MILAN — From fuchsia mink pompons to razzle-dazzle Swarovski embroideries, fall is replete with exquisite accessories that would make Carrie Bradshaw gush and rush to buy.
Considering the season’s labor-intensive and costly workmanship, Italian companies face a new challenge: to keep prices in check in light of still-grim economies and a strong euro-dollar exchange rate that penalizes exports.
The answer is balance. The “I-feel-so-pretty” wave that has swept over fashion will certainly boost retail business, but to contain costs, many accessories firms are taking such steps as:
Turning to India and South Africa for embroideries or exotic skins.
Rationing their choice of materials.
Offering broad price brackets to target a wider customer base.
Compressing their margins to absorb price increases.
On the labor-costs front, it makes a substantial difference where companies choose to manufacture: An Italian worker costs a company an average of $15.80 an hour, while the same person in India costs an average of 57 cents and China’s average wage costs are 60 cents. The figures were supplied by Sistema Moda Italia based on data from Werner International, a Virginia-based management and consulting firm that specializes in the fiber, clothing and textile industries.
“Prices have increased even in India, where we sent some boots to be embroidered with semiprecious stones such as turquoise and amethyst,” said Gianni Dori, chief executive officer at Rodo, a manufacturer that specializes in upscale accessories. “Italy, however, is still the best for handcrafting bags on wooden molds or crafting styles with raw edges. If anything, it’s hard to find young people to continue these centuries-old traditions.”
Most executives observed that for small, niche production, it really isn’t worth the trouble of shipping merchandise to and fro, adding that costs for precious workmanship balloon either way.
One way to be trendy and price-conscious is through a careful choice of materials. For Dori, that meant working with long-haired lamb, which is significantly less costly than mink.
“The strong euro has forced us to absorb a price increase of 12 percent, because we couldn’t afford to boost our price lists,” he said. “Hopefully, this will enable us to keep our market share when things pick up again.”Alessandro Dell’Acqua, the creative director for women’s wear and accessories at Borbonese, is convinced that today more than ever, fashion requires special details and top-quality materials.
“For me, creativity and quality are part of the winning formula,” said Dell’Acqua. “I prefer to keep production domestic to have more control because my intent is to create a world and an image that will lure my clients, while taking advantage of Borbonese’s multifaceted plant to minimize costs.”
Silvia Venturini, design director of accessories and men’s wear at Fendi, said she has nothing against farming out certain production to low-cost countries, as long as they meet the quality requisites.
“There are endless production possibilities to explore, from making special lace in Paris to Indian embroideries and wooden bag molds in Africa,” Venturini said. “Right now, though, all our production is Italian because we still believe that it offers the best in terms of artisans.”
John Truex, co-founder of Lambertson Truex, voiced a similar sentiment. Aside from producing in the Tuscany and Veneto regions, Truex has turned to Cape Town, where a couple of top-flight factories make the brand’s most exclusive bags in exotic skins, especially crocodile and alligator.
“It’s not important where a collection is made, but who makes it,” said Truex, during a recent trip to Milan. “In Cape Town, we found amazing technology and craftsmen who treat a bag like a jewel. They are very good with details like making one-centimeter gussets or combining slices of leathers in different colors.”
Twenty percent of the company’s production is made in Cape Town. Truex added that requesting one-of-a-kind pieces there wasn’t an issue.
Gianvito Rossi, marketing and product development manager at Sergio Rossi, said balance steers the collection’s direction these days.
“We try to weigh out the collection, so that we can offer simpler styles that make up for the more ornate styles,” said Rossi. That means that half of the season’s 200-piece collection is focused on sensible, unadornedstyles.
He added that the company has found top-level embroiderers in India that painstakingly sew beads and pearls onto the shoes at more accessible costs. “This would be prohibitive in Italy,” he said.A Gucci spokeswoman noted that especially for the brand’s more precious pieces such as the logo bag with the enamel snake buckle, it is impossible to put a clamp on prices by cutting back on the labor-intensive craftsmanship.
“Our most sophisticated clientele expects the maximum when it comes to details, workmanship and in the selection of materials,” said the spokeswoman. “To weather the market storms, which impose competitive prices even in luxury goods, Gucci tries to even out the collections with less embellished accessories that still maintain their iconic status.”
Even Fendi champions the let’s-be-trendy mantra, especially in bruised economies. That’s exactly what Venturini did when she put pen to sketch pad to create the Vanity Fair, a long clutch with roundish edges served up in multiple versions, from lush exotic skins and ones showered with colorful rhinestones to those made with metallized leathers.
“These are times to experiment, to push on the creative accelerator, as long as part of the collection features more mainstream pieces like the Mamma Baguette, which still is a bestseller,” said Venturini.
Max Verre, a footwear designer who launched a namesake collection a year ago, believes that for a small and streamlined operation it’s important to keep a lid on prices without lowering the quality bar.
“Mine is a small company so I can afford to invest in special details like the pump that features hand-dyed sequins that are hand-stitched onto the shoe,” he said. “It takes one person half a day to do just that, which is why we can produce only 500 to 600 [shoes] a season for the whole world.”
Wholesale prices range from $108 for suede pumps with leather trim to $336 for a baby rabbit fur boot embellished with rows of Swarovski crystals.
“At the end of the day, if you want to make a beautiful and luxurious product you have to whittle general company costs but never sacrifice quality,” said Verre.
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