By  on June 4, 2007

RAVARINO, Italy — Sometime in the near future, a lab technician will perfect a textile with sensory connection capabilities. Here’s how it will work: A sweater is worn by someone who hugs himself, and another person dressed in a sweater cut from the same textile will feel the caress.

The communicative Star Trek-like stuff is just the sort of fabric Carlo Rivetti, president and CEO of Sportswear Company, would like to get his hands on. “Can you imagine garments that can talk to one another? It makes me dream,” says Carlo.

And, as Carlo narrates his family’s story while walking around the headquarters of Sportswear Company—the parent company of luxury brands C.P. Company and Stone Island that he acquired in 1993—it transpires that dreaming is something the Rivetti family has been doing a lot of for the last eight generations.

It’s a late spring day here at the company headquarters in Ravarino in the region of Emilio Romagna, and the perfume of neighboring fruit trees scents the countryside air as Carlo, 50, dressed in a white linen shirt and jeans, stops to touch his beard to punctuate salient details of the Rivetti family saga.

It’s a story he’s proud to tell “because it’s a great ‘Made in Italy’ fashion story,” he says. It’s also one he regularly recounts to his students at the Milan and Bologna universities where he teaches.

Behind the advances Rivetti has fostered for his Sportswear Company—barrier-breaking textile and garment-dyeing innovation—is a family past steeped deep in the history of the Italian fashion industry. It dates back to nearly two centuries, to when the entrepreneurial Rivetti clan founded one of Biella’s first wool mills.

The Rivetti clan’s connection to state-of-the-art garment production actually began in the 1950s. At a time when the country’s population still procured its new clothes from local tailors, Carlo’s father, Silvio—a raffishly handsome man who could have played the male lead in one of Rome’s golden-era movies—founded GFT (Gruppo Finanziario Tessile), a manufacturer of pre-sized garments, which modeled its technology and market research on U.S.-style companies.

GFT’s sizing chart was based on the average measurements of 40,000 Italian citizens. Offering ready-made clothes for the first time got the cogs on the nascent modern Italian clothing industry turning and GFT prospered. Silvio Rivetti died in 1961 in an accident at age 40 (early death, says Carlo, is another Rivetti family constant) and the company continued under the direction of Franco and Pier-Giorgio, Silvio’s brothers.

Carlo himself started working for the company in 1975, and in the 1980s his first cousin Marco (who was Franco’s son) entered GFT armed with his own bright ideas. Marco (who died at 45 in the late 1990s) signed production licenses with designers Emanuel Ungaro, Giorgio Armani and Valentino, and was the first to manufacture designers’ pret-a-porter collections industrially. In the 1980s, GFT was the leading European fashion manufacturer, but, by the early 1990s the company needed investment to sustain its growth, so Carlo and his sister Cristina sold their shares. Before he left, Carlo’s last mission was to sell GFT’s sportswear division, which had manufacturing and distribution licenses with 16 labels—including the brands C.P. Company and Stone Island.

“It took me a year to figure out I would buy the sportswear division: I was young. I reasoned, ‘I was born in the clothing business, I can do this,’” Carlo says. After acquiring the division in 1993 with Cristina, they renamed it Sportswear Company and sold off every brand apart from C.P. Company and Stone Island, which Carlo had become enchanted with.
Both brands were the brainchild of Italian designer Massimo Osti, who started C.P. Company in the early 1970s and Stone Island in early 1980s. (C.P. was an abbreviation of the name “Chester Perry,” a clothing company featured in the Italian comic strip Bristow; Stone Island was the translation of a book called Isole di Pietre, which Osti happened to be reading while working on a new garment-washing technology.) Osti had built up a cult following for his military-inspired silhouette and customized textile treatments. “He was one of the most brilliant designers and he knew if he moved to Milan he would have had a more celebrated career, but he was happy living in Bologna—he was a private person,” Carlo explains. Osti stayed on, designing for Stone Island until he left in 1995 to start up a fashion production business that failed. He later consulted for other fashion houses before his early death in 2004.

Carlo pressed on, equipped with Osti’s original game plan for the brands: bowling over the industry with the relentless pursuit for textile innovation. Carlo plans to increase the company’s turnover of 57 million euros (nearly $77 million at current exchange rates) to 100 million euros (over $134 million) in three years.

Before now, Carlo explains, his ideas on how he wanted the company to grow were murky; now they’re clear and Carlo is ready to assault the market with his new dream

“It’s going to be hard but I think we can do it. The last 10 years I drove the company deliberately to not grow big volumes. I didn’t want to distribute too much. I didn’t want to commit. I was a bit snobby about it. Today I understand the company needs to grow,” says Carlo, whose brands are repped in this country by the M5 Showroom in New York.

