MILAN — Let’s admit it: Breaking the bank to buy a cool designer accessory, that irresistible object of desire that mixes quirky design, status and high quality, leaves even hard-core fashionistas with a twinge of guilt.

But the conviction that those to-die-for stilettos or iconic bag are so well made they’ll last forever helps temper the why-did-I-do-it feeling.

Lately, however, as consumers increasingly gripe that their pencil-thin heels fall off, zips break, straps snap and beadings dissolve, perhaps that justification isn’t as valid.

The faults are worsened by the fact that prices across Europe are on the upswing, especially since the introduction of the euro. Top-drawer Italian specialty stores admit that recently their biggest headaches have been caused by soaring prices, even for basic items, as consumer spending hits freefall.

Tony Tanfani, the owner of the Ancona-based specialty store Gisa, griped about the lack of creativity in fashion today and the high prices. “It’s luxury here and luxury there, but in truth that concept belongs to a few houses like Chanel and Hermès,” he said.

It leads to the question of whether, in these lackluster economic times, some luxury and designer brands are penny-pinching in terms of craftsmanship, materials and embellishments. The answers diverged, with some retailers and suppliers contending brands have cut back on their quality. Luxury industry executives themselves naturally insist their product quality is better than ever.

Prada Group’s chief Patrizio Bertelli said that if design overshadows quality, then it’s not a high-quality product.

“Design is part of the quality process and every single phase of the production chain — the raw materials, the workmanship, the design, etc. — has to respect these standards to create a chain of value. That’s our DNA,” said Bertelli.

He added that talking about quality extensively seemed odd since it’s something that is a given when it comes to Prada. “It’s our starting point, which explains why some of our styles are considered classic and permeated with tradition,” said Bertelli.

For others, designs that push the envelope and drive the market with their quirky styles can justify occasional defaults while, for others, diversification and the steep increase in production to satisfy consumer demand have, even at luxury levels, made quality dip.“If you’re producing 12,000 bags, it’s utopian to think that you can control quality,” said Tomas Maier, creative director at Bottega Veneta, the Gucci Group-owned accessories company known for its craftsmanship. “There are designers who produce in quantity for customers who identify themselves with the bag of the season.”

Gianni Amati, co-owner of the five Leam shops in Rome, confirmed Meier’s view. “Many clients buy the idea behind a shoe because so much of the merchandise around looks the same. In any case, no one wants to be ripped off,” said Amati.

“Diversification doesn’t imply quality,” added Diego Rossetti, chief executive officer at shoe manufacturer Fratelli Rossetti.

Rossetti, who believes that the retail scene is filled with over-priced yet poor quality merchandise, champions hands-on quality control.

“It takes years of experience to make a good pair of shoes, it’s not something that you learn overnight. Every day I leave my office to climb five flights of stairs and tour the factory, where I talk to the workers and see how the collections are coming along,” said Rossetti, whose father started making shoes for Gucci in the Sixties.

Diversification has led to a greater reliance by fashion houses on their suppliers, according to Carlo Sironi, the ceo at Finproject, a top level sole manufacturer. “The fashion brands [staff] have less technical expertise so they rely on our knowledge. They seem to be pouring their attention into style because brand products have shorter and shorter life-spans,” said Sironi.

It’s a different tune at Guimer, a manufacturer that specializes in brass components for footwear. “We have stopped working with fashion brands because it was a constant price war. Most companies would rather go for lower level alloys that just don’t guarantee the same performance,” noted Gianluca Bagnara, the company’s chairman.

Yet raw materials in general are the stepping stones toward excellent quality. In terms of Italy’s famed leathergoods companies, the strong euro against the dollar has enabled manufacturers to buy quality skins at better prices.

In some cases, tanners registered a 25 percent drop in prices. “In moments of uncertainty, designers are upping the quality by buying hand-blotted calfskins that enhance the craftsmanship and natural texture,’ said Fabrizio Masoni, ceo at Masoni, a high-end tanner based in Santa Croce sull’Arno, which serves Prada and Ferragamo.Giuseppe Baronti, ceo at Reptilis, a tanner that specializes in exotic snakeskins, sang a similar tune. “Fashion houses are even more exigent when it comes to quality by requesting consistency and exclusive textures,” he said.

Bertelli said all the hides Prada uses are developed exclusively for it. And Gucci’s quality-control departments test hides for different climatic conditions, be it Hong Kong’s humidity or Spain’s scorching sun. Sergio Rossi, the shoe brand owned by Gucci Group, continuously experiments to improve the balance of its shoes and the anchorage of its heels.

“The most evident proof of our quality-oriented investments is the new 172,000-square-foot plant at our headquarters in central Italy,” said Gianvito Rossi, the company’s head of international communications, of the new factory, which also churns out 500,000 pairs of shoes a year, including designs for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

But as consumers demand the latest new thing every six weeks, supply chains become longer and fast-fashion retailers place ever-greater pressure on designer and luxury houses, perhaps quality becomes harder and harder to maintain. After all, women today expect to wear their stilettos everywhere — even over cobblestones and gutters — so should it be surprising when their heels break?

“Feminine stiletto styles are pretty but inconvenient if they’re worn to the bone,” said Rossi.

Added Giuseppe Zanotti, a young shoe designer, “In the Sixties, a pair of stiletto pumps would last for years because women took great care of their shoes and wore them on special occasions.”

Clearly, the challenge for both accessories and apparel manufacturers has been to meld prettiness with durability. Staying on top of quality in a fashion industry obsessed with fast turnaround times is no joke. “One barely finishes a collection and it’s time to move on to the next season. Stores request the merchandise always earlier so execution time is reduced to a minimum,” said Zanotti.

That said, Zanotti goes to great lengths to always include labor-intensive accoutrements in his collections, including silk-lined shoes, latex insoles and naturally dyed skins. And if a quality-control issue is identified, he moves rapidly to fix it.

“If a minor problem occurs, it’s important for a brand to make up for it as fast and as efficiently as possible,” said Zanotti. “That means relying on a well-assorted stock of heels, rhinestones, beads and other embellishments that can replace the ruined ones immediately.”At Prada, the demand for quality means hand-knitted cashmere sweaters that take 60 work hours to make, nearly as long as a couture gown. “It’s one of Miuccia’s small provocations. The sweaters look simple but are incredibly labor intensive,” exclaimed Bertelli.

A couple of seasons ago, when Miuccia Prada was into lamé, she headed to Lyon where she resurrected original looms and production chains. “We don’t tell our clients all this because it’s our raison d’etre, but we’re sure it’s perceived and appreciated,” said Bertelli.

Uniqueness, paired with quality, also makes the difference at Giuliana Cella, a designer who crafts most of her clothes with antique silks and wools. All the 30-piece fall collection she shipped to her clients — Neiman Marcus in New York, Feathers in London and Villa Moda in Kuwait, among others — differed from one another.

The base was her Gabriele D’Annunzio-inspired collection, filled with kimono-style coats made with original Liberty laces and handpainted devoré velvets, languid dresses and wrap-around skirts, which she personalized upon the stores’ request. The most expensive cashmere and lace coat wholesales for $1,000. Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone are red-carpet fans.

“My seamstresses and I nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to get the clothes done in time, but we succeeded,” said Cella. “For a small company like mine, with no advertising budget, it’s important to offer added value, something that doesn’t compete with the traditional luxury brands.”

To access this article, click here to subscribe or to log in.

To Read the Full Article

Tap into our Global Network

Of Industry Leaders and Designers

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus