MILAN — Exhibitors at Milanese trade fairs are facing challenges at home and in Europe, and exercising a variety of strategies to get some momentum going.
Here are reports from three major apparel and accessories fairs that took place concurrently during fashion week in February, showcasing fall women’s collections.
No one could be sure what to expect with the first edition of the Super women’s accessories and ready-to-wear trade fair in Milan, but despite an uncertain economic climate, nearly 5,000 buyers and 240 brands flocked to find out.
Searchlights raced theatrically across the high, corrugated dome of a former sports stadium from the Twenties that housed the three-day fair.
Open, frame-like pre-furnished stands were set up in an elliptical, concentric formation around a central lounge and cultural fashion installations. The atmosphere at the accessories-centric fair was festive, hip and approachable.
Raffaello Napoleone and Enrico Pazzali, the chief executive officers of Pitti Immagine and Fiera Milano, respectively, collaborated with the City of Milan to create Super after what Napoleone said were years of discussion.
Fiera Milano’s women’s prêt-à-porter fair MIPAP, which runs concurrently, also changed location to be a few minutes’ shuttle ride from Super, speeding logistics for buyers and other visitors. A ticket to one of the fairs was valid for both.
To Didier Parakian, owner of a namesake Marseilles-based brand who showed at MIPAP, the collaboration is a step in the right direction. He said, however, that Milan’s fashion trade system remained too fragmented, with the three main fashion fairs, MIPAP, Super and White, still taking place in separate locations and two different quarters of the city.
“For me, the ideal would be to do like they do in France” where the degree of coordination was far higher, and the operator’s experience much better, he said.
“We have far more to win by all working together,” he concluded.
“We have been looking for a different logistical situation and space in Milan for a long time,” said Napoleone.
The goal, say organizers, was to pique the interest of high-level buyers, from Italy and abroad, by finding a balanced mix of established and emerging names for assertive contemporary fashion, and to facilitate visitors’ research among exhibitors in a newly appealing way.
Super arose from the ashes of three smaller fairs — Cloudnine, Touch and neoZone — staged by Pitti Immagine until last September next to the White trade fair in the Tortona neighborhood.
In February 2012, the old fairs brought 7,150 buyers to see 180 brands, but just 900 buyers were foreign.
Although total buyers at Super were substantially fewer, 1,100 of them were from abroad, or more than 20 percent — numbers the Super organizers were sure to highlight, as foreign markets have become increasingly important. The 2012 squeeze on Italy’s domestic turnover for textiles, apparel, leather, leather goods and footwear was akin to the record 2008-2009 crisis, according to the Italian fashion trade association Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana.
The third quarter of 2012 saw the worst sales figures of an already glum year for the sector. CNMI’s provisional figures for the year saw total annual turnover sink 5.4 percent to 60.4 billion euros, or $77.3 million at average exchange, while Italian production fell 9.8 percent.
Pazzali called Super “a first step” toward restoring Milan as a leader on the international fashion scene, and said it was an example of how “territorialism” can be trumped to pump new life into the sector.
New York-based, British born shoe designer Paul Andrew seemed to support Pazzali’s claim.
Andrew showed his wares in an area of Super dedicated to new talents selected by Vogue Italia. His shoes were glamorous, sexy and evening-oriented, with slim, towering heels and narrow, pointed toes. Many were trimmed with fur, feathers or glittering crystal.
“In the last few hours, we received four substantial orders,” Andrew said, adding that he was visited by major French department stores the previous day. “It’s not all doom and gloom after all.”
Andrew recently stepped out on his own after a decade as vice president of accessories at Donna Karan. Before that, he worked for Calvin Klein, Alexander McQueen and Narciso Rodriguez.
There were new projects by established companies, too, like Italy’s Lardini, which makes overcoats for a number of top British and Italian luxury brands.
Lardini relaunched its own brand name three-and-a-half years ago, a process that began with men’s coats.
Since then, the Lardini brand has come to represent one-third of the company’s revenues of 52 million euros, or $66.5 million at average exchange, in 2012, said Lardini general director Enrico Airoldi.
