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Made in Italy: The Innovators

Exploring the new technologies that keep Italian production contemporary and competitive.

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From the arch to plastics, banks to the microchip, the helicopter to the radio, Italians have played leading roles at the forefront of modern invention.

Today, innovation in the fashion and beauty arenas is paramount. Homegrown technology is more important than ever as Italian companies battle a tough economic climate to make product innovative and appealing, and keep Made in Italy production on top globally. As a result, technology is driving Italy’s manufacturing, from textile mills in the foothills of the Alps to the gold workshops near Venice.

“We are in a phase of rebuilding in Italy, and we are doing that with innovation and technology. We are rediscovering new methods of how to create products that are particular to their sector,” said Romualdo Priore, marketing creative director of Chromavis, a cosmetics manufacturer with a turnover of 131 million euros, or $180 million at current exchange. Italians lead innovation, he said, because they “put creativity into practice.”

Equipped with a blue-sky laboratory, technology is the fundamental driver of Chromavis’ baked powders and extrusions plant, based 28 miles southeast of Milan. Behind some of the beauty industry’s top-selling products — including a baked shimmer powder by a popular American cosmetics brand that Priore declined to name — the firm is continually conjuring up new ideas.

 

Chromavis will entice its private-label clients with a trio of new makeup technologies it will show in April off-site during beauty fair Cosmoprof’s run in Bologna. Powder compact Metamorphosis is an evolution on a collection of wet powders Chromavis created last year that reproduces colors as they appear in nature, with multiple chromatic shades and movement. Lash Multiplier, a new mascara formula, offers an intense thickening black shade achieved by coating pigments three times. A new hybrid powder, M-use, feels like a cream but glides on like powder.

“M-use is close to the consistency of skin. It’s an elastic veil of intense color that doesn’t budge, crease or crack. It’s everything the consumer desires in a color product,” Priore said, adding that Chromavis achieved M-use after 18 months of research into the formula and manufacturing process.

 

Italy’s textile and yarn manufacturers are well experienced in using new technologies to create original product. The industry has survived more than a century with a constant flurry of new fabrics and yarns — especially important in recent years to stay ahead of Chinese competition.

Yarn producer Saluzzo balanced technology with sustainability when it launched the polyester yarn NewLife, created from plastic bottles, in 2012.

“Innovation is essential and fundamental to our product, it’s our lifeblood and it’s the master path for Italian industry. It is about creating a product that respects all aspects — is it sustainable, respecting the environment, and exciting? NewLife answered all those questions,” said Stefano Cochis, director of Saluzzo Yarns.

Devoting five years of research into the project, Saluzzo established a directly controlled supply chain to produce NewLife. Plastic bottles are converted into a 100 percent recycled polyester yarn through a mechanical process with low environmental impact. The yarn is sold to more than 50 fashion labels, including an exclusive contract with Weekend Max Mara.

NewLife was responsible for a 35 percent increase in sales in 2013. Cochis said he expected it to be the main slice of the spinner’s turnover by 2019. Saluzzo Yarns presented the evolution of NewLife at Première Vision in Paris, focused on yarns created for men’s wear collections and a new jersey rendition of the yarn, with superb draping attributes, Cochis added.

Tapping its vertical network of fiber, yarns, fabrics and dyeing plants, Candiani SpA, one of Italy’s biggest denim fabric manufacturers, has a laundry-style laboratory ensconced in its headquarters near Milan. The 65-year-old company, which produces 25 million to 30 million meters of denim annually, is using its lab to perfect technically advanced, eco-friendly dyeing techniques. One such process, N-Denim, penetrates indigo dye deeper and quicker into fabric using less water and chemicals with a new apparatus that applies nitrogen.

After N-Denim’s success, the mill developed Indigo Juice — a dyeing process that fixes color superficially on the surface of the denim to achieve vintage treatments faster.

“These dyeing technologies helps us save on energy and cost, but they mostly offer versatility to our clients. Our textiles are pricier than textiles from other countries, but our clients buy because they save money on treatments, they are able to achieve the look they want with fewer processes and fewer chemicals,” said Simon Giuliani, marketing manger at Candiani.

Further south, prestigious cashmere yarn spinner Cariaggi is investing 2.5 million euros ($3.4 million) this year to researching new yarn technologies.

“We firmly believe that the only way for us to grow and remain competitive is to constantly research innovation. Innovation is the inspiration that permeates all areas of our company, from the machinery to technology and employees,” said Cristiana Cariaggi, director. Innovation at Cariaggi, she added, also had to be sustainable. Cariaggi spent five years developing Systema Natvrae, a new way to extract natural pigments — plant, leaf, bark and root extracts — in liquid form, rather than powder, to create more effective and unique natural dyes.

For other yarn manufacturers, innovation is tied up in the house specialty. For more than a decade, Lanificio Dell’Olivo has spun alpaca fibers into lightweight knitting yarns at its Tuscan-based factory. Tinkering with existing machinery, technicians produced an ultrafine hollow baby alpaca yarn blended with superkid mohair to create a slippery, ultrasoft yarn presented at Pitti Filati last month.

According to Lanificio Dell’Olivo codirectors Ilaria and Chiara Taddeucci Sassolini, the yarn has superior thermal insulation, and allows clients to create light knits with big visual impact without having to spend more on sophisticating knitting styles because it is so voluminous.

