MILAN — Based on its strong tradition in small, family-owned artisan workshops, Italy is fast becoming the world’s leading manufacturer for high-quality designer name apparel — from jeans lines straight through to signature collections. Today, as never before, Italy is a mecca for designers from all over who require quality, innovation and the ability to service their customers globally. The designers also come here seeking the prestige of the Made in Italy label.
Italian designers have long known about Italy’s manufacturing muscle, which has helped them penetrate markets around the world and contributed to the Italian fashion boom that rolled through the 1980s. In fact, few Italian houses choose to produce outside Italy.
But non-Italian designers are turning increasingly to manufacturers here to develop and consolidate their businesses. Some started earlier than others. In the 1960s, French designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior came to Italy to produce their knitwear; in the 1970s Louis FAraud and Emanuel Ungaro arrived to produce their men’s wear. Today, designers from around the world — everyone from Calvin Klein and Donna Karan to Jil Sander, Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood — are coming to Italy to produce a wide range of collections and accessories.
“If you do a movie, you must be in Hollywood; if you want to surf, you have to go to Malibu. Italy is the country of fashion and you have to be there to be part of fashion. It’s as simple as that,” said Carlo D’Amario, managing director of Vivienne Westwood. “The costs may be higher in Italy, but it has the infrastructure to cater to fashion. The most important thing is that the Italians invest money in fashion and they believe in it…the manufacturing know-how is there,” he added. The companies that produce designer apparel in Italy have built themselves an unmatched reputation for innovation, creativity and flexibility. They produce sample collections in record time, experiment constantly with new washes and finishes, and work expertly with a vast range of fabrics and materials.
“Italy is the only place in the world where designers can find the skills of mixing and matching manufacturing techniques and the ability to work with so many fabrics at once,” said Armando Branchini, vice president of Intercorporate, a Milan-based consulting firm specializing in luxury goods. Italy also has the advantage of a strong, vertically integrated textile and apparel industry. Within its borders, designers can find everything from yarn and textile mills to apparel and knitwear manufacturers, not to mention the related industries of leather crafting and shoe manufacturing. “Italy cannot be matched for the high level and the range of its products,” said Franco PenA, co-owner of Florence-based manufacturer Giby, which produces collections for Helmut Lang and Paul Smith. An unexpected windfall arrived three years ago with the devaluation of the lira, which made Italian products even more competitive abroad. “Labor costs are high, but the lira is low and that balances things out,” said Len Wright, managing director of Katharine Hamnett. Some non-Italian designers, such as Jil Sander and Emanuel Ungaro, have been producing in Italy for more than 20 years. When Jil Sander was starting out, she said she couldn’t find qualified workmanship in Germany and turned to Italy, where she has developed close relationships with two manufacturers in particular, though she declines to reveal their names or locations. Now, she says those relationships are key to her business. “We have really grown together. I had the ability to do the work the way I wanted it and now these have become true partnerships,” said Sander.
Ungaro’s relationship with GFT is another long-term alliance. “We started 20 years ago when GFT was the only one doing couture quality in rtw quantities,” said Ungaro’s managing director Carlo Valerio.
“Three years ago,” Valerio said, “we built a dedicated Ungaro unit inside GFT which operates exclusively for us. It has an independent business manager and team. This means we have complete focus from a group that has many licensed brands and private label businesses.” GFT also produces for Giorgio Armani, Valentino and Claude Montana. U.S. designers Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, who have been masters at interpreting European styles for American consumers, also know the secrets of producing in Italy. “The quality has always been superior,” said Steve Ruzow, president of The Donna Karan Co., which started producing in Italy 11 years ago and also sources much of its fabrics here. Donna Karan has offices in Milan and contracts with various factories around the country to produce its men’s signature collection, the women’s footwear collection, half of the women’s accessories and much of the knitwear. “I’d say 50 to 60 percent of the collections and about 10 percent of DKNY is made in Italy,” Ruzow said. Calvin Klein produces his CK men’s collection with GFT, while CK’s women’s collection is manufactured by a number of small-to-medium-sized contractors in the Veneto region. The Klein company, which refused to respond to questions for this story, also recently reached an agreement with the Florence-based Frattini group, which also produces jeans under the Rifle label, to produce Calvin Klein Jeans for the European market. Calvin Klein executives are talking with several Italian manufacturers to produce European collections for CK’s men’s and women’s lines, the signature women’s line and possibly the signature men’s lines.
When Oscar de la Renta was casting around for a manufacturer to produce his new men’s wear line, Oscar de la Renta Pour Homme, he came straight to Italy and picked the Cerruti-owned clothing factory, Hitman, outside Milan. “Italy has the best quality in the world, bar none,” said Carmine Porcelli, director of licensing for Oscar de la Renta. Although he admitted costs are higher, “quality was our primary concern,” he said.
“The fabrics are so much better in Italy, and the Italians excel in tailoring and suit construction.”
Other designers, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix, discovered Italy more recently. Lagerfeld just signed a deal for his signature line with Selene SpA, which also produces two collections for Valentino, in addition to its own labels.
“With our volumes going up, we had to industrialize the production,” said Mounir Moufarrige, president of Karl Lagerfeld, when the deal was signed. “We are very pleased to have them as a partner, they are very meticulous.”
