Women in Menswear: Dalila Palumbo

Dalila Palumbo is a young Italian designer with a very peculiar style. We spotted her during our last visit at Pitti Uomo, and we couldn’t stop taking pictures of her menswear-inspired outfits.
We asked Dalila to talk about her relationship with menswear and the sartorial world, which inspire her both on a personal level and for her work with her brand Isabel Pabo.

Styleforum: Dalila, we’ve seen you at Pitti Uomo with many personalities of the menswear world; what does Pitti represent to you, as a young designer?

Dalila Palumbo: In the past few years, Pitti Uomo in Florence, besides being a spotlight for important brands and for the menswear fashion system as a whole, has been a place for people of the fashion industry to connect. Young designers, like myself, and artists from all over the world get together to share their ideas and experience, while promoting their own idea of fashion (either for males or females) through what is known as “streetstyle”. Two years ago I decided to join this experience, and I timidly made an appearance at Pitti wearing a menswear creation from my brand Isabel Pabo. I received a lot of compliments from photographers, bloggers, and fashion insiders, and I made new friends as well as work connections. After this first experience at Pitti – which I call “not-just-Uomo”- the trade show has become an important part of my job in preparation for both AW and SS collections, as an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

SF: What do you think of where menswear stands today – and in particular of the re-birth of sartorial and artisanal brands – compared to the evolution of women’s fashion?

DP: Despite being restricted by cultural standards and market demands for many years, menswear seems to be finally blossoming into something new, especially thanks to the re-discovery of sartorial and artisanal techniques blended with innovative projects and styles. Something similar is happening in women’s fashion, although on a much smaller scale due to the greater visibility that women’s clothes have received throughout the years. We owe this change to young designers who have been trying to offer unique options that would suit everyone.

SF: One of the biggest differences between menswear and womenswear is the attention paid to the cut and fit of the clothes – something that on a sartorial level is almost as important as the style of the garments. The concept of “su misura” is basically non-existent in womenswear. What is the reason why women apparently don’t care about this aspect?

DP: The realization of a sartorial garment for men requires following specific rules and a rigid pattern that can be easily manipulated and altered in the creation of a garment for women – as the style is more variegated. I agree that “su misura” is a relatively unknown concept in “everyday” fashion for women. However, if we talk about an important piece linked to a specific occasion, things are different. From my experience, women choose to have a unique piece for special occasions, since there is no other way to reach a certain degree of perfection and personalization when on a ready-to-wear piece. “It’s not the body that needs to adapt to the shape of the dress, but rather the dress must model itself around the body, and create an aesthetically pleasant result to delight those who can appreciate true elegance.” This has been my idea of Fashion, and it seems like many have been adapting it lately.

SF: How would you describe your personal style, and how much is it influenced by menswear?

DP: I’d call my style “new underground”, as it blends ancient arts and artisanal aspects with modern techniques – creating a peculiar and defined style. It’s hard to create fashion for women with this approach, but I keep studying and dedicating my time to this project, trying to bring the infamous precision of cut and fit that we find in sartorial menswear to products destined for women. That’s what I hope to accomplish one day.

SF: What are the brands and tailors that you appreciate the most, for both quality and style of their products?

DP: As for big names and haute couture, the answer is predictable: Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Dolce&Gabbana, and many others. However, my education has allowed me to appreciate the work of tailors in Italy and abroad. I would have to mention all the tailors of the Accademia Nazionale dei Sartori – its president Ilario Piscioneri, Franco Puppato, Sebastiano di Rienzo, Mario Napolitano, Mario Pastore, Daniel Robu… they truly are the feather in the cap of the sartorial tradition.

SF: Your work with Isabel Pabo allows you to travel the world; where have you seen the most elegant men?

DP: In Italy, for sure. Italian creativity and fashion are famous all over the world for a reason, just like the brand “Made in Italy”. However, I’ve met many elegant men during my travels, and I’ve got the chance to appreciate different kinds of styles influenced by cultures that are not as known as the Italian.

SF: The tailleur (the suit for women) is a garment that’s associated for the most part with an office environment, or with formal ceremonies at best. In the United States, it is a symbol of women empowerment in politics, recently exemplified when Hillary Clinton made it a trademark of her presidential campaign in 2016. In your pictures, you wear pantsuits and jackets in vibrant colors, infusing new life in a garment that seems to be popular mostly among mature women in a business environment. Is this a pondered choice you intend to pursue with your brand?

DP: I actually think my idea of fashion is best expressed with a tailleur – whether it is a jacket-pant or jacket-skirt combination. I find it can be adapted to many occasions as it allows for a broad choice of fabrics and colors. You can craft a style for any occasion with a tailleur: free time, business, evening, special occasion, all the while maintaining the elegant sobriety of a “modern woman.”

SF: Lastly, if you were a man, what do you think your style would be?

DP: I really wouldn’t know, although as a woman I’m naturally attracted to men that are elegant and have good manners – which one can be even wearing a pair of jeans. Anyway, I’m way too involved in the matter to provide an objective answer!

women in menswear dalila palumbo

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Attending Pitti Uomo as a Woman

attending pitti uomo as a woman

I didn’t exactly know what to expect from Pitti91, beside a whole lot of tight pants and narcissism. I am familiar with fashion events such as the Women’s Fashion Week, so I am pretty much immune to the nerve-racking parade of individuals that dress up like lion tamers in hope to snatch a feature on a fashion magazine. 

However, attending Pitti Uomo as a woman has been a fascinating experience. First of all, nobody pays attention to anyone who’s missing chromosome Y, unless they are buyers, models, or photographers. The only stares I received from the Pitti crowd were on account of my camera, which was permanently hanging at my neck, and they were sending clear signals that they wanted to be immortalized. 

Second, I think I finally realized what men feel like when they are forced to go on a shopping date with their significant other, and endure hours of meticulous inspection to determine how clothes fit. 

Essentially, my job at Pitti was to follow Jasper around and take pictures of him trying on anything he thought was cool. This ranged from mini top hats with silk ribbons to vampiric Venetian capes, nylon field jackets, and–of course–Camoshita overcoats.

attending pitti uomo as a woman

Regardless of what he wore, Jasper looked as if he just walked out of a GQ cover. I stared at him long enough to understand that he’s that unnervingly type of person that would look good even wrapped up in the recycled plastic they use on luggage at the airport. He probably thought that I was searching for the perfect frame to take a picture, while in reality I was secretly hatching plans to kidnap him and turn him into another underpaid model in LA.

The peak of this try-on frenzy was reached at the stand of a quite talented Italian hat maker, where a small crowd of adoring women insisted that Jasper tried on every single hat that was displayed. 

attending pitti uomo as a woman

On a personal note, I’ve had the pleasure to meet one of the few women present with a booth, Deborah from De Bonne Facture. She’s Jasper’s female equivalent: wearing a menswear shirt and a pair of trousers from her own collection, her face completely free of makeup, she reminded me how French women’s class and elegance shine from within, no matter what they put on, and I instantly felt as sophisticated and graceful as Kim Kardashian on Paper Magazine’s cover.

attending pitti uomo as a woman

The Pitti people warm up to the opposite gender during social events, when the drinks replace cameras in the hands of the attendees. I’ve had the privilege to meet many inspiring and talented people and talk with them over a nice glass of rosso, and the only awkward moment was when, at a dinner, I somehow ended up sitting in front of a wine maker who kept insisting that I described the aroma of the wine we were drinking.

“I don’t really know,” I blushed, swirling the liquid nervously in the glass.

“Come on, give it a try. I smell leather,” he said, inhaling loudly into his chalice.

I am pretty sure that “red fruits” would have been a safe answer, but I didn’t want to sound unsophisticated, so instead I said: “Bitter almonds!”

“Excellent! What else?”    

I desperately looked for Jasper in hopes of being rescued, but he was deeply engaged in a conversation with a French designer, so I dipped my nose into the glass and smelled again.

“Er…dry leaves? Crackling fire?” I will never know if the guy actually figured I was just listing the names of my favorite Yankee Candles, but he did seem satisfied with my answers.

attending pitti uomo as a woman

Besides indulging Jasper’s obsession with indigo-dyed everything, the show itself gave me the opportunity to talk with the makers and the creators of brands – both emerging and established – and understand the ideas behind their product and the character behind their brand.

As customers, we encounter the final product on the shelf of a store or on a webpage, but that is only one of the final steps in the lifespan of each object. Before being handed to us, a designer came up with an idea, sourced the materials to create it, failed several times along the way, and eventually delivered the final product to the retailer. 

When we make a purchase, we miss out on a whole process that oftentimes adds value to the product.

I listened to a leather dyer narrating how he lost his job before trying his hand at what he was doing only as a hobby, and his hands were shaking when he handed me his creation to inspect; I witnessed a tear peeking out of the eye of a shoemaker when he told us about becoming an orphan at the age of 16, and moving to Italy from Tennessee to follow the footsteps of his dad, a shoemaker, who never got the chance to teach him the job; I saw the smile of satisfaction illuminate the face of a hat maker when Jasper complimented the fine details of her creations.

Today’s easy access to almost any item on the market comes at a cost: like in Plato’s myth of the cave, we only see what’s projected in front of us, but that is nothing but a shadow, a ghost, of the show that is happening behind our backs.

Without history, material things are merely stuff. Knowledge is the key to understand the world around us: without knowledge, we could stare for hours at the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel and see nothing but a bunch of bodies painted on a wall.

Our mission at Pitti Uomo was to unveil a little bit of the hidden beauty that’s lost in the process that exists between maker and customer, and remind everyone that beauty comes in different shapes and forms – but  that it does require an effort to understand it from our part. 

You can choose to blindly accept what’s presented to you, and nobody will judge you for being lazy or content with it; or you can choose to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, and embrace new depths of satisfaction.

Either way, I hope you will agree with me that it is perfectly acceptable to make fun of a pompous wine maker.