Lardini introduced two new women’s collections at Super, including RVR Lardini — a collection of reversible padded overcoats with Sixties patterned wool on one side and waterproof fabric on the other. The coats can be folded and carried in a zippered travel pouch, reducing packing space.
Florence-based Mazzanti Piume is one of just four companies left in Europe that do feather work for top luxury labels. At Super, Duccio Mazzanti, the grandson of Mazzanti’s founder, promoted a line of imaginative, theatrical headpieces under the label Nanà.
Kerry Seager, a designer for London-based Junky Styling, which reconfigures used clothes into new garments, was impressed with what she saw.
Junky Styling was selected by UK Trade & Investment among a number of talents for “The Green Closet,” an eco-sustainable fashion initiative now in its third edition.
“We’ve had a really good response,” said Seager, explaining that her aim at Super was to find an agent. “At the moment we’ve got two.”
“Super began very well,” said Napoleone and Pazzali in a joint statement. “The results surpassed our expectations. And it’s only the beginning. [At the next edition] in September we’ll do even more.”
Despite the challenges in the Italian apparel sector, 7,000 retailers thronged to the MIPAP rtw and accessories trade expo.
They saw collections from 170 brands aimed at a mid-to-high-range market, with a preponderance of strikingly maximalist creations — flashing, blazing patterns, bright solids and decorations, often with built-in jewelry, beading and crystals.
Buyers said they were shopping for mature retail customers — over 30 years old, and often between 40 and 60.
MIPAP organizers described the offering as a “balanced mix of craftsmanship and typical Italian flair.”
Exhibition director Emanuela Forlin said exhibitors increased by 20 to 30 percent and preregistered buyers were up 15 percent from MIPAP’s last edition in September.
One of the attractions, especially for Italian exhibitors scrambling to export in difficult times, was the strong presence of international operators visiting the fair.
CNMI forecasts that Italian exports to non-EU countries will exceed exports to EU countries for the first time in 2013.
“About 25 to 30 percent of the [visitors] are from abroad,” said Forlin.
MIPAP reported a particularly strong showing from Eastern European countries like Ukraine, Russia and Hungary, and from Northern Europe, Austria and Switzerland.
Out of 3,165 identified buyers at the fair, 1,011 were foreign, said MIPAP.
“In Italy, there is visible contraction in the sector,” said Forlin. “Distribution channels are undergoing dizzying change…multibrand boutiques, which are the bedrock of the country’s point-of-sale network, are under new competitive pressure.”
The crisis “is pushing us to be more special, to assert more personality,” said Beppe Angiolini, president of Italian buyers’ association Camera Buyer. He said high-end buyers are compelled more than ever to do more research, and choose clever pieces and the right mixes.
“We’ve heard that there is a change in mentality among Italian stores. Italian merchants are now hunting for novelty, they’re looking to renew themselves,” said exhibitor Parakian. “We’ve been able to take advantage of this by entering deeper into the Italian market.”
Parakian reported revenues of 25 million euros, or $32.5 million at current exchange, with his largest markets, Italy and France, representing 20 and 10 percent of his sales, respectively. He said his collection offered “French taste produced in Italy.”
At his stand, an entourage from Marilia — a Japanese chain of eight multibrand boutiques — was snapping photos and greeting Parakian and his staff through an interpreter.
Marilia general manager Shigeki Suzuki said the boutiques dedicate a large corner to Parakian’s vividly colored collections.
Some Italian exhibitors were anxious, however.
Experiencing a lull in foot traffic, Roberta Pasquinucci at Italian fur specialist Fontani lamented her stand’s placement among accessories vendors: “People who come here to buy accessories can’t be those who buy our clothing.”
The Fontani collection focused on highly feminine coats and jackets that use fur, leather, knits and wovens in clever, complex mixes, like mink, mohair, shearling and chinchilla, with proportions calculated to flatter, like oversize collars and hoods, or enlarged, pleated sleeves.
“I don’t usually come to MIPAP,” Egyptian buyer Wafaa Raouf said, at Fontani’s ordering table. She explained that in the past she went straight to designer showrooms during Milan Fashion Week. She represents a luxury multibrand boutique in Cairo called Della Spiga, which sold top designer labels until recently.
