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Italian Makers Adapt in Order to Survive

The Italian textile, leather and manufacturing industry is a rigorous patchwork of individual companies with a strong independent work ethic.

MILAN — After four years of self-pitying diatribes over increasing Asian competition, European economic malaise and unfavorable exchange rates, Italians are accepting reality and working to not only survive but to thrive in the new sourcing landscape.

The Italian textile, leather and manufacturing industry is a rigorous patchwork of individual companies with a strong independent work ethic. So when hundreds of competing mills came together this month for the new textile supershow Milano Unica, it was evidence that these firms are determined to defend their own businesses and support Italy’s manufacturing prowess.

After years of fractional textile shows, followed by months of internal bickering over everything from dates to food, organizers from Ideabiella, Moda In, Shirt Avenue and Ideacomo found common ground with Unica. More than 25,000 people attended the four-day event, demonstrating the country’s resounding textiles reputation.

“This was a season of change,” said Pier Luigi Loro Piana, president of Ideabiella and co-chief executive officer of Loro Piana. “It’s our job to manage change and to know when to change.”

As the Italian manufacturing industry has come to learn, change is never easy but often necessary. Targeting the luxury sector, improving client service and investing in infrastructure are just some of the ways Italians are reversing years of decreasing market share.

Between 2001 and 2004, nearly 6,000 mills and apparel manufacturing plants shuttered, laying off more than 66,000 workers, according to research gathered by trade organization Sistema Moda Italia. As of last year, there were 67,457 mills and clothing companies employing more than 500,000 people.

Over that same period, textile and apparel makers’ revenue dropped 12.3 percent to 42.55 billion euros, or $51.96 billion at current exchange rates. Of that total, exports slid 11.3 percent to 26.6 billion euros, or $32.48 billion.

Tanneries have also been struggling. About 5 percent of Italy’s leather manufacturers closed between 2002 and 2004, according to data from industry organization Unione Nazionale Industria Conciaria, which organizes the biannual Lineapelle fair in Bologna. There are about 2,500 tanneries in Italy, employing 28,500 people.

Many of the textile and leather companies that ended up closing weren’t prepared for the challenges of a new era, several executives said.

“Unfortunately some companies didn’t have the foresight to prepare for these changes and are underfinanced or poorly structured,” said Paolo Zegna, co-ceo of Ermenegildo Zegna and president of Sistema Moda Italia. “It’s part of the evolution of our industry.”

After decades of enjoying unchallenged industry dominance and the benefits of a weak lira, Italians were forced to reevaluate their role in the global fashion industry. Unable to compete with the lower-priced fabrics and leather hides that flooded the market, the companies are concentrating on luxurious materials that command higher prices and require the skilled craftsmanship for which Italy is known.

“We thought we were industrial when there was no other competition,” said Luca Trabaldo Togna, president of the textile concern of the same name, which still produces all of its fine woven wools in the northwest production district of Biella. “But Italian textiles have never really been industrial. We’ve always been artisan. If I wanted to be industrial I would go to China.”

Still mostly family-run companies, Italian textile and leather firms are determined to survive and protect future generations’ livelihood.

Trabaldo Togna, like many mills in Biella, has shunned the potentially lucrative option to move all or some production to China. Longer delivery times and the logistical complications of running a business so far away, coupled with an intrinsic pride of remaining a Made In Italy brand, has kept firms on home turf.

Rather than outsource, mills are specializing in the high-tier fabrics like superfine wools, where Italy is still the market leader. The country held a 40 percent market share in wool fabrics in 2003 versus China’s 8.5 percent, according to data from Sistema Moda Italia. Yet for cotton, China dominates the field with 48.9 percent of the market against Italy’s 23.8 percent.

Francesco Gotti, product manager of Prato-based Masterloom, said he’s seen the return of some of his British clients such as Marks & Spencer and Next because, he said, “China just isn’t ready yet to meet their needs.”

Like the mills of Biella and Prato, leather tanneries are drawing similar conclusions.

“Now you can’t just make nice leather anymore,” said Aldo Gliozzi, vice director of Tuscany tannery guild Associazione Conciatori, adding that companies need to focus on innovation and creating hides with a high “fashion content.”

— With contributions from Stephanie Epiro