Abstract: The Role of Networks in the Emergence of Milan as the Capital of the Italian Fashion Industry

Elisabetta Merlo and Francesca Polese


One of the most remarkable attributes of the advanced capitalist economies after the 1970s is the rising importance of industries producing commodities with rich cultural or symbolic resonance. Examples include the motion picture industry in Hollywood, the publishing industry in London, and the fashion industry in Milan, which is the focus of this paper. The first part of our paper analyzes the historical premises of the emergence of Milan as the capital of the Italian fashion industry. We find its roots earlier than other historians, in the long-established tradition (both economic and cultural) that the country boasted in textiles and other branches of the clothing industry. The paper looks at Milan as the heart of a complex network linking three main actors: the market, the firms, and the distribution channels. We argue that it is the high degree of development of all three of these actors that shed light on the development of the Italian fashion industry in Milan. The second part of the paper deals with the adjustment to new market conditions that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s, when the cultural and economic bonds with the United States became closer and more intense than before. We argue that in response the urban cluster evolved in a new kind of network: the "fashion system"—the coordination of industrial activities with the distribution, institutional, and promotional ones.