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Giorgia Caovilla, who launched her feminine O Jour footwear line in 2010, and has a small manufacturing plant on the Brenta, credits Giovanni Luigi Voltan for developing the Riviera del Brenta footwear district.
After returning to his hometown of Stra from Boston, a shoe manufacturing hub in the early 20th century, Voltan introduced serialized production processes in his factory, containing costs through the mechanization of some phases of the cycle and becoming more competitive and efficient.
Artisans who worked with Voltan gradually parted ways and set up their own plants.
“My own grandfather, Edoardo, used to work for Voltan,” said Caovilla, daughter of footwear designer René Caovilla.
The web of factories set up in the Brenta area over the years have been absorbed by or turned into suppliers for big fashion brands. For example, relying on local skills, Louis Vuitton set up a state-of-the-art production facility in the area’s Fiesso d’Artico. “Our factory is one of the few where our workers are all Italian, and I’ve just finished producing a film to capture what the capable hands of these artisans can do,” she said.
Footwear is also extensively produced in the Marche region, from San Mauro Pascoli, home of Sergio Rossi and Giuseppe Zanotti, to Sant’Elpidio a Mare, where the Tod’s Group is based, and Civitanova Marche, where Santoni and Cesare Paciotti are located .
Despite the unquestionable reputation of the industry, the difficult economy is not helping business at home. Cleto Sagripanti, president of ANCI, Italy’s footwear association, lamented crimped consumer spending in Italy and a slow European market. In the January-August 2012 period, 152.5 million pairs of shoes were exported for a record value of 5.36 billion euros, or $7.17 billion at current exchange, a 3.9 percent increase in value but a 7.7 percent drop in volume compared with the previous year. Production dropped in the first nine months of 2012 by 4.8 percent in quantity and 2.1 percent in value. Last year, 192 shoemakers closed shop.
“The absolute priority is to lighten the fiscal burden on companies,” said Sagripanti.
In Tuscany, most of the leather goods production is concentrated in the Incisa Val d’Arno and Scandicci area, home to fashion brands including Gucci and Prada, as well as a network of artisans and laboratories. Tanneries began to develop in the area given the proximity to the river Arno and flourished under the Medici family as far back as the 15th century.
“The area is marked by a comprehensive pipeline that includes all stages of production,” said Mauro Muzzolon, general director of Aimpes, Italy’s leather goods association. “Fashion houses keep the flow of production going by working with artisans in the area, so this is positive, but the risk is that small and medium-sized companies rely on these behemoths — which can be tricky at times — and independent brands are disappearing,” said Muzzolon.
He added that while exports grew 21.8 percent in the first eight months of 2012, “the local market is stalled and tipping toward the low-end range.”
Exports accounted for 70 percent of the industry’s business, but Muzzolon showed some concern on this issue: “Only structured companies are organized to export. Smaller and medium-sized firms, which are the backbone of this industry, may not be able to exploit this avenue.”
The generational shift is also an issue, despite the fact that schools are being set up — also by companies such as Gucci.
Aimpes has also been fighting counterfeits, which contributes to putting “the sector on its knees,” said Muzzolon. “Last year, 20 million bags were officially sold, but 40 to 50 million bags were purchased through.
See a List of Italian Manufacturing Districts Here >>