Walter Albini was born in Busto Arsizio on March 3, 1941. His family wanted him to follow classical studies, but at a very young age he chose a different path. He enrolled, as the only male to do so, at the Institute of Art, Design and Fashion in Turin. At just 17 years old he began to work with newspapers and magazines, contributing sketches from high fashion shows, first from Rome, then from Paris, where he moved having completed his studies and remained for four years, from 1961 to 1965. It was in Paris that he met Coco Chanel, was dazzled by her personality and furthered his knowledge of her by bulk-buying vintage volumes of fashion magazines from the Noberasco tailor’s studio. In 1963 he created his first collection, for Gianni Baldini. While in Paris he also met Mariuccia Mandelli, the famous fashion designer known as Krizia. Following this meeting, he moved to Milan and began a collaboration with her that lasted for three years; in the final season he worked alongside a young Karl Lagerfeld who was beginning his career. At Krizia he experimented in industry methods, from knitwear to the study of yarns, from production to garments to the study of fabrics. Towards the end of the 1960’s he was designing for the main Italian fashion houses, for Billy Ballo, Cadette, Cole of California, Montedoro, Glans, Annaspina, Paola Signorini and Trell. His homage to Poiret can already be identified in his creations from this period. He collaborated with Gimmo Etro for printed fabrics. Parallel research into cut and fabric is one of the constant features of Albini’s work, to which we owe the creation of a new and at long-last coordinated relationship, between designer and fabric producer. In 1969 Albini participated in the Idea Como event, alongside Alberto Lattuada, Miguel Cruz and Karl Lagerfeld. The event was sponsored by the Associazione Italiana Fabbricanti Serici (Italian Silk Producers’ Association), with the aim of presenting the summer 1970 textile production, at long-last with unity of style and colours. In the same year Albini introduced the uni-max formula for Montedoro, with uniformity of cut and colour for men and women. This was also the year of the famous Anagrafe collection for Misterfox – eight brides in long pink dresses and eight widows in short black ones. The following season, again for Misterfox, he designed a Pre-Raphaelite collection which was presented at Maremoda Capri – one example of how Albini was able to masterfully combine cultural passions with fashion – and a further collection called Rendez-vous which was presented at Pitti, with printed fabrics and lots of embroidery-work inspired by Art Deco.
By now Albini was the most famous and sought-after Italian designer, but he dreamed of a line of his own. He achieved this with the Ftm group, which undertook distribution of his collections. For the first time in a united project, Albini designed for five fashion houses specialising in different sectors,
creating his own style. Jackets, knitwear, jerseys, suits and shirts, for Basile, Escargots, Callaghan, Misterfox and Diamant’s (later replaced by Sportfox). Having thus created a complete line, Albini decided to present it in Milan, at the Circolo del Giardino, and not in historic Florence at the Sala Bianca in Palazzo Pitti. Caumont, Ken Scott, Krizia, Missoni and Trell also participated in the Milanese catwalk shows. This was the birth of Italian prêt-à-porter.
The collection, Autumn/Winter 1971-72, was a huge success, a triumph amongst both press and buyers. The choice of Milan coincided with a far more complex operation. For the first time, in fact, a single stylist had designed simultaneously for five independent fashion houses of diverse importance. Albini’s ideas on fashion and its development are very clear. Unity of style, a different relationship with fabrics but above all the awareness that high fashion, as it was understood in the 1950’s, was now destined to disappear to leave room for new production models, in particular the need for a different concept of the relationship between design and production. Milan was not only close to the textile industries, but also to the machine and tool factories. In fact, this new system of fashion design also required the rethinking and reinvention of the machinery required to produce the garments.
With the Autumn/Winter 1971-72 collection, Albini also invented a new way of advertising, using only drawings, confirming the concept of “groupage” in specialist magazines. It’s the suppliers who pay for the pages, not the fashion houses or fashion designers.
