By  on February 21, 2008

MILAN — "Fashion reunites all the big flows of capital of organized crime: cocaine, transportation and distribution," said Roberto Saviano, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller "Gomorrah," about the influence of the Neapolitan Mafia, or Camorra, throughout Italian society.

"To my mind, fashion is one of the most infiltrated markets of the criminal underworld," Saviano added, slouched on a gray sofa in the headquarters of his publisher, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.

In his book, the author describes in detail the interaction between fashion and the Camorra via illegal workshops and factories, how fashion is also a vehicle for money laundering, the industry's ties with Chinese textile suppliers and the lightning speed at which the region's workshops can turn out perfectly crafted pieces — but at the cost to workers of long hours and underpaid shifts. It tells of auctions for contracts where the winning formula for manufacturers seeking to produce for luxury brands is highest quantity-lowest price-shortest time frame.

But while Saviano names top Camorra bosses in the book, he doesn't cite or criticize individual fashion companies in order to avoid lawsuits, he said.

Giuseppe Bottillo, commanding officer of the Guardia di Finanza di Napoli, or fiscal police, told WWD the main issue is to keep manufacturers from operating illegally.

"During our controls, we found small manufacturers that hired their workers illegally violating labor laws and safety standards," said Bottillo. "When this happens, they close them down, but it's harder to prove ties with the Camorra."

Fashion's attraction to manufacturing in the Naples region stems from the area's long-standing sartorial traditions, said Bottillo. Lately, though, many factories have been forced to cut corners — including in their labor standards — due to cutthroat competition from the Far East.

In the book, Saviano dedicates the second chapter, titled "Angelina Jolie," to fashion. The chapter heading references the fact that the actress donned a Dolce & Gabbana (Saviano doesn't cite the brand, but a quick bit of research does the trick) cream satin pantsuit to the 2001 Oscars, an outfit he alleges was made by his friend Pasquale in a Camorra-controlled sweatshop in Secondigliano in Naples."It's the system. If you want to be clean in fashion today, or respect every step, you wouldn't survive and the Made in Italy [label] would die," contended Saviano. "Most often, the houses are burdened by quantity and subcontract the production, but then loose track of the cycles."

Top fashion houses disagree and insist such allegations don't apply to their operations.

A Prada spokesman said the "practices evoked by Saviano in 'Gomorrah' cannot be applied to the Prada Group" and that its apparel isn't produced in the Neapolitan district.

Prada said it uses five main suppliers and six subcontractors for the brand's leather goods, all of which are companies that Prada knows well, are regularly registered at the Chamber of Commerce and have underwritten the ethics policy and quality standards imposed by the fashion house. "Our inspectors regularly and randomly visit these companies," said the spokesman.

Prada also responded to Saviano's allegations that fashion houses don't keep an accurate inventory of raw materials, a scenario that can result in a production surplus the Camorra happily takes advantage of by selling it on the side.

The Prada spokesman said, "To avoid [any risk of] excessive production, we have full control over the raw materials we supply in terms of quality and quantity. The total traceability of our raw materials, the frequency with which we supply our raw materials and the many control phases make Saviano's [thesis] inapplicable to Prada Group brands."

A Dolce & Gabbana spokesperson claimed the firm is "sensitive and attentive to the social responsibility of the company and, in light of that, demand that its external manufacturers guarantee the respect of safety standards and of the workers' rights."

Versace said its clothes are produced in ateliers and small showrooms by expert dressmakers and tailors. "Not only does Versace put a label on every Versace item that states 'Made in Italy,' but we also have a label that affirms that each piece and item is made and produced in a Versace-owned Italian factory," said chief executive officer Giancarlo Di Risio.

Despite these controls by major fashion houses, Saviano contends the Mob's tentacles reach all levels of fashion, from cheap, Canal Street copies to ones made so well that he challenges even the designers to tell the fakes from the real thing.Often, if a fashion house rejects a garment because of a minor imperfection, the tag is counterfeited, allowing the Mob to then sell it to retailers without the knowledge of the brands — or the store.

"The market should have better rules, meaning that under a certain threshold you shouldn't accept a contract, but that would be antiliberal," said Saviano. "The fashion houses should judge the various manufacturers that operate at low costs to see who invests in research, in scholarships, etc."

Part of the book's impact has been that Saviano names many names and doesn't mince words when it comes to the rage and rancor he nurtures toward the Neapolitan Camorra in the hope of changing the system. And it is one he knows well. Born in Casal di Principe, where the Mob's power is tangible, he spent his youth riding his Vespa between his hometown, Scampia, Secondigliano and other Camorra-controlled Neapolitan suburbs.

Sporting a gray blazer, a red sweater and ink-blue jeans, Saviano is down-to-earth with deep, penetrating dark eyes that light up when he breaks into his many grins. He's certainly got guts — and now he has glory, albeit of the unconventional kind.

After the unexpected success of "Gomorrah," which covers not only the Mob's influence in fashion but also in everything from the Italian drug trade to garbage dumping, the 28-year-old author was catapulted to fame but had to accept state protection following death threats from top Camorra clans. He's the first author in Italy to require such protection.

"Gomorrah" has sold two million copies worldwide to date and has been translated into 33 languages. Saviano has garnered major media attention and will attend the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, an event chaired by Salman Rushdie, that will take place in New York at the end of April.

"If the book had sold a few thousand copies, [Camorra bosses] would have passed it around bragging," said Saviano. "Books on the Mafia are generally easy reads or complicated scientific essays. Mine is in between, which explains its success."

Saviano's wish is to see the Camorra finally release its grip."Many of my friends hate me because they think I wrote the book for money and that I denigrated our hometowns," said the author. "I'm different, simply more ambitious because I thought I could use words to change them. I want to change that wave, not ride it, like many of my friends."

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