In Italy, the state is weak and the family is strong, so it’s logical that, when it comes to preserving their histories, fashion houses—often second- or third-generation family operations—do it themselves. What to do with bolts of nineteen-fifties tweed so heavy that to wear it in a modern office would court heatstroke? Or fragile sandals made of straw, from the Fascist period, when leather was needed for soldiers’ boots? All’archivio!

Each fashion house’s archive is different. Many of Pucci’s color-saturated fabrics hang in four elegant rooms in the historic Palazzo Pucci, in Florence, not far from the National Museum of the Bargello, which occupies the building where Pandolfo Pucci, a distant ancestor, was hanged, after he was caught plotting to murder Cosimo I de’ Medici, in 1560. Also in Florence, Ferragamo stores its fifteen thousand old shoe models on the third floor of the Palazzo Spini Feroni, near the Ponte Vecchio, along with the awls and pincers of its founder, Salvatore Ferragamo. And Max Mara, aspiring almost to a breadth reminiscent of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s, keeps its archive in a warehouse in Reggio Emilia. The collection includes more than three hundred and fifty thousand meticulously catalogued items, among them thousands of the house’s trademark coats, some noteworthy ensembles of Audrey Hepburn and Carine Roitfeld, and issues of fashion magazines dating back to the nineteen-twenties.

Fabrics and wool fibres from the Max Mara archive, which staff designers are required to consult for color.

Pucci scarves from the sixties and seventies pour out of a doorway within a nineteenth-century fresco in the Palazzo Pucci, in Florence. “It’s a happy brand,” Laudomia Pucci, the family archivist, says.

The purpose of an archive is not just preservation but inspiration, a reminder that, while fashion moves ever forward, each house has a lineage. “It’s a little bit like aristocratic families,” Laudomia Pucci, who runs her family’s archive (another part is housed at her country estate, outside Florence), says. “Either you are or you’re not.” Max Mara’s well-ordered archive projects a bustling competence, in keeping with the well-cut, practical elegance of its clothes. With Ferragamo, the message is craftsmanship and experimentation. Ferragamo’s history is closely associated with the delicate leathers that Salvatore used—python, skate, toad, viper, seal, various types of lizard—and the company had to turn to experts at La Specola, part of Florence’s natural-history museum, to figure out what it owned. Stefania Ricci, the house’s archivist, told me, “Their specialists are trained in this almost eighteenth-century kind of research. They made the exact categorization of all the skins.”

A kidskin-cork-and-suède wedge sandal, made by Ferragamo for Judy Garland in 1938, atop a few of its colorful descendants.

Pucci’s preternaturally bright silk prints, laid out in blond-wood drawers, conjure a mod jet set. In the Palazzo Pucci, there is a little shrine of six terry-cloth robes from the nineteen-sixties under plastic capsules, a freeze-frame of Emilio Pucci’s vision that a woman might come out of the water, dripping, onto the deck of her yacht, and put one on. Laudomia Pucci remembers how much Emilio, her father, enjoyed their effect at fashion shows. “After a few steps, the models would end up in just their bikinis, and it was very amusing,” she recalled.

Max Mara’s classic camel-hair coats have never been out of production.

Designers at all the houses are regularly encouraged to make use of their archives: clothes speak to other clothes, boots to other boots. Describing a fabric or a color is never the same as holding a swatch of it in your hands. Laura Lusuardi, who oversees design at Max Mara, discourages her design staff from using the Pantone system or paper representations when choosing colors, and sends them to the archive instead. “A given red is not all reds,” she said. “It’s the shading that matters. So having these samples here, where a designer can begin his work, is crucial.” ♦

—D. T. Max

Literary remains of Maria Giulia Fontanesi Maramotti, at the Max Mara archive. Maramotti was the mother of the company founder, Achille Maramotti, and an authority on sewing and fabric cutting.

Top to bottom: Red suède shoe with elfin toe, created by Fiamma Ferragamo, Salvatore’s eldest daughter, in the early nineteen-sixties. Mule with red suède upper decorated with gold kid, created by Salvatore Ferragamo at the end of the forties. Sandal prototype in red-and-white kid, made by Fiamma in the early sixties. Red suède sandal with cork wedge, made for Carmen Miranda in 1942. All are perched on Salvatore’s hammer and cobbler’s bench from the forties.


A Technicolor assortment of Max Mara coats from the nineteen-seventies to the aughts, from a classic green trench to an asymmetrical orange.

Salvatore Ferragamo’s nineteen-fifties leopard-seal skins.

Emilio Pucci’s unusual solid-color silk-jersey capes from the late nineteen-sixties and seventies. Laudomia Pucci remembers these outfits as part of her father’s “lounging concept.” “He used to dress a lot of celebrities in their private lives. . . . You’re wearing these at the pool or barefoot or receiving some friends, and you just put some beautiful gold earrings on.”


Shoe prototypes from the nineteen-fifties in Ferragamo’s Sala della Vigilanza.

Prop Stylist: Miren Marañón