The Paninaro are the world's only youth cult named after the sandwich. Fast food was fancy, foreign and modern in Italy in 1982. The Italians had spent most of the preceding decade living in a crisis-ridden country, dealing with domestic left and right-wing terrorists who liked to blow each other and various political and business figures up.
Politics were not on the agenda for the Paninaro, they just wanted to have fun, embrace all things American, wear designer labels, and listen to British synth-pop. They pretty much hated Italian music. The original Paninaro came from a few private schools in Milan, holidayed in the same parts of California and the Italian Alps, and hung out together at Il Panino, the first sandwich bar in Milan.
Pet Shop Boys "Paninaro" a ode to pop and good times.
They wore Timberland boots, aviator jackets, faux fur-lined Levi's jackets, brightly colored Moncler or Stone Island jackets, Levi's, Armani, and Stone Island jeans, and Burlington socks. They also had their own magazines: The Paninari —the circulation of which hit a hundred thousand at one point—Wild Boys, Zippo Sandwich, Preppy, and Paniara girls mag, Siffty.
It's tempting to think 'so what, kids were rich and other kids tried to look rich, big deal', but a lot of the bands the Paninaro were into had started out as vaguely new pop—an overly intellectualised obsession British post-punk bands had with making pop music. So something about pop, that hardest aesthetic in the world to describe—it's big, it's shiny, it's new, it's life-affirming—was in the air in the 80s. Look at Hollywood, and the whole postmodernism thing that everyone was so into back then. Maybe it was just celebratory, maybe it's what happens when a generation grows up with no fear of war or poverty, or political or sexual oppression for the first time, who knows? But materialism sure looked good.
Eventually, because the Paninaro were so obviously not skins, punks or the Chinese, a far-left group of Milanese guys who went out of their way to look not fashion—a lot of bad boys and facists—were attracted to the style.
It's kind of tricky to get in touch with anyone who actually knows anything about Paninaro. Luckily New York-based art director and graphic designer, Enrico Pirondi, and son of the founder of favoured Paninoro label Best Company knows a shit-ton about them.
VICE: Hey Enrico, tell me about your connection to the Paninari.
Enrico Pirondi: Well, my father was the CEO of Best Company, which was a clothing company that made really high-end sweatshirts. At the time they were retailing for, like, 200 liras, which was the equivalent of about $200 in the 80s. It was all really colorful stuff, full of embroidery and inspired by the American Ivy League schools, but with more of an Italian twist. So it was the ideal thing brand for the Paninari and it ended up becoming the defining brand of the subculture.
Oh, wow, so you were pretty connected then. Did you get into the whole Paninaro culture yourself at all?
Well, I was a bit too young at the time. When it all happened I was, like, 13. So, by default I probably looked a bit like a Paninaro because I was young and wearing bright clothing and stuff, but I missed the main part of it by a couple of years.
What sort of ages were the Paninari?
Umm, I’d say, like, 15 or 16. However old it was they had to be to buy the scooters, you know? But then that went all the way up to people in their late 20s and early 30s too, but it was definitely predominately young people. The older guys didn’t seem so much like real Paninari, they just wore the clothes and stuff.
Where did the Paninari thing come from in the first place?
It started in Milan. To begin with, actually, it was just a Milanese trend, but of course, it then started to spread to all the big cities in Italy. So yeah, it started in Milan in the early 80s and it was basically these kids hanging out on scooters in front of an Italian fast food joint, which was called Burghy. Actually, though, the real Paninari kids were the ones who first started hanging out at Al Panino, which was a sandwich shop in Milan.
Is that where they got the name from?
And where did the Americana influence come from?
Well, you know, it was the 80s and that whole Americana look was really big, so they took a little bit of that American preppy look and twisted it into an Italian version. So yeah, they had Best Company, which was an Italian company, and then they had, like, Timberland boots, for example. It was almost like a uniform.
What else was part of the uniform?
Well, there were the rolled up Armani jeans, big chunky Timberland shoes during the winter and deck shoes during the summer, big, American-style belt buckles and Ray-Bans. Also, they used to wear a lot of Moncler and Invictus.
A lot of bright stuff?
A lot of bright stuff, yeah. Loads of very colourful clothes and everything had to have a brand name.
Was there a key item that everyone had to have? Like Dr. Martens for the punks, etc.
Oh, it was absolutely Best Company, for sure. That was the must have.
The Paninaro's real anthem was Duran Duran's "Wild Boys", a rival Paninaro magazine was named after the song.
Did the culture revolve mostly around the clothes or were there other aspects of it?
Yeah, the majority of it was about the presentation and the general look. Obviously, there was other stuff, though, like it was embraced on television a fair bit. A couple of shows popped up that were really targeting them. Music-wise, it was a lot of dance music and obviously the Pet Shop Boys did that song that was completely embraced by the Paninari. Also, there’s an Italian musician called Jovanotti who was considered a bit of a fake when he first came out, because he’s Italian and he was doing hip-hop back in the 80s before it had really caught on like it has now, but the Paninari embraced him completely.
Did the Paninari infiltrate commercial fashion at the time? Did people use the look in campaigns or anything like that?
Yes, definitely, because at the time it was the hottest thing. I remember a few campaigns for Best Company were shot in California with American models to try and recreate the Paninari look.
What sort of people were the Paninari? What were their backgrounds typically?
It would usually be people from the sort of middle to upper-middle classes, because the clothes they were buying were often very expensive, you know? So yeah, they were all quite wealthy. Well, either that or they were spending all of their parents’ money.
Was there an evolution in the Paninaro style at all?
Well, after a while they brought out a magazine, the Diario Paninaro, with, like, a map of where they were getting together, style tips, stuff like that. So yes, I suppose the look did evolve, but there were no massive changes to that original uniform. Oh, another thing that was in the magazine was the Paninaro dictionary.
Ha ha, what were some of their words?
You know, like, el gallo, which means "the cock"—the cool guy, the leader or whatever. Then there was sfitinzia. There’s not really an English translation for that one, but it was the name for the girl who would hang around with the Paninari guys.
What did they get up to while they were hanging around? It doesn’t really sound like the most debauched subculture.
No, not at all. It was mostly just hanging out and going to clubs. Just what teenagers do but more concentrated on the style—kind of like the mods or something, I guess. Just normal stuff but more about the style and clothes than anything else.
When did the culture start to fizzle out?
It was probably around the end of the 80s that it died down.
Did that have anything to do with the TV show that took the piss out of them?
Well, yes, in retrospect it probably was. That was just at the beginning of the Berlusconi channels and the show Drive In was on Sunday nights. It was one of those typical prime-time shows with loads of comedians, voluptuous women, stupid stuff, you know?
Yeah, totally. But yeah, they weren’t really taking the piss out of the Paninari so much. It was just this one comedian who was dressed up like a Paninaro - more of a caricature than anything mean-spirited.
Are there still any Paninari around?
Well, dressed that way? No, not really. Although, I wrote something about the Paninari myself about four years ago and the guy told me that some of the original Paninari still meet up every now and then, but I moved to the States nine years ago so I’m not so sure to be honest.