Influence Marketing: Power Posing at the Pitti Circus

A visitor being photographed at Pitti.
A visitor being photographed at Pitti.

There’s a major power shift taking place within the fashion industry right now. Some might say that things are becoming more democratic. Sure, the major brands have always paid close attention to what’s happening on the street. But this usually feeds back to the general public by means of a top-down process; dictated from on-high via the carefully curated looks designers show on runways, before finally going mass-market. 

Yet by bypassing the key players and disseminating street-level fashion innovation direct to the masses by means of social media, Instagram influencers have destabilized the long-established fashion industry power structure. 

Nowhere is this more evident than at Pitti Uomo. Taking place twice a year in Florence, Italy, Pitti is ostensibly a tradeshow for the buying and selling of high-end menswear. Yet due to the flamboyant outfits of many attendees, Pitti has become synonymous with a male sartorial elegance and extravagance that influences how many men around the world dress.

Indeed, the street style trends out on the Pitti piazza each January and June will likely prove to be significantly more influential over the coming years than any of the catwalk shows taking place as part of the official program.

The Pitti Circus

They come lumbering and lurching; strutting and staggering; parading heads-high, or skulking on the fringes. A ministry of silly walks; decked out in even more ridiculous outfits. Here a prancing fawn in day-glo sportswear; there a befuddled aristocrat, wearing the entire contents of his closet all in one go. 

Cigars are lit on approach to the entrance. And a suspicious number of phones receive incoming calls just as their owners reach the awaiting pack of fashion journalists: permitting biceps to be tensed, and expensively tailored sports coats to hang at a flattering angle. 

Some among the procession hold back: waiting until anyone who might deny the circling photographers a clear view of their sartorial handiwork has moved ahead. Only now do they advance: assured that their elaborately accoutered likenesses will be broadcast far and wide. Fleeting glory in the form of a #menswear hashtag.

It’s easy to poke fun at the outrageous vanity of some Pitti visitors, but there’s no denying that many possess real style. And whether the general consensus on the season’s dominant looks is a thumbs up or down, thousands of fashionistas worldwide are avidly following Pitti hashtags or Googling street style photos for pointers as to where trends will likely shift over the coming months.

Who Holds the Power?

Social media stars often belittle photographers, arguing that the latter would have nothing of value to photograph if it wasn’t for the celebrity-draw of influencers; to which photographers invariably respond that influencers would still be nobodies if it wasn’t for their own power as image makers. A more likely explanation of course is that the relationship between photographers and influencers is entirely symbiotic: one needs the other.

In any case, what’s clear is that the importance of both photographers and influencers has increased massively in recent years.

Within a fashion context, that influence is largely distributed in the form of street style photos.

Check #pittiuomo95 on Instagram and your feed will be filled with image after image of men’s street style –  encompassing everything from the smart and subdued to the more creative, outlandish, and even just downright trashy. Notably absent, however, will be much coverage of either the runway shows or even what is theoretically the main purpose of the Pitti tradeshow: over a thousand booths housed inside Florence’s Fortezza da Basso where the world’s most important menswear brands preview the next season’s collections to buyers.

Visitors to Pitti 95 in January 2019
Visitors Arriving at Pitti Uomo 94

Of course, with the rise of Instagram, street style has gained general importance worldwide. And many of today’s key industry figures have built their careers on little more than rolling up to the right shows in attention-grabbing outfits. Certainly no magazine feature on Paris or New York Fashion Week would be complete without a street style report. 

But do a Google image search for, say, “FW18 shows Paris” and the results will be almost entirely made up of runway photos. Barely a single street style shot in sight. So although street style has markedly grown in influence, the designers exhibiting their creations in the major fashion capitals are currently in no apparent danger of becoming eclipsed by their audience.

Yet at Pitti, it’s the visitors rather than designers who get all the press.

And often in very major, broad-interest publications too.

What Makes Pitti Uomo Special?

Pitti Uomo came into existence primarily as a trade fair, not as a fashion week. So while Pitti’s limited program of runway shows now attracts some very high profile designers (often by invitation), these are a later addition to the Pitti schedule and remain something of a sideshow in relation to the main event. 

A more accurate comparison then would be Paris’s own trade fairs, such as MAN, Who’s Next, and Tranoi: hugely important events in the international fashion calendar.

Indeed, at the close of Pitti Uomo, many buyers and exhibitors move on to the menswear shows in Milan at the weekend, and then go straight to Paris for the round of showroom exhibitions there the following week. 

However, don’t expect to see much in the way of innovative street style from the Paris trade shows. Or indeed any media coverage of them at all outside of the dedicated “rag industry” press.

In this respect Pitti is truly unique. 

Why is that?

It’s likely that a number of factors have contributed to Pitti becoming the colorful #menswear carnival it is now. 

Photos from Pitti are invariably billed by the international press as “Italian street style” – ignoring the fact that over a third of visitors to the event actually come from elsewhere.

Indeed, the dandies strutting around the Fortezza may just as easily originate from Nigeria, the United States, Norway, South Korea – or in fact pretty much anywhere. 

Nonetheless, the habit of milling around in piazzas looking “effortlessly” good is arguably a uniquely Italian cultural trait. What’s more, the venue for Pitti is a former fort offering wide open spaces and a backdrop of ancient ramparts mixed with the clean lines of contemporary architecture: all decidedly ‘grammable’. Thus it’s perhaps unsurprising that this casual peacockery took off at Pitti rather than, say, in the rather less glamorous setting of a dreary south Paris conference center.

When Is “the Street” Not the Street?

Undoubtedly a minority of Pitti-goers are just posers, attention-seekers, and even narcissists with no legitimate professional reason to attend the event. Yet the bulk of eccentrically-dressed Pitti visitors are there for business: promoting their own products, or because they are being paid to promote those of others. 

Many of us may sneer at these “brand ambassadors” for unashamedly selling their souls to corporate capital. And we might not even consider their outfits to be in particularly good taste either. Nonetheless, their weight as “influencers” is undeniable.  

Of course, quite how effective this tactic proves in generating sales for the brands sponsoring them is anybody’s guess.

But by being transmitted across the globe to a receptive audience of menswear enthusiasts, the looks sported by Pitti’s peacocks will prove to be massively influential within men’s fashion over the coming months – perhaps even years. 

Visitors Arriving at Pitti Uomo 94
Visitors to Pitti 95 in January 2019

Not every man will want to don a canary yellow suit with fuchsia pocket square purely because they’ve seen it on Instagram. But if it’s a look that was paraded around Pitti, rest assured that somebody somewhere will emulate it eventually.

Thus the Pitti runways that matter today are not those located in exclusive Renaissance villas around Florence, featuring professional models draped in the creations of officially-invited international designers.

Instead, the real trendsetting action takes place on a para-runway out on the piazza at the Fortezza. One that is arguably no less staged and choreographed than the big budget events, but which derives its superior power as a marketing tool from the apparent credibility of the street. 

At Pitti it’s the influencers and posers who hold the greatest sway.

But just as in any context where the concentration of power has rapidly changed hands, you can be sure that somebody will have identified an opportunity to play the game for profit. 

With all eyes on Pitti, the event presents a potentially lucrative marketing opportunity. For sure, most of those visiting Pitti are just regular people who work in the industry and enjoy clothing as a form of creative expression. But without wishing to sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, in some cases Pitti “street style” is less a genuine and spontaneous indicator of ground-level trends, and more an orchestrated attempt by certain business interests to pull the fashion industry’s strings back in their own direction.

And you, what’s your take on Influence Marketing and on how it impacts the modeling and photography industries? Share your thoughts in comment :).

J. Bramaan

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