Byline: Alessandra Ilari

COMO, Italy--How else could Antonio Ratti have celebrated the 50th anniversary of his high-end fabric company, if not with an exhibition of antique paisley shawls? For the past five decades the paisley design has been the epitome of the Ratti collections, cropping up in myriad patterns, colors and fabrics. "With this exhibition I wanted to celebrate Ratti's anniversary and, at the same time, thank this pattern that has been a constant inspiration, with its curves and movement," said Ratti, at the opening of the exhibition here, in the landmark San Francesco, a former church now used for exhibitions. The show of shawls runs through June.
The show includes a display of some 70 Indian and European cashmere shawls, originating from the late 1700s. The shawls come from Ratti's personal collection of 274 pieces. "The term 'paisley' is commonly used to describe this design," said Ratti. But he explained, "It refers to the shawls made in Paisley, which today is a suburb of Glasgow and where the shawls were woven during the second half of the 19th century,"
Ratti also noted that the times for collecting these items have changed.
"When I started collecting them in 1960, they were quite affordable, while today you can pay up to $20,000 for one," he declared, making no secret that his favorite ones come from India. The 80-year-old Ratti travels to auctions in the South of France or Northern England to add new patterns to his collection.
The shawls for the exhibit were chosen by Monique Levi Strauss, a French expert in the history and craftsmanship of antique paisley wraps. "The idea was to pinpoint the evolution of the design," she explained, "because at the beginning of the 19th century the paisley design [which comes from a palm tree leaf] only decorated the border of the shawls, but gradually expanded to fill the whole surface."
Levi Strauss--who is not connected to the jeans company of the same name--also wrote a book, entitled "Il Cachmire," with photos of some of the most prestigious pieces.
Ratti, owner and president of the company bearing his name, is one of the most important entrepreneurs in the silk industry. When he opened the mill in 1945, the production was mainly for ties, scarves and robes. Although silk still accounts for 51 percent of the production, today Ratti produces 8 million meters of fabrics a year, boasts a historic archive of some 35,000 designs and registered sales of $180 million (310 billion lire) in 1994. Over the decades, Ratti, based in Guanzate, has pursued an aggressive acquisition strategy. Today there are 18 Ratti companies spread around the world, four production plants, 4,000 clients worldwide and 1,173 employees.
To keep in step, Ratti has heavily invested in sophisticated technology and computer programs for design work.
"The mill's basic culture is technology," noted Ratti. The Ratti factory furthermore combines this modern technology with artisan skills.
Amidst machinery, workers will handmix the dyes, look for the tiniest fault and paint in any missing color with a tiny paintbrush.

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