names but clearly looking at such competitions as the Hyères Festival, among others, which have received support from both institutional and corporate players.

She was nonetheless excited to unveil not only this year’s ITS winners, but also the second exhibition at the ITS Arcademy, the contest’s headquarters, archives and multifunctional space covering 7,000 square feet.

A meta-fashion exhibition reflecting on the role garments have in everybody’s lives, their emotional connections and memory-triggering power, the show is titled “The Many Lives of a Garment.”

Franchin again conscripted Olivier Saillard as the show curator, this time aided by philosopher Emanuele Coccia. Filled with mannequins clad in outfits by previous ITS contestants, some scattered in the space as if they were visitors looking at artworks, the show tackled clothing’s life stages, from being displayed in a store window to being tried on in a changing room, taken out by its wearer, then lost, deteriorated, exhibited in a museum or even only described through words.

Conceptually the show is about the idea that clothes being worn every day are themselves a walking exhibition, suggesting their wearer’s curatorial decisions, the curators noted.

“This exhibition started three decades ago, [because] inside it there are a lot of small experimentations I used to do in the past, and this is the first time that we are showing them all, together in the same place,” Saillard said.

The Library space at ITS Arcademy
The library space at ITS Arcademy.

The reason for eschewing a traditional fashion exhibit was suggested by Issey Miyake, Saillard said. “He used to say that a dress is only half-finished when it comes out of the atelier, and it’s completely finished, like 100 percent, when a man or woman is wearing that dress,” Saillard quoted the Japanese designer as saying. “So, it’s always that in [fashion] exhibitions lie a paradox,” in that they lack the wearer’s input.

Case in point: an entire section in the show was devoted to small frames displaying details of shirts owned and worn by Saillard, flanked by written text on the memories and life stories each was linked to. Two cabinets displayed actual outfits from Charlotte Rampling and Tilda Swinton, arranged on chairs as if ready to be picked up from their wearer, while another glass case contained a wedding gown designed by Valentino Garavani for model Alda Balestra von Stauffenberg.

That latter display case is expected to change its content over time, as ITS Arcademy hopes Trieste citizens will loan their personal clothes with some emotional meaning to be showcased for one month each.

The radical approach to the exhibition was seen in the section that gathered fashion descriptions from literature — no clothing on display. “Garments have an ostensive and self-narrative power that transcends the physical presence of fabrics and the object itself,” said Coccia.

The manifesto for "The Many Lives of a Garment" exhibition by Olivier Saillard at ITS Arcademy in Trieste, Italy.

A second exhibition in the Wunderkammer space was dedicated to the 2023-2024 finalists’ creations under the tagline “Born to Create,” ITS’ overarching manifesto.

Both exhibits will be open to the public until Jan. 6, 2025.

The ITS Arcademy’s curatorial approach toward preserving and archiving young talents’ work as if they were already museum-worthy (a recently introduced tech-enabled digital book allows hard copy portfolios stacked in the library space to be brought to life via cartoon-like animations) is testament to the ITS team’s commitment to discover and promote the next generation of designers; it’s been offering them financial support and publicity for two decades.

The former ITS headquarters — a small attic of an 18th-century palazzo in the city center — is waiting to be converted into housing space for designers’ and artists’ residencies in town, another project Franchin hopes will find a backer soon.

On Friday night, the jury of the contest’s 2023-2024 edition gave out 13 awards to the 16 finalists, who were shortlisted from 782 applicants from 65 countries.

The ITS Arcademy Award, which comes with a 15,000-euro cash prize, was given to Japanese talent Momoka Sato, who presented a whimsical collection with a strong and elaborate narrative attached to it, inspired by a fictional nun living on a mountaintop with an adoring monk by her side.

The collection — which is rich in layering and nods to traditional Japanese gear, including the kimono trouser silhouette — embedded recycling practices, by repurposing the cotton stuffing of old mattresses, for example.

Sato dedicated her collection to her grandmother, with whom she spent time while working on the lineup. The young designer, a Bunka Fashion College graduate with a master’s degree from Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., said she applied to ITS to introduce her brand, formally launched during the pandemic years, to an international audience.

