Road to Tradition: Tailoring and Quality Dominate Runways

Classic style and craftsmanship get a new spin at Dolce & Gabbana, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci and Prada.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana pay tribute to their atelier workers on the runway.
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 04/12/2010

The lights go down. The audience’s attention rivets to the huge screen at the back of the Dolce & Gabbana catwalk, which crackles back to life with black and white images of first one, then two, then dozens of apron-clad workers who fill the video, their proud gazes steady into the camera.

This story first appeared in the April 12, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The show ended against this backdrop as a legion of about 70 models marched out, each wearing a different, precisely tailored jacket.

It was Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s way of saying grazie to a team of people who, stitch after stitch, cobbled a collection steeped in sartorialità, or “top-quality craftsmanship.”

This season, in fact, a manic attention to tailoring, heritage and quality surfaced on numerous runways as fashion houses vied to regain market shares and rekindle clients’ desire to shop. Designers chose to shine the spotlight on the more enduring and consummate values of fashion, preferring a less is more approach to better enhance the quality of the fabrics, the textures, the cuts and hand-finishes.

See the Dolce & Gabbana review and full run of show >>

Epitomizing the fall mood was the army of outerwear that paraded down the runways, led by a die-hard classic—the camel coat.

In the case of Dolce and Gabbana, who spiked any degree of extreme or artsy experimentations, the tribute to the workers and to fashion’s human side proved to be an emotional moment. The show actually kicked off with a video of the designers twirling around fit models, armed with sketch pads, scissors and pincushions as they fashioned the garments.

“We wanted to show people what we do in the atelier and how we spend our days working with the seamstresses and pattern cutters. It’s this team of about 50 people that makes our dreams come true,” says Gabbana.

Adds Dolce: “Tailoring and craftsmanship are assets that belong to us and to Italy. From this point of view, we are very patriotic.”

Anchored on great jackets and outerwear to better flaunt the cuts, proportions and details, the primarily black fall lineup seethed with Sicilian tradition, a theme near and dear to the duo. The alternative to the jackets was widow dresses in macramé lace, flourishes of sexy lingerie and animal-printed sheaths.

A few hours later, a similar scene unreeled at Salvatore Ferragamo. Seconds before the first exit, a video montage flashed black-and-white images of the legendary shoemaker in all his glory, both at work and surrounded by fans the caliber of Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn.

The video set the pace for the first women’s effort by creative director Massimiliano Giornetti, who showed that gimmicky antics or in-your-face sexy just aren’t up his alley.

“I wanted to define the values of Ferragamo and show that I was moving into a different direction, with tradition and craftsmanship as core values,” says Giornetti, adding that many journalists and retailers from emerging markets who attend the show aren’t necessarily familiar with Ferragamo’s story.

See the Salvatore Ferragamo review and full run of show >>

At Gucci, creative director Frida Giannini has never shied from citing Gucci’s past when forging her template for the storied luxury goods label in the post–Tom Ford era. br/>
“I have spent the last several seasons looking back to Gucci’s strongest icons—reintroducing styles like the New Jackie bag and the New Bamboo bag, and resurrecting Flora for my first accessories collection,” she says. “The initial exploration into Gucci’s heritage was very stimulating, I realized how much potential it held and that paved the road for this collection.”

In an about-face from her typically high-gloss sexiness, for fall—one of her strongest collections to date—Giannini worked the hallmark sophistication and sensuality that permeated Gucci in the Sixties and Seventies, when the brand became an international favorite of icons such as Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg. The focus on heritage, she says, “gives a certain amount of legitimacy to the creation of clothes. Authenticity elevates the entire process of fashion.”

See the Gucci review and full run of show >>

Certainly, the global recession upended the luxury market. Just 18 months ago, it was considered cool to splurge freely on showy products, and light-hearted novels about dizzy shopping addicts sprouted like mushrooms. Today, it’s a whole different story. Although there are timid signals of recovery in this arena, what pushes consumers to whip out their credit cards is a value-for-money purchase—a behavior that has led many brands to tap into their heritage while maintaining a certain fashion authority.

“In this new era of reduced spending, luxury consumers are becoming smarter and more discerning, preferring authentically conceived and crafted products over anything that appears ostentatious,” says Mauro Capriata, senior partner and practice leader of European luxury and apparel at Spencer Stuart, a global executive search consulting firm. “Luxury is the unique mix of creativity, tradition, craftsmanship, design and a sense of lasting permanence.”

But beware: It’s not something you achieve overnight, warns Tod’s Group chief Diego Della Valle. “Heritage and craftsmanship aren’t a fashion or marketing phenomenon that comes and goes, but a condition a brand builds over the course of a lifetime, together with the consumers who understand and respect that,” says Della Valle. “Consumers must trust the brand’s quality, exclusivity and function.”

Marco Bizzarri, chief executive officer of Bottega Veneta, concurs that, while sales of luxury goods are starting to revive, the consumer approach has changed drastically. “They’re faithful to the DNA of a brand, but they ask for details, they ponder and eventually come back. It’s not about compulsive purchases anymore,” he stresses.

Ferragamo’s Giornetti agrees. “By definition, fashion isn’t a form of investment because it’s constantly moving forward, yet there are fashion houses whose products represent a longer life span to many consumers,” he says. “Customers today need to be reassured—especially when the price is high, because they are less compulsive.”

As examples of intense workmanship, he cited double fabrics, where two layers of the same fabric are bonded together by special machines, or the napa piping on both the exterior and the interior of coats and capes.

In fact, Italy boasts a centuries-old tradition of manufacturing. Top fashion houses go to great lengths and face onerous labor costs to preserve this tradition and guarantee specialized craftsmanship. And, given the hefty quantities they churn out, they need to stay on top of workshops and labs to ensure the production isn’t outsourced to sloppy or unethical subcontractors.

To avoid diluting the brand and to maintain its exclusivity, Della Valle doesn’t consider how much he can sell, but how much he can produce. “At the base of the process is a strong control on the whole production process because the final product mirrors the workmanship. Outsourcing a brand like Tod’s or Roger Vivier would never work for us,” says Della Valle.

To safeguard an increasingly dying profession, four years ago, Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier set up a three-year schooling program in Vicenza, Italy, the company’s headquarters, where young people train to become skilled artisans. Of the 100 applicants (all ages 18 to 25), Bottega chose 15, nearly all of whom later found a job in the factory.

Bizzarri says it takes between 10 and 12 years to become a specialized artisan. “If, on top of that, you have a creative director who does everything to stimulate and fuel their whim, then the creativity explodes,” he says.

For two days, two workers hunch over a workbench to cobble the house’s iconic Cabat bag featuring the intrecciato (interlaced) basket weave. For consistency, each strip is handcut and handwoven by the same person, making each bag unique and costly— a crocodile Cabat rings in for 58,000 euros, or about $77,500 at current exchange.

Gucci, meanwhile, launched the Artisan Corner project, for which its most skilled artisans travel around the world to select stores where they hand-assemble and finish some of the brand’s most iconic bags at makeshift workstations so clients can see the work in progress.

The house’s production units and supply chain, one of the biggest in Italy, are all certified for their commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Even the ever-evolving Miuccia Prada fussed over construction in the fall collection to cobble what she described as a “classic but fun reinterpretation of [traditional looks].” A more conservative mood prevailed, courtesy of a plethora of hourglass dresses that emphasized the bust. “It took us two months of work to figure out how to insert demi bras inside the construction of the dresses,” the designer notes, “but we succeeded.”