In the same year, at the Circolo del Giardino, Albini presented his next collection, Spring/Summer 1972, known as “Le Bandierine” or “Le Marinarette”, for which he personally designed all the fabrics created by Etro. On the catwalk, after the shocking presentation of a bare-breasted female model, Albini presented some male models; on this occasion he launched the loose shirt, a menswear item that had, until then, always been fitted. After this success he took refuge in Tunisia where he bought a house in Sidi-Bou-Said. Meanwhile, the press continued to follow him and love him, calling him the new Italian star. In April 1972 he presented once more at the Circolo del Giardino, this time the Autumn/Winter 1972-73 season, a very rich collection with a very long catwalk show. The international press acclaimed him, calling him “strong as Saint Laurent”, while the Italian press reaction was colder, perhaps more provincial. A discouraged Albini broke all contracts with distributors and producers, except with Misterfox, for whom he designed a Spring/Summer 1973 collection which was presented in Milan. The dream of having his own line persisted, and he decided to establish WALTER ALBINI, still produced by Misterfox, for whom he created the famous WA logo. With the help of Mrs. Joan Burnstein, owner of Browns, he presented a catwalk show in London with 6 men’s and 27 women’s outfits, and christened this collection with the name The Great Gatsby, the novel by one of his heroes, Scott Fitzgerald. This show was the occasion to create the unstructured jacket, the shirt jacket, which was to be so important in the future of all Italian fashion. It was the first time that the formula was adopted – afterwards much imitated – of having a main line with a strong and leading image but with restricted sales, which is then economically supported by a second collection that is easier, intended for the majority. In 1973 he also opened his showroom in Via Pietro Cossa in Milan, a completely mirrored space where he put the Misterfox collections on the catwalk. Albini bought a home in Venice, the city where he held a memorable catwalk show at Caffè Florian, presenting the WA
Autumn/Winter 1973-74 collection, which he also re-presented in New York. By now Albini’s creative talent was receiving international recognition.
But Albini was not sufficiently supported, he had no solid commercial organisation behind him. 1974 and 1975 were crisis years, despite the particular beauty of his creations, with fine fabrics printed to his designs, such as millefiori and paisley or cashmere-motif prints, which successfully passed from fashion to furnishings and remained there for many seasons. An excellent designer, in 1974 Albini was the first stylist to celebrate a decade of activity, hosting an exhibition of all his designs from the 1960’s to 1972 in his showroom in Via Pietro Cossa in Milan.
After this he ended his collaboration with Misterfox and left the showroom. He began to travel extensively in the East, especially in India, and these trips inspired his future collections. In 1974 at the Pierlombardo salon in Milan, he presented a stand-alone menswear collection, separated from womenswear, once again anticipating the trends of the time. In Rome in 1975 he presented his first Haute Couture fashion show for spring and summer, in collaboration with Giuseppe Della Schiava who produced printed silks to Albini’s design. He presented the concept of atelier-produced garments to be sold in ‘teletta’ or as cloth patterns. The show was inspired by Chanel and the 1930’s, his long-time loves, and was followed by the Autumn/Winter 1975-76 collection, predominantly pink and accompanied on the catwalk by a soundtrack of 25 different versions of “La Vie en Rose”.
As far as ready-wear was concerned, he returned to his collaboration with Trell for whom he then designed some of his most successful collections: “Guerriglia Urbana”, “India” and “Folk” to name a few.
His creations for men never failed to amaze. He held the Autumn/Winter 1975-76 show inside a restaurant in the Brera district of Milan, and appeared as a model in the guise of the Duke of Mantua. The clothes were modelled by both male and female friends to underline Albini’s concept of unisex.
The Spring/Summer 1977 collection was presented in Fiorucci’s new restaurant, on beige or black busts that reproduced Albini’s image, while for the following winter, the Autumn/Winter 1976-77, he presented a series of portraits of himself, as a model wearing the garments from the collection, interpreted by twelve photographer friends. Amongst his cult collections is the one presented in 1977 at the Galleria Anselmino in Milan. Twelve panels were displayed, constructed with various items of clothing requested from friends, mixed with his own clothes and used clothes in a collage of diverse styles, and fitted with masks of his face. Again in 1977, at the Eros gallery, he held an exhibition of penises personalised with the names of friends and celebrities.
In 1978, after breaking his contracts with Trell, he relaunched his own line, Walter Albini, in collaboration with Mario Ferrari, creating three collections. The long-awaited Autumn/Winter 1978-79 went on the catwalk in Milan at the Palazzo della Permanente in front of 3,000 spectators. It was a great success, as was the subsequent collection, Spring/Summer 1979 which was presented at the Rotonda della Besana. After the Autumn/Winter 1979 -80 show the Albini-Ferrari relationship ended abruptly. In the years that followed, everyday anxieties and economic difficulties overwhelmed Albini’s creativity. He designed for Helyette, Lanerossi, Lane Gravitz and Peprose. The press became somewhat inattentive, and a disappointed Albini continued to work but had lost all motivation. He died in Milan on May 31, 1983 at the age of 42.