Since revolutionaries toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime in January 2011, she has grappled with higher expenses, devalued currency and a sharp drop in customer purchases.
“The luxury business is not good” in Arab Spring countries, Raouf said. “I’ve had to cut my purchases by 50 percent. I am here trying to keep going. I am trying to find new brands that deliver good quality at a reasonable price.”
A number of Milan fashion trade fairs are facing grim economic conditions in Italy and Europe by betting on renewal, expansion and adaptation, not least of them White, a women’s clothing and accessories fair.
“It is not an easy moment,” White’s president, Massimiliano Bizzi said. “The Italian market is at a standstill.”
Yet White raised its bar in terms of size, presentation, quality and research — with much of the effort aimed at the Italian market rather than abroad.
“I believe in the Italian market, but it must be stimulated with new things,” Bizzi said, and added that this edition of White was about “experimentation, research, young people.”
There were more exhibitors — a total of 417, up 20 percent over 2012. White took over space emptied by its former neighboring trade fairs, Pitti Immagine’s Cloudnine, Touch and neoZone, which formed Super at a different location.
Bizzi said 149 of the exhibitors had never shown at White before.
For the first time, layout was organized by product type.
“Vanguard elegance” was hosted in one complex, “sport casual” across the street and “elegant classic” a few steps down the same hip road in a former industrial quarter, Via Tortona.
“Special guest” brands served as attractions and helped to circulate foot traffic.
Fifty young brands were clustered at the start-up showcase White Inside— nearly double the number at the February 2012 edition.
White also hosted an exhibition by Rome-based AltaRoma, which promotes emerging talents in “neocouture,” a blend of fashion, art, experimentation and sartorial expertise.
“My impression is that Milan is aiming higher,” said Giorgio Messieri, president and general director of Zucca, a Japanese-based brand featured as a White special guest.
Messieri noted that Milan players — including White — were making an effort to compete with Paris.
“[Bizzi] is targeting brands to distance White from other fairs in Europe. People have so little time to do research,” Messieri said, adding that White is scouting and concentrating new ideas in a digestible way for buyers.
Zucca’s winter collection defied tailoring with dresses in unusual volumes and shapes, crafted to drape well on a wide range of bodies.
“It’s all a discussion of distortion,” explained Daniela Ugolini, head of Zucca in Italy, holding up a loosely cut dress made of 200 pieces of silky fabric finely fitted together.
Zucca has 50 monobrand stores in Japan and 250 points of sale in the rest of the world. Its dresses wholesale for 220 to 230 euros, or $287 to $300 at current exchange, Messieri said.
Susanna Gioia, designer of the Perugia-based brand Lemuria, came up with a unique concept for dressing based on versatile permanent pieces and seasonal add-ons.
The permanent garments — which wholesale for 90 to 150 euros, or $118 to $195 — are timeless, built-to-last garments that can be worn in six or more different configurations, from casual to formal, from summer to winter, depending on the creativity of the wearer.
“My clothes are about transformation. Each [garment]…comes with a DVD tutorial on how it can be worn,” said Gioia.
Gioia then creates seasonal pieces designed to layer over the basic collection, like wraps or a reversible stole with sleeves, to refresh the basic looks in striking ways.
Accessories-maker Dalaleo crafts accessories out of aluminum can pull rings, crocheted and polished like oversize fish scales on bags, belts, necklaces, pillows and collars.
On a 2007 trip to Brazil, Italian founder Luisa Leonardi Scomazzoni happened upon a pull-ring handbag made by crochet artisans in the slums of Salvador de Bahia, which soon snowballed into a business based on “ethics and aesthetics,” using beach refuse to give dignified employment to impoverished Brazilian artisans.
A typical piece wholesales for 120 euros, or about $160.
Scomazzoni said she had been showing at White since 2009, and that most stands there cost 5,000 to 6,000 euros, or about $6,500 to $7,800.
“It is very difficult to enter this trade fair,” she said, adding that competition to get in is fierce, and the selection process subject to too many variables to predict.
“You can have the most vanguard, stylish, elegant product but still remain at home….And you lose the train of your life if you don’t get here,” she said.
The first time she showed at White, she received word of her acceptance just two days before the opening day.
“Once you get in, you just can’t say no.”