He’ll do that by opening new markets: He is on the cusp of signing a distribution deal in China, where he believes chic sportswear is aspired to and worn by many of the country’s working population, and for the first time he’ll keep an eye on global market trends, with the help of his sister, who’s based in France. C.P. Company and Stone Island will be given their own stores and more resonant identities. Stone Island’s collection will be designed with a trendier edge, and shown during Milan’s men’s wear collections.

But the sea change will be refocusing Sportswear Company’s DNA, to streamline innovation and deliver it more succinctly to the consumer’s consciousness. “We will do easier innovation. Less cerebral. More simple to understand,” says Carlo as he pulls a Stone Island reflective jacket off a rack. “This metal Innox-coated garment is easy to understand,” he explains, “but one season we mercerized finished garments, the end result is an amazing-looking textile, but the people didn’t get it.”

Carlo adds that he’s currently producing down jackets, constructed with shells of gossamer-fine nylon that weighs 130 grams per meter and the smallest feathers. But, he says, the jacket’s attributes haven’t been communicated to the consumer. So, starting this fall, Sportswear Company’s garment labels will be more descriptive, and sales assistants working in the U.S. markets will be shown the technology injected into C.P. Company’s collections, so they, in turn, can educate the shopper. “In America we are having problems selling our lines because the garments need to have their story explained,” says Carlo.

What won’t change about the company’s rigorous search for innovation is the process itself. When Osti cooked up his idea for C.P. Company over 30 years ago he installed a dyeing laboratory where he played around with garment-dyeing techniques. Today the laboratory is fully computerized—chock-full of pressurized dyeing machines, and glass beakers brim-full of pigments.
Carlo refers to the laboratory as the company’s “kitchen” and sees to it that it has several saucepans on the boil at the same time. The beauty of it, he explains, is that the designers can think of a color, the lab technicians will whip up a dye recipe, and two hours later the designer can look at the result. Here, a prototype garment can be dyed 11 different shades in the one dye bath. Stored inside the laboratory are pigments sourced from all over the world and an archive of 60,000 formulas used for dyeing garments from past collections. “Our dyeing laboratory is like a Renaissance painter’s studio. We can create anything we want, which is another advantage to garment dyeing—we don’t have to choose from the colors our textile suppliers use,” Carlo says.

Fishing out the end result of a pair of polyester shorts dyed pale sage green at 150 degrees centigrade, Carlo admits, “Sometimes it goes wrong and the garment exits the size of a sock! We factor in shrinkage for every type of fabric, but there’s a million ways to drive the dyeing process.”

Rivetti says the company’s garment-dyeing expertise has become so revered within the industry that representatives from U.S. textile treatment suppliers DuPont and Gore-Tex were blown away by Sportswear Company’s laboratory.

Sportswear Company sources most of its textiles—in standard white so they can be subjected to customized dyeing—from five mills located in Japan, Italy and Switzerland. Rivetti says the designers often look to technical fabrics born in the home furnishings, biomedical, and aeronautical textile industries, and transpose elements of those into the collections.

“We start from the raw material and see how we can manipulate it: It’s a continual work in progress. You need to find people who will follow you in the search for innovation. It’s very costly process but it allows you to be different from the others,” says Carlo.

Being different has its advantages. Carlo, along with C.P. Company designer Alessando Pungetti and the team of four design assistants, has dreamt up ideas that had the competition running to their mills, C.P. Company garment in hand, begging their own mill technicians to replicate the fabric.

One of Carlo’s favorites was the group of earth dyes concocted for C.P. Company’s collection a few seasons ago. “The earth-dye look on some of the pieces looked like an alfresco painted by a master of the Renaissance,” he says. He’s also proud of the evolution of reflective jackets, which the company started manufacturing in the 1980s. “Before, the reflective properties were coated quite roughly on the jacket. Now we are so far ahead with the technology, we can align every reflective sphere in the same direction like a membrane coating,” he boasts.

Carlo admits that when it comes to the collections, Sportswear Company is running at an innovation surplus. Now he just needs to channel that same innovation into the company’s own structure.

“This company has been investing in innovation since it was born—I can’t compete with brands that are phenomena of marketing and communication. I need to stay on this path I am already on. I think we have a unique product, and we have been great at innovation in the past. Now it’s time to push the company into the future.”

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