By  on February 26, 2009

REGGIO EMILIA, Italy — The links between a precision-cut coat and abstract art might not be obvious, but Luigi Maramotti believes both project definite signs of the times.

He should know, given he’s the chief executive officer of the $1.4 billion Max Mara Group as well as an avid art collector, just like his late father and company founder, Achille Maramotti. Well versed in everything from politics to art, history to finance, Maramotti believes contemporary artists depict the desires and fears of our times, often predicting what’s around the corner.

“Fashion lives the same type of climate, the same changes. We’re always in the trenches, always caught up with novelty. Sometimes you interpret it better than others, but your attitude must stay the same,” said Maramotti, sporting a toffee tweed jacket and corduroys on a misty winter day in the group’s headquarters here.

Change is relative at Max Mara, however, since the fashion powerhouse has always focused on craftsmanship over showmanship with a product-centric vision that makes it hard to rock even in these troubled financial times. Not that Maramotti doesn’t recognize the challenges, defining the current economic meltdown as the “first real global crisis.”

From the crash of Lehman Brothers to layoffs at Mitsubishi and beyond, Marimotti believes the crisis has spread its tentacles far and wide, their grip tighter than the one that clawed many countries after World War II. “Perhaps for the first time people have a real perception of globalization,” he said. “Wars used to put things back into perspective. This situation is a way, without deaths luckily, to reset things.”

But drilling doom and gloom into peoples’ minds with the constant reminder of declining luxury spending is counterproductive and superficial, said Maramotti, who analyzes the current times from a different angle — one of creativity and inventiveness.

“Many portray a distorted vision of this crisis because it considers fashion merely as an industry of consumption. It’s more than that, it registers the times,” said Maramotti, whose group employs 4,540 people worldwide. “Just think of how Coco Chanel changed fashion after the war. A crisis like the one we’re living should stimulate designers to imagine a man and a woman with a different mentality, different priorities and a different lifestyle.”

He believes that now, as never before, women will have a clear idea of what they want from fashion. “A woman who is sensitive to the economic changes is a modern woman who lives her times in an elegant and timeless way,” he noted.

That said, he contends companies whose roots aren’t solidly planted will be weeded out.

Such a prophecy doesn’t apply to Max Mara, given that a company launched with a camel coat and geranium red suit by the 24-year-old Achille Maramotti in 1951 is now a fashion conglomerate that produces 23 lines. The various brands — Sportmax, Max&Co., Pianoforte, Marina Rinaldi, Pennyblack and Marella, among others — were introduced over the decades as a response to evolving market needs. Today they each have dedicated design teams.

The practical and eclectic Sportmax collection was conceived in 1969 at a time when Achille Maramotti was fascinated by the “Swinging London” vibe. Since then, Sportmax seeks to capture the trends with new materials and shapes.

A need for practical and functional garments sparked the creation of the successful Weekend brand dedicated to women who don’t let trends overshadow their personalities. Max&Co. is a lifestyle project aimed at the younger crowd with affordable pieces that can be mixed-and-matched. Marella falls into the golden range category of sensibly priced pieces that form a diversified collection of fresh and contemporary separates including knitwear, suits, shirting and dresses.

Marina Rinaldi believes in the mantra that “style is not a size but an attitude” and pioneered the idea of fashionable clothes for curvy and larger-sized women who still want to look trendy. That collection is available in more than 300 stores worldwide.

“What my dad understood was that, after the war, there was enormous room for democratic fashion that offered women a dream besides a piece of clothing. He was quick to pick up the huge amount of change that occurred from the Fifties on,” said Maramotti.

If anything, the challenge he faced was finding shop owners forward-thinking enough to embrace ready-to-wear at a time when made-to-order clothing dominated the market.

Today, Maramotti isn’t overly concerned about the current luxury goods slump crippling developed markets like the U.S. and Europe because Max Mara’s sales are spread around the globe. The company has 2,362 stores worldwide, both directly operated and franchised, all of which are designed in-house. About 45 percent of total sales are outside Italy.

