By  on February 22, 2002

ITALY'S KNITWEAR PRODUCERS THRIVE ON A COMBINATION OF CRAFTSMANSHIP AND CUSTOMER SERVICE.

No beaches, no jet set, no grotto. It's Carpi, not Capri, and while it doesn't have quite the tourist draw of its southern neighbor, its network of laboratories makes it the heart of Italy's knitwear production. And while your typical multibrand conglomerate isn't unheard of, much of Carpi's knitwear flows from mom-and-pop shops. The small town west of Bologna, about 100 miles from Milan, counts a total of 1,800 production companies, for a total of 10,000 workers, but only 13 companies list more than 50 employees.

Gianfranco Ferre, whose company's jersey has always been manufactured by Gruppo Dondi in nearby Fossoli, said Dondi embodies all the qualities that have made the region so key in Italian knitwear production. Ferre noted "the determination and self-sacrifice of these entrepreneurs, their ability to pick up and elaborate on creative inputs to improve their product and know-how, and their ability to blend research and technology with old, traditional skills," adding that their work is "passionate and enthusiastic."

In May, Giorgio Armani will acquire Miss Deanna SpA, a local business that will produce knitwear across the house's collections, starting with spring 2003. "Miss Deanna has one of the best reputations within the knitwear category," said Robert Triefus, corporate vice president and head of worldwide communications for the designer.

Carpi surged in knitwear production in the Sixties and Seventies. The town lapsed somewhat in the early Nineties, hit by lower-priced competition from the Far East, but it recently adapted to a new, global economy by offering more fashion-oriented products and banking on improved service and flexibility. "The companies in the Carpi area develop personalized products and focus on creativity," said Daniela Bigarelli, researcher at R&I Institute, which studies the local industry. "They offer more than one collection per season, reassortments and fractioned deliveries." She said sales for this area amount to $950 million (converted from the lira at current exchange rates).

According to Bigarelli, there are 386 firms that design and work for the final customers, while 1,424 companies are suppliers. "There is a chain of suppliers that is specialized in each phase," she said. Most of the families in the area are employed in this sector and pass on the tradition and the artisanal skills from one generation to the next -- although the youngest often aim for a grander role, like designer."This craftsmanship is in our blood. It's something we absorb without even noticing; we grow up with it," said Maurizio Setti, owner of Antress, which produces its own brand, Jamie Quinn, as well as private labels. Setti said that, for this reason, "We have a sixth sense for what the market wants and can adapt to it." Antress specializes in fully fashioned seamless knits, which come out of the looms complete and in single units.

Setti said Carpi's strength also lies in the fact that the town offers all the steps of production, from handmade workmanship to sophisticated looms that run 24 hours a day. Setti himself owns 26 looms, each costing around $100,000.

"This area allows a tremendous flexibility because it has so many laboratories, and each one offers different looms with different gauges," said Gianpaolo Tarabini, owner and chief executive of Carpi-based Blufin SpA, which produces the Blumarine and Anna Molinari labels. He owns the company with his wife, Anna Molinari.

Molinari inherited the company from her mother, Odette, who produced for such fashion houses as Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Sonia Rykiel. "I saw all the research and effort that went into the product, which then had someone else's label," said Molinari. "I decided I wanted to change that. I wanted to create a label, so I decided on Blumarine, from my love of the sea."

With its 95 employees and sales of $100 million, the company is renowned for its sexy, featherweight and feminine clothes, and, in particular, for the exquisite workmanship of its knits: embroidered, sequined, printed, ribbed, stretch, with hand-sewn patchworks or appliqued roses. Molinari's favorite flower, the rose, pops up in around 55 percent of the collections. Her fur-trimmed sweater is now considered a classic and has inspired many similar styles. Molinari believes that one of her secrets in designing the sweaters is thinking of how they will be actually made. "There are not many designers who know how the looms work. They design knits with vertical styles, while the looms work horizontally," said Molinari.

The company produces around 350,000 pieces a year. Molinari said it takes up to five hours to make simple sweaters and up to two days for hand-knitted ones. "While sweaters were considered accessories years ago, now they are basic elements of our wardrobes and are year-round hits," said Molinari.Tarabini said that the company doubled its sales in the last three years. Italy generates the most, followed by East Asia and the U.S., which account for 15 percent of sales, he added.

Tarabini plans to open a showroom in New York soon. Blumarine and Anna Molinari are carried in major U.S. department stores, as well as in a branded store in Honolulu.

Molinari designs Blumarine while her daughter Rossella Tarabini designs the Anna Molinari line.

Although skilled and versatile, the typical owner of a Carpi knitwear laboratory has no desire to expand, and Blumarine is the only example of a company from this area that has become an international brand. Local executives admitted that's because the town's strengths lie in adaptability and the people's work ethic, not in taking the risk to create or manage an international brand.

A 40-minute drive from Carpi, in Bologna, is BVM SpA, the parent of Les Copains. Founded in the Sixties by Mario Bandiera, owner and ceo, the company produces 500,000 knitwear items each year, mostly in-house. Sales are about $150 million, and the company employs 300. Besides Les Copains, designed by Stefano Guerriero, it produces Trend Les Copains, designed by Antonio Marras, and makes knits for Versace and Viktor Bellaish. Bandiera said Les Copains achieved international recognition and success in the Sixties with the invention of a wool yarn that feels like cotton, but has the warmth of wool, as well as its "mini-pulls" -- small, body-hugging sweaters.

Although many production steps are still done by hand, Les Copains boasts an impressive pool of sophisticated, computerized looms from Germany and Japan.

Everybody in the area concurs that training and schooling is the way to keep the industry going, but achieving this is another story. Les Copains trains in-house, but there are not enough schools to continue the knitwear tradition, and, in general, the younger generation isn't drawn to the trade.

"My husband tried to create a school, but out of the original 25 students, only three completed the course after a year and a half," said Molinari. She said the perfect student has "patience, good taste, knows how to interpret what the designer wants and has a good technical knowledge.""It's simple: Young people don't think this job is prestigious enough," said Antress's Setti. His partner, Angela Martinelli, a designer, echoed: "Women who work with the looms are extremely creative, but young people today all want to be designers."

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