“I didn’t expect I could win; that’s why I’m really honored to get this award,” she said.

A look from ITS 2024 winner Momoka Sato
A look from ITS 2024 winner Momoka Sato.

Jurors agreed that young creatives are increasingly looking at the inner and outer worlds in ways that put their personal experiences into perspective and in a dialogue with sociopolitical, cultural and anthropological subjects.

“They are much more prone to absorb all that’s happening in the world,” said Valentina Maggi, director of creative practice at Paris-based consulting and headhunting firm Floriane de St Pierre & Associés and a member of the jury, which also included curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot and Ann Demeulemeester’s creative director Stefano Gallici.

“In the past creative processes used to be much more individual, while today they’re open to and engaged with the social and cultural conversations happening,” she added.

According to The Museum at FIT’s director Valerie Steele, a longtime juror at ITS, self-perception of fashion creatives is shifting gears.

“I think there’s more of a sense among them that it’s an artistic field that they are in, and they’re not always so pretentious as to say ‘I’m an artist,’ but they do feel that fashion is something which is a creative, artistic field. And so they want to still be able to follow their own creative turns, the way, say, a painter would, or a musician. There’s much more sense therefore of mining their own life histories of personal interests,” she said.

“It’s both more idealistic and more realistic than in previous generations. They are aware of all kinds of dangers and needs in fashion,” Steele said. “They’re aware that a lot of people of their generation [think that] fashion is bad, fashion is exploitative, it’s destroying the world.…But they also feel that they can have an impact. And they can do something that takes the best sides of fashion and ameliorates the bad sides,” she added.

“I’ve been struck how all these talents, no one excluded, are so careful and feel such an urgency to telegraph their positive impact within the fashion system, with social awareness [messages] and sustainability practices,” echoed Ann Demeulemeester’s Gallici.

“Over the past week, during their residency here, we discussed a lot more about the meaning of life and their urgency to avoid negatively impacting the planet, rather than about design and silhouettes,” explained Franchin. “They know our generation won’t do much more to save the planet thinking someone else will handle [it], and they know they are the ones supposed to tackle those issues.”

Franchin underscored how fashion talents are increasingly perceiving themselves as artists using fashion as just one of many mediums they could explore. “I’ve seen young kids’ aspirations evolving from ‘I want to be John Galliano’ and ‘I want to become an all-encompassing creative director’ to ‘I want to be an artist’,” Franchin highlighted.

A look from ITS 2024 contestant Tomohiro Shibuki.
A look from ITS 2024 contestant Tomohiro Shibuki.

“These young people don’t see a rosy future ahead as previous generations [have], but they are able to turn this ‘black energy’ into positive strength,” said Matteo Battiston, chief design officer at EssilorLuxottica, noting how socially charged the creative projects were. “What’s emerging from these contests speaks about generational shifts, whereby the dream of becoming a top creative within a storied maison is no longer so appealing, their aim is for their work to be the best and most faithful representation of themselves.”

The ITS Jury Special Award, a 5,000-euro cash prize, was jointly bestowed on Chinese designer Ju Bao for his cutting-edge knitwear treated to resemble denim, and jeweler Richard Farbey from the U.K. A new award of 10,000 euros backed by the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region as Gorizia, another nearby town, gears up to be the 2025 Culture Capital was handed to Tomohiro Shibuki, who upcycled vintage sportswear by needle-felting all pieces for a frosted effect.

A look from ITS 2024 contestant Ju Bao
A look from ITS 2024 contestant Ju Bao.

Other prizes included the ITS Responsible Creativity Award sponsored by Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, which granted 5,000 euros to Italian creative Ivan Delogu, who unveiled a collection crafted from upcycled plastic curtains, deadstock fabrics and other recycled materials to explore the matriarchal society of his native region, Italy’s Sardinia.

Other awards were sponsored by ITS partners including the Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Wråd, Lotto Sport, Vogue Eyewear and EssilorLuxottica, as well as Fondazione Ferragamo, Pitti Immagine and Fondazione Sozzani.

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