Maramotti believes that while the U.S has been hard hit by the crisis, “already in the second half of 2009 there will be good signs of resumption.”

And despite their current economic wobbles, he adds that Russia and China (Max Mara entered the latter country two decades ago) remain fast growing markets thanks to the company’s 90 shops in Russia and more than 200 in China, with plans for further expansion.

The brand’s next large retail project is the reopening on Monday of its store on Milan’s bustling Corso Vittorio Emanuele strip. Also on Monday, Maramotti will unveil Max Mara Atelier, a new capsule collection that will serve as a research lab for the brand. The fall debut spotlights a Max Mara specialty — coats — with a lineup of 17 styles in cashmere, baby camelhair, alpaca, silk duchesse and a triple wool and silk organdy, enriched with embroideries and silk linings.

The new four-floor Milan store measures 16,200 square feet and houses an area dedicated to design. It is the largest Max Mara store in the world. The warm-toned, softly lit space is linear and filled with organic materials, primarily recycled oak and ipê wood obtained from the seats of a century old Argentinean stadium. Another highlight is the imposing helicoidal staircase made from burnished copper and ash-streaked oak. The store, like all other Max Mara’s units, was designed in-house.

“I started working on the group’s retail strategy in the Eighties and frankly I think I’ve built more square meters than many architects,” chuckled Maramotti.

One experience he likes to recall is when the company acquired an old bookstore in the heart of Florence destined to become a Max Mara unit. The locals rose up in arms, resenting the fact that yet another fashion house had evicted a historical landmark. “What we discovered was that unbelievably the librarians had painted over 15th century Medici frescoes,” said Maramotti. “We did our best to bring them back and during store hours clients could see workers in white lab coats working on the frescoes. The whole things became an attraction.”

And while other fashion brands have branched out into more and more product categories — from men’s wear to beauty and even home goods — the Maramottis have stayed focused on Max Mara’s core: women’s rtw and accessories. “The product is our lighthouse, our DNA,” said Maramotti, adding the company will keep growing its robust accessories business with dedicated areas in its stores.

That isn’t to say the company remains insular. Over the years Max Mara has sought creative input from the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Franco Moschino, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce and Narciso Rodriguez before they became marquee names. Such stints were always handled discreetly. The company recently has also been collaborating with young talents from the Royal College of Art and Kingston College, both in London.

“Many important designers like to sit at a table with us because there aren’t that many structures organized like ours and with as much experience,” said Maramotti.

That much is true. As Max Mara grew, its founder Achille Maramotti understood the importance of large-scale production, marrying industrial processes with skilled workmanship. In the Manifattura di San Maurizio, a predominantly female workforce of 250 is hunched over workbenches like laborious bees, a quiet drone permeating the cavernous 108,000-square-foot factory, which was built six years ago. Here, 100,000 garments are produced each year, some of which require 150 steps, while it can take five hours for a coat to work its way from raw fabric to finished product. The factory is located near its predecessor, an austere brick, glass and cement building built in the Fifties that since the fall of 2007 has housed the 43-room Collezione Maramotti art gallery. Some 250 artworks by the likes of Francis Bacon, David Salle, Mimmo Palladino, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Peter Hally exhibit the late founder’s knowledge of modern and contemporary art via a collection he began to assemble in the Sixties. Achille Maramotti was known to buy directly from the studios of up-and-coming artists before they rose to fame.

That kind of vision, both in art and in business, has driven the Marimottis since the founding of Max Mara. And a balance of caution and daring remain the family’s mantra today.

Luigi Maramotti uses a metaphor to describe the future, citing a man trekking up a mountain road that he’s never walked before. “He sticks to the trail, wary of precipices and is concentrated because he doesn’t know what lies ahead,” said Maramotti. “What guides him is his past experiences and knowing his limits. I don’t believe in revolution, but I believe in the added value of a company if built on solid grounds. The future means capitalizing on that.”

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