When native designer Valentino packed his bags for the catwalks of Paris 17 years ago, Rome's fall from the pinnacle of fashion glory appeared complete.

Just a handful of old Roman fashion houses were left in the city that was once the undisputed capital of glamour and La Dolce Vita, and critics panned the lifeless creations shown on its catwalks as the death knell of Roman fashion.

Overshadowed by Milan and Paris and struggling with a dearth of big names at its fashion parades, Rome is now looking to get back on the fashion map by reinventing itself as a hub for emerging designers from regions like the Middle East and Asia.

We don't want any competition with Milan or Paris, Rome is for young people and young stylists -- it's all for the future, says Stefano Dominella, the president of AltaRoma which manages the city's twice-a-year fashion weeks.

Sure enough, this week's High Fashion calendar features three Lebanese designers, including up-and-coming stylist Ella Zahlan, and India's Pria Kataria Puri and Neeta Lulla, known for dressing Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai.

Also parading their creations were young Dutch designers like Addy Van Den Krommenacker, and Swedish stylist Sandra Backlund. The fashion week hosted its third season of a contest to identify new talent, and has begun other initiatives like an exchange programme with its Indian counterpart.

Milan is crowded with ready-to-wear and can't give any visibility to new talent, so Rome needs to take over this role, said Mario Boselli, head of Italy's National Chamber of Fashion. We think it would be great if Rome can maintain its roots of high fashion and develop creative talent at the same time.

The new thrust is not without some skepticism. Established designers like Renato Balestra say they are all for fresh talent, but Rome must apply rigorous screening for stylists to avoid turning itself into a free for all.

We cannot pretend to discover talent every season, said Balestra, who has unveiled his collections in Rome for years.

It's not like you can push a button and suddenly there's a lot of it. This is a very refined business that demands culture, traveling and other things to make a great designer. New talent is one in 200,000 people.


All this is a far cry from Rome's fashion heyday of the 1960s during the Hollywood on the Tiber era, when trendsetting stars like Elizabeth Taylor descended on the city's cobbled streets and piazzas.

Haute couture -- sumptuous outfits painstakingly tailored to the client's measurements -- was the order of the day, and stars and aristocrats flocked to the studios of designers like Roberto Capucci, Valentino, the Fontana Sisters and Irene Galitzine.

But the city's appeal began to fade with the arrival of pret-a-porter -- or ready-to-wear lines -- in Milan, which was to quickly overtake Rome as Italy's fashion capital and home of designers like Giorgio Armani, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana.

Top designers like Valentino and Gianfranco Ferre departed for Paris and in the 1990s, a sense of gloom set in. Refusing to show his collection in Rome one year, designer Pino Lancetti said that Rome was dead as a centre for haute couture.

The old Roman haute couture house, Gattinoni, summed up the industry's woes by seating life-size puppets of Italy's first ladies at a 1997 show to ask who would turn up to Rome's shows if women from Italy's political class didn't bother.

Ten years ago, we had no young designers and no foreigners, it was only the old Roman fashion houses like Gattinoni, Sarli and the rest, said Adriano Franchi, the CEO of AltaRoma. Today, young designers are seeking us out to promote them.


Today, Rome's fashion week still attracts well-heeled, coiffed Romans rather than Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and the jet-setting glitterati that pack shows in Paris and Milan. But designers and organizers say a certain buzz is coming back.

Rome is basking in the glow of hosting Valentino's 45th anniversary celebrations this past weekend that drew a slew of A-list stars like Uma Thurman and Sarah Jessica Parker -- and was quickly hailed as a landmark for the city's efforts to become a fashion capital in its own right.

Eager to push up Rome's standing in the fashion stakes, mayor Walter Veltroni offered Valentino his pick of monuments for the festivities -- like the Temple of Venus by the Colosseum -- and then agreed to set up a permanent museum in his honor.

The opulent celebrations zeroed in on the use of perhaps Rome's biggest trump card to regain its past glory -- ancient monuments and regal piazzas that can be used as spectacular backdrops to any fashion show.

Gattinoni's models glided down a runway circling the equestrian bronze Marcus Aurelius statue in Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio on Sunday while the Spanish Steps has often been used as a runway in the past.

Rome is coming back. It's becoming a place that people are coming to, like Valentino, says Franchi. Paris may have history, but we in Rome have just a little bit more.