In 1989, Eurojersey honed a new way of knitting polyamide microfiber and Lycra spandex together in an open-weave honeycomb style. Trademarked Sensitive Fabrics, the jersey textile is imbued with a raft of performance benefits including high resistance to chlorine, no pilling, breathability and uniform elasticity. Though the mill sold the first prototypes of Sensitive Fabrics just over a decade ago, the textile has undergone diverse evolutions for different applications. Launched last year, the latest version is destined for the shapewear industry. Sensitive Sculpt boasts 41 percent Lycra — a blend the company claims is new in shapewear fabric.

“The winning mix is innovation, quality and price,” said Andrea Crespi, general director of Eurojersey. “Sensitive Sculpt offers the highest elongation and unmatched recovery in the shapewear industry. It really is like a second skin because it is flat, thin and lightweight.”

For one Italian silk weaver, introducing innovation into its newest collection came from an unlikely source: another mill. Bocchese 1908 worked with denim mill Berto to create a collection of fabrics called Denim Loves Silk. Weaving technicians from both mills found a way to create lightweight and double-faced silk and indigo denim blends that will hit the market for spring 2015.

“I don’t know if my grandfather who founded the company would have collaborated with another Italian mill, but he was enthusiastic for newness, and that remains paramount for us. Innovation comes from having an open-minded approach,” said Michele Bocchese, chief executive officer of Bocchese 1908.

Some Italian fashion brands are asking textile firms to directly apply technology into exclusively made fabrics. Avant Toi, a small luxury knitwear firm based in Genoa, wanted a theatrical look for its fall collection. Creative director Mirko Ghignone asked a mill to reknit cashmere and cashmere-silk blends with a paper-thin layer of metal in the middle to give a papier-mâché consistency and effect.

“The construction wasn’t easy, but the effect it gives to the finished looks has the drama we were after. The layer of metal adds volume and life. There’s a long-dress design, and with the addition of the metal, it folds into a minidress,” Ghignone said. “Cashmere is a noble fiber, so it’s often treated in classic ways to give it respect, but Avant Toi’s culture is to make it new, and that’s why we use innovation and hand-painting to create pieces no one has seen before.”

While product technologies emerging in Italian industry today are the result of years of research, some companies come upon new ideas by accident. Case in point: the creative development design team at Marcolin, the eyewear powerhouse based in Belluno, which holds licenses for brands including Tom Ford, Dsquared2 and its newest, Ermenegildo Zegna. A technician experimenting with cold welding hit on a new way to fuse denim to sunglasses for licensee Diesel.

“We were able to fuse the acetate and original Diesel denim with cold pressure and a few secret ingredients,” said Valerio Giacobbi, general manager of sales, marketing and business strategies. “In the past, eyewear makers could only glue fabric to certain types of frames, but eventually it peeled off. With this technique, they are properly fused as one material, which can be all over and on all types of frames, even finer optical ones. This has never been done before. It’s a big step.”

Called DenimEye, the Diesel sunglasses will launch at the Mido eyewear fair in May. Awaiting a patent for the process, Marcolin is experimenting with fusing other fabrics and is currently perfecting bonding leather to acetate using the same technique.

Another major Italian eyewear producer, Luxottica, took a different approach. Last month the group acquired Glasses.com, a North American-based Web site that has proprietary virtual try-on technology. Using a three-dimensional image of a consumer’s face, the consumer is able to try on different pairs of glasses and send images to family and friends using social media platforms. The strategic acquisition allows Luxottica to expand its digital offering in the U.S.

 

Baking new formulas in laboratories is also happening in the heart of Italy’s gold district near Venice. Fledging company 1KTG has shaken up the jewelry industry with a new gold alloy. OKG — which stands for “one karat gold” — named for the single karat of gold inside a patented mix of metals, entered the market a year ago as a cheaper and lighter alternative to the traditional 9-, 14-, 18- and 24-karat gold alloys. Priced at under 10 percent less (QUERY TO WRITER)) than the equivalent weight of real gold, several Italian and foreign costume jewelry brands have already begun working with the alloy, which comes in white, yellow and pink variations, said Riccardo Baldo, commercial marketing manager for 1KTG.

“Brands are attracted to OKG because of its durability and performance,” said Baldo. “It can be used exactly like more pure gold alloys, and unlike gold-plating, which tarnishes over time, this alloy remains immaculate so it always looks beautiful.”

This year, Baldo is expanding OKG into other sectors, such as furniture design and accessories.

Even if new technologies contradict the idea of heritage craftsmanship, companies are still finding ways to innovate while maintaining the tradition of the artisans’ hands.

“We tan leather in the same handmade artisan processes that are a century old, but our factories are planned and built from state-of-the-art machinery, and extremely sustainable,” said Alessandro Iliprandi, president of Bonaudo, a leather producer for the luxury accessories and ready-to-wear industry. Last month, Bonaudo opened another 60,000-square-foot factory that produces leather for men’s shoes near Venice, that Iliprandi said was constructed for minimum environmental impact, powered by solar energy, LED lighting and recycled water.

Lardini, a men’s wear label and clothing manufacturer that produces for other fashion houses, is taking a two-pronged approach to innovation. Completing work on a new factory at headquarters in Filotrano near Ancona, the new 90,000-square-foot space, set to open in August, will house an automated warehouse and state-of-the-art cutting and sorting robots to speed up production times by a week. The 3.5 million euro, or $4.8 million, investment will allow the firm to meet early delivery times required by foreign markets, said Andrea Lardini, Lardini’s president.

Additionally, the family-run company also looked outside of Italy, and its family ties, to tap men’s wear guru Nick Wooster to consult on the Lardini collection in preparation for its fall U.S. debut.

“Technology is not just about machinery,” Lardini said. “Acquiring knowledge from the outside is innovation, because we have to understand how different cultures want to wear tailored clothing.”

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