Hester Lacey asks why everybody wants to be Italian
DRESSED in all shades of black and smoking ferociously, stylish young cappuccino-sippers pack out Soho's fashionable Italian-style coffee bars every night. Outside, on a drizzly February evening, a hardy few were even posing at the smart little metal tables that crowd the pavement. Espresso, granita, polenta, Armani, Versace, Moschino - Italian is cool, as a new survey published last week confirmed.

Italy is the most stylish and best-looking nation in Europe, according to the report, carried out for MTV by American research company Yankelovich Partners. The 3,250 young Europeans rated Italian men and Italian women as the most attractive in Europe overall; Italian fashion also scored well.

"It's true, the Italians are gorgeous," sighed Fiona Harris, a marketing assistant, over her cappuccino in Soho's Caffe Nero. "The men have real charm, and they are so flirtatious and sexy." What about the women? Her face darkened. "I suppose they are lovely too, all that bouncy dark hair and enormous chests. I'm jealous, but the good thing is that they don't age well," she sniffed. "I'm not here because I'm trying to be a pseudo- Italian; but I do like having somewhere to go and chat, see and be seen, where you don't have to get plastered. I wish I could afford the fashions; I've got a Moschino handbag, but that's it."

Not everyone is convinced, however. "Italian men love themselves to death. All that charm is just an extension of their huge affection for themselves. And Italian women are the vainest and snootiest you could ever wish to meet," according to Fiona's friend Ros. "If they're stylish, it's only because they devote every cell in their brains to keeping up how they look."

Style pundits also differ in their views. Frederic Minvielle, from Esquire magazine's fashion desk, is enthusiastic.

"It is in the nature of Italians to be stylish, they are born with a natural gift for it. Style is an integral part of their culture and heritage. The Romans," he points out, "were amongst the first to bring an aesthetic sense to practical objects."

Elaine Deed, fashion director at Cosmopolitan magazine, is more cirumspect. "Italian fashion is brilliant - from a design point of view they certainly have style. And women in Italy dress for men far more than we do - short skirts and high heels."

But are Italian men especially fanciable? "No. They're a bit flash, they'd fight you to the mirror and take up too much space in the wardrobe."

It's hard work being the best-turned-out nation in Europe. Grooming is all. One Italian woman reports that her four brothers all religiously used moisturiser from their early teens, and can't believe English men don't do the same.

"It's true that the Italians definitely do make an effort," says Elli Costa, secretary of the Italian Ladies Club. "Everyone keeps up with the latest fashions. An Italian woman will dress to go shopping, or go for a walk to show off the latest styles. She'll sit out at a coffee bar in the evening - it's like a fashion parade." And the men? "They have a very Latin ego and no matter what their age they like to be well dressed. Grooming is imbued in them from a very early age. Even when they have rucksacks for school they have to be designer rucksacks."

The charming Giorgio was sipping a Caffe Nero cappuccino. In London to perfect his English, he was tall, dark and tanned, in a black polo-neck sweater and spotless white jeans. "I don't think Italian women are anything special," he said judiciously, over his frothing cup. "They are always with brown hair, so we love blondes. But Italian men are wonderful of course. We are very clean and neat and tidy and we think about what we wear. We don't just throw on the nearest pair of filthy old slacks. We have a nice hair cut, and we smell nice. And we have clean underwear."

The British are unlikely to reach these high levels of grooming - but then they probably don't aspire to. Dr Peter Collett, a psychologist at Oxford University who specialises in the study of European cultural mannerisms, says that for the British, being "stylish" is not necessarily desirable. "While we might envy the Italians their good taste, there is also a vain emasculatory, peacock side to it. British men do not want to be seen with handbags."