Antonella Valsecchi’s friends like to call her the Italian Bridget Jones. But while the children’s wear and accessories designer may be single and in her mid-thirties, that’s about all she has in common with the fictional British character.

Unlike Jones, Valsecchi doesn’t worry about becoming a spinster and isn’t looking to lose 20 pounds. A dark-haired beauty, she looks more like 25 than 35 and when she says with a radiant confidence that she’s content with her single life, it’s believable.

Valsecchi represents the new face of Italian women: single, in their thirties and financially sound, with cash to splurge on that extra pair of Prada shoes. According to 2002 Italian government statistics, 20.5 percent of all Italian women at age 35 have never been married and almost all of them are without children.

"I don’t plan to settle for just any man just to become a wife. My friends and I agree he has to be the man of our lives or we just won’t get married," said Valsecchi, sitting in her apartment in Milan.

The immediate benefit of this demographic trend may be a society of women with the means and wherewithal to spend on designer labels. The longer-term impact is a society that is growing increasingly older.

It’s a problem that plagues many developed nations, including Japan, which on average has one of the oldest populations in the world. In Italy’s case, the aging society is a two-pronged problem. Even though most designers balk at the idea, there is the potential that Italy’s demographic situation could eventually have a negative impact on the level of spending by Italian consumers. In addition, many are concerned that it could tax the human resources behind Italy’s manufacturing prowess.

In 2001, Italy’s national statistic agency, ISTAT, said 31 percent of all women living in the country were 35 and older. With Italy’s birth rate hovering around 1.2, the lowest in all of Europe, demographic experts say Italy’s population is not only aging at a rapid clip, but also is failing to have enough babies to replenish the society for the future."It’s quite a phenomenon," said Federico Billari, associate professor of demography at Bocconi University here. "Italy has the lowest low in terms of fertility, the latest late in terms of the age children leave home and the oldest old in terms of the overall age of the population."

And it’s already having an impact on consumer tastes, no matter what designers may believe. Claudia Felicetti, 63, has always dressed in designer clothes since her days as editor in chief of Vogue Pelle. First, she wore Courrèges, then over the years, Aspesi and Armani. But more and more, she says it’s challenging to find clothes appropriate for her age.

"I don’t understand the advantage of offering extremely young-looking collections, although it must work because designers obviously sell," Felicetti said. "I do believe, however, that the women in their forties and fifties — who can actually afford designer clothes — are being left out because of this exaggerated move toward a young look."

Felicetti certainly understands the importance of image and runway and doesn’t expect designers to overhaul their collections for a maturing clientele. She simply wishes a better merchandising balance existed.

"Fashion designers tend to target a younger consumer, but in reality, it’s older women who have the disposable income to actually afford luxury and designer items," said Andrea Ciccoli, vice president of Bain & Co. here.

Italian women, like Felicetti, do spend, making them a key commercial element. AC Nielsen research estimates that between September 2001 and August 2002, Italian women spent about $11.27 billion on clothes; $2.75 billion on innerwear; $2.65 billion on footwear and $1.17 billion on other accessories, excluding luggage. (Dollars are converted from euros at current exchange rates).

"I think it will be a challenge for fashion houses to provide for this growing segment of women over 40. Of course, for image and communications, they still need to do young, sexy looks on the runway. But within the store, on a true retail level, fashion companies also need to begin to offer an alternative in terms of fit and style for an aging clientele," Ciccoli added.A cross-section of Italian designers, however, say they don’t plan to trade in their sexy designs for more age-appropriate collections. They claim Italian women don’t want them too, either.

"Women want to feel young and dress young and I definitely keep that in mind when I design my collections," said Donatella Versace. "The idea that there’s a maturing female clientele in Italy hasn’t altered the Versace sexy style. Age isn’t really an issue."

Dolce & Gabbana, who have featured a gray-haired model in recent runway shows for the D&G secondary line, agree. "Women want to look young. They want to dress young," Stefano Gabbana said. "Age, of course, is important, but it’s not only about that anymore. Culture and attitude are just as important and the rules have changed. Older women today can dress how they want and it’s acceptable — a couple of decades ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case."

Yet for all their philosophical bravado and creativity, designers can’t fight the fact that, by 2032, almost 45 percent of Italy’s population will be over 55, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau. "Maybe, we’ll eventually feel a small decline in our Italian sales, but Italy isn’t our only market. We sell throughout the world with the U.S. as our number one market. So we’re not concerned about any significant financial impact," Gabbana said.

Prada chief executive officer Patrizio Bertelli also shrugged off the impact of Italy’s ensuing age quandary. "There will always be other consumers across the world and there will always be tourists shopping in Italy," Bertelli said. "In the future, even if there are fewer Italians, there will be other markets in which to sell, like China and India."

But what’s unclear is the future power and sustainability of the country’s manufacturing infrastructure, the backbone of the Italian fashion system. As Italy’s master tailors, leather artisans and fabric makers grow older, companies are scrambling, and in some cases struggling, to find skilled replacements willing and able to work in a factory environment.

"It’s easier today to find a young Italian who wants to be a designer, rather than say a pattern maker or a tailor," said Franco Penè, chairman of the Italian designer clothing manufacturer Gibò. "Where’s the next generation coming from?"Penè intrinsically understands that the strength of Gibò, which produces for cutting-edge designers like Antonio Berardi, Viktor & Rolf and Hussein Chalayan, rests on the talent of its human resources and he actively searches out young employees. "Our industry relies modestly on technology — the majority of the manufacturing calls for hand-done work and that requires skilled artisans," Penè said.

Like Gibò, other companies and Italian trade organizations have started their own grassroots recruitment programs to lure the next generation into the manufacturing side of fashion. Gucci Group, working with the local government in and around its headquarters of Scandicci, often sponsors seminars that introduce local students to the craft of handbag making. In 2000, Gucci, aided by city and regional institutions, created a leather trade school to develop young artisans.

Brioni and Kiton have also set up in-house programs to teach apprentices sewing and hand-tailoring.

In Biella, the Italian region famous for its wool and cashmere mills, the local trade union has established professional development courses and schools dedicated to teaching the techniques of wool and cashmere production.

"We’re not really concerned about a shortage of skilled workers because we have seen a return of interest by a younger generation," said Pier Luigi Loro Piana, chief executive of Loro Piana and vice president of the Ideabiella trade organization. "It’s in our blood, when you go to Biella or to Florence or to other production districts like Como, you find kids that were raised on wool or leather or silk. It’s a tradition that has already survived for hundreds of years."

Tradition as well as offering a creative outlet is what industry leaders say will help bring young people into the fold.

"It probably takes four days to make a leather bag and the artisan working on it feels a certain satisfaction, pride upon completion — not all jobs can give that," said Giorgio Cannara, president of MIPEL, the Italian accessories and leather goods trade fair, which is also investing in recruitment fairs and professional development classes.

Then there’s the growing immigrant population, which in recent years has taken on an increasingly important role within factories. While some managers voice reservations about immigrants’ ability to learn and assimilate what they describe as the Italian "creative spirit," others view them as valuable assets. "If there’s a strong will to learn and to work," Loro Piana said, "then anyone is capable."

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