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Safe and Functionally Fashionable: Oliviero Toscani

A newly opened exhibition at Florence’s Stazione Leopolda explores the connection between workwear and fashion design.

Visitors stepping into Florence’s Stazione Leopolda to see the exhibition “Workwear - Lavoro Moda Seduzione” (Workwear – Work Fashion Seduction) will be welcomed by a strange universe made of loud metallic noises, images and videos, bright colours and experimental materials that, superficially, don’t seem to have any connection with the world of fashion. How could it be possible to trace any kind of relationship between fireproof suits in multi-layered fibres, hardhats, welders’ masks or shoes with reinforced soles and amazing creations by contemporary designers? But finding a connection between workwear and fashion is exactly what this event - curated by photographer Oliviero Toscani with La Sterpaia, and Olivier Saillard, curator of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris - tries to do.

A project of the Fondazione Pitti Discovery, “Workwear” is not a historical exploration of what workers wore throughout the centuries, but it’s an amazing event that proves the functional aesthetic of workwear, designed to facilitate the movements of the body and protect, has been for years a steady source of inspiration for both men and womenswear collections.

Clothing and accessories related to all work environments are displayed on freight pallets, wood and metal workbenches and analogies between the shapes, details and materials of these garments and the creations of famous designers – among them Armani, Chanel, Prada, Comme des Garçons, John Galliano, Marithè & Francois Girbaud, Sonia Rykiel, Walter van Beirendonck, Antonio Marras and Yohji Yamamoto – are made. References and inspirations are highlighted and visitors finally discover that there are echoes of industrial designs in Moschino’s Spring/Summer 2003 chiffon and leather apron dresses accessorised with belts and clamps and in Dsquared2’s denim designs while Elsa Schiaparelli proved she was ahead of her times when she came up with her “Cash & Carry” collection, featuring garments with huge pockets that allowed women to take with them everything they needed without carrying a bag, and woollen salopette trousers that could be worn quickly in case of air raids.  

The exhibition also explores a very important theme, safety in the workplace: in the last few years Italy has hit a sad record with around one million workplace accidents a year. This vital theme at the core of this event is what makes of “Workwear” also a shocking and moving exhibition.

Dazed Digital: Where did you get the inspiration for this exhibition?
Oliviero Toscani: I have been thinking about this theme for many years. Working as a fashion photographer I saw for decades the influence of workwear on great international designers such as Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Throughout my career I also had the chance of doing photo shoots that featured workwear and realised there was a strong connection between work clothing and fashion. I always found extremely interesting the fact that workwear manufacturers do not obviously think about fashion when they design their clothing and accessory lines, but about human safety, yet their researches and final results are incredibly fascinating.     

DD: What do you think is the final message of this exhibition?
OT: That fashion should not be a hetero or homosexual masturbation or an aesthetic and superficial act of self-complacency. In the last few years, the world of fashion has been in the grips of an absurd aestheticism. I think that designers should be more creative, but they should also go back to their roots and start creating again for ordinary human beings, emphasising important aspects such as safety. We are all workers, even a lady who goes out shopping dresses up to go to work, so we need a bit more realism in fashion design and workwear can provide us with very interesting suggestions on both the practical and the aesthetic levels.

DD: The exhibition features an amazing number of items: there are 300 work-suits, 2,500 safety and protective accessories and 70 garments by the most famous names in fashion, plus thousands of images and videos. Was it difficult to select all this material?
OT: No, but we had to take some important decisions. We decided for example to exhibit workwear that is available on the market at the moment, avoiding old and nostalgic pieces, and favouring garments and accessories that factories buy nowadays for their workers. This was our basic principle. We also decided to exclude from the exhibition particular uniforms such as war uniforms, as our main concern was selecting pieces used by real workers. Then we started selecting the various pieces by analysing different elements, such as fire, water, light, steel and iron. We dedicated a room to denim and one to safety in the workplace to emphasise the fact that there are companies that design for a specific need - protecting people who work in difficult, dangerous, uncomfortable or extreme conditions - and not for pure aesthetic reasons. In Italy there is an accident in the workplace every 7 hours. Italians do not seem to be interested in wearing the proper clothes while they’re at work, they seem to prefer dressing up in Dolce & Gabbana. So we thought this was our chance to pay homage to these companies who design everyday wear for real human beings and that do not superficially focus on any appearance-related aspects.

DD: Among all the pieces that were selected, is there one that particularly fascinated you?
OT: A white woollen pyjamas-like suit that divers wear under their diving apparel with a red belt and hood. It looks absolutely incredible and apparently the red colour is used to ward off bad luck. But I also love the denims and overalls we featured and workwear by brands such as Carhartt.

DD: The exhibition features garments by many different workwear manufacturers, among them Fraizzoli, Giordani Giancarlo, Lotto Works, Moldex and Utility by Diadora. What was the reaction of these companies when you told them you were organising this exhibition?  
OT: They couldn’t believe us when we explained them we wanted to exhibit workwear during Pitti Immagine Uomo ( in an industrial building such as the Stazione Leopolda and put it next to designer creations, to show how workwear influenced fashion. They thought it was an absolutely incredible thing to do.  

DD: What did you learn while researching the materials for this exhibition?
OT: That the industry of workwear is huge, though I was mainly impressed by the research in the materials and design of work clothes and by how the technological innovations employed allow workers to operate in safer conditions.

DD: According to you, which are the most interesting designs exhibited at “Workwear”?
OT: The designer creations were chosen by Olivier Saillard in collaboration with Maria Luisa Frisa and they are all extraordinary. Elsa Schiaparelli was a particularly clever designer and she created amazing overalls, while Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s designs draw from the modern lines of workwear. We do have wonderful pieces by these two designers at the exhibition but also by a few Japanese designers who seem to have grasped very well the connection between workwear and fashion.  

“Workwear”, Stazione Leopolda, Viale Fratelli Rosselli, Florence, Italy, until 8 February 2009 closed on Mondays, free admission.