Selene is known within the industry for its excellent pattern designers, its in-house cutting operation and its strong distribution network. Giovanni Burani, who is responsible for Selene’s designer division, said the strategy for the line is to deliver a better quality product and better service at a lower price. One reason the Italian companies stand out is their ability to blend creativity and innovation with industrial know-how. Aeffe SpA, for example, has taken unusual, niche collections that require a high level of handwork — such as those by Rifat Ozbek and Jean Paul Gaultier — and transformed them into profitable businesses. Aeffe, which also produces Moschino and Alberta Ferretti collections, dedicates separate workshops, creative and commercial teams, as well as personalized showroom spaces to each designer. “Ozbek came to Italy…looking for bigger premises, more staff and more support,” said Cindy White, sales director for Rifat Ozbek. “Their ability to produce seven sample collections of both our main and diffusion lines allowed us to more than double sales in the first season,” White said. “Aeffe also holds a good record in distribution and deliveries. However, they are continually working to improve this area and last year introduced an early window delivery. More recently the company added a computer coding system that will facilitate coordinated deliveries. In our experience they provide an excellent customer follow-up service,” White said. Aeffe also went on to take a 50 percent stake in the designer’s firm. “This strengthened our position in the marketplace,” White added. Massimo Ferretti, chairman of Aeffe, said there’s also more to a successful relationship than just business. “This is a strong industrial sector, but it also has a soul. The warmth of the relationship and the spirit we put into our work is also very important,” he said. Stile Moda, which produces Katharine Hamnett’s main men’s and women’s lines and Jean Paul Gaultier’s second line, distinguishes itself by experimenting with different fabric treatments — all under one roof. “Stile Moda helps us on the technical side because it has its own laundry and lab at its headquarters. That enables us, and them, to constantly experiment with new washes and finishes which we can apply to the lines, especially the denim,” said Len Wright, the managing director of Katharine Hamnett. Another strength of the Italian producers is coming up with new collections for established designers and giving young talent a platform. In the past year, Gilmar has launched a jeans line for Christian Lacroix and ready-to-wear lines for Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui. “The main attraction for me in working with a company like Gilmar is their facilities,” said Anna Sui, who also designs Gilmar’s Cento X Cento collection.
“I’ve been able to do things that would be next to impossible for me otherwise,” said Sui, adding that she has developed an extensive knitwear line and that she relies on the Gilmar staff to research fabrics, trims, buttons and accessories.
Staff International, which produces Valentino’s Oliver, Martin Margiela, Alberto Biani and Costume National, launched Vivienne Westwood’s Red Label collection in an effort to bring her off-the-wall designs back to reality. “We think she is one of the greatest designers in the world,” said Sandro Dall’Pra, who co-owns Staff with designer Biani. “We wanted to apply our industrial know-how to her ideas and create a younger, less extreme collection that is more tied to everyday life.”
Dall’Pra said Staff prides itself on giving niche designers industrial support. He said the company invests heavily in computers that guide the production process from fabric cutting to the finished product. He said fabrics are cut by automated laser systems to insure that all patterns are exactly the same. Giby is another company that has sought out and encouraged up-and-coming designers. They currently produce for Paul Smith and Helmut Lang. “We think of Giby as the ideal incubator for designers that the bigger name manufacturers are afraid to take on,” said PenA, who co-owns the company with the Japanese firm Onward Kashiyama.
“Our goal is to create an industrial business for them,” PenA said. He said the company was able to boost Helmut Lang’s men’s and women’s collections from a modest production to 50,000 pieces per season after a little over a year of working together. He said Giby’s hopes for Paul Smith’s women’s collection are just as high. “We started Paul Smith’s women’s collection from scratch and we are still feeling our way in these first few seasons, trying to understand how we can best raise this child.”
Despite the advantages of Italian manufacturing, relationships between Italian producers and non-Italian designers are not always rosy. There are often difficulties with language and communication, distance and different visions and goals for a clothing line. Ralph Lauren and men’s wear manufacturer Corneliani ended their five-year relationship to produce the designer’s formal men’s wear collection for Europe in 1991 because of a difference of opinion about fabrics. “We had a very positive working relationship and very good personal relations. Our mistake was not to understand what his goals were from the beginning,” said Maurizio Corneliani, marketing director for the family firm. Corneliani explained that despite their recommendations about how to modify the collection for the European market, Lauren was reluctant to make any compromises. In the end, the market had the last word and the collection didn’t sell.
“His choice of fabrics was far removed from the tastes of the European customer. It was a problem for the company to understand the demands of this marketplace. We terminated the relationship in 1991,” he said. Lauren is now producing his top, mostly handtailored men’s suits in London. He produces some sweaters, shoes, socks and most of his tie prints in Italy.
Designers say their biggest problems are with late fabric deliveries. “It’s been a particular problem in the last few seasons because with the weak lira a lot of fabric orders are going into Italy and the mills can’t keep up with them. We sometimes are waiting 120 days for fabrics now,” said Len Wright of Katharine Hamnett. Another problem is distance, which can be a major obstacle in the creative process. “It isn’t so much the travel as the inability to ‘play’ with the collection. All the decisions are made and then we leave, which leaves less time to develop ideas,” said Ozbek sales director Cindy White. “Unfortunately, the creative process doesn’t have an on/off switch and ideas continue to form even after we have left,” she added. Producing in Italy is not for everyone. “It works best for those designers who have a strong name, a retail network or a footprint in the market in terms of volume, and personality and creativity,” said consultant Armando Branchini.
–with contribuitons from Katherine Weisman, Paris and James Fallon, London