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RAVARINO, Italy — With his deep blue eyes and contagious smile, Carlo Rivetti walks through the different departments of Sportswear Co.’s headquarters with the nimble and relaxed pace of an understated prince reigning over a playful and peaceful realm.
That kingdom, located here, in the northern Italian countryside on the border between the Bologna and Modena provinces, is not populated by talking animals or animated characters as in a Walt Disney movie, but by 100 employees who, under the guidance of president and creative director Rivetti, are knee-deep in a fashion project called Stone Island.
Founded by Massimo Osti in 1982, the brand, known for its innovative men’s jackets, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
“Stone Island grew out of a mistake,” said Rivetti, who joined the label in 1983 when he acquired 50 percent of the company. Ten years later, he and his sister, Cristina, bought the remaining 50 percent and became owners.
“At the factory, we found a fabric that was not used in fashion, called tela stella [star fabric], and we tried to do a jacket stressing and washing it,” he added, seated at the desk in his informal office, where one wall is dominated by a big poster of Italian ski resort Courmayeur, where Rivetti is a honorary citizen. Inspired by the tela stella, an unconventional fabric used to cover trucks, the company introduced military references in the collections, including its iconic badge featuring the compass rose and stitched on the jackets’ sleeves.
The entrepreneur noted that research and innovation have always been at the foundation of the brand. “We were faithful to our DNA and we are proud we continue to be so loyal to it,” he said. “I think that the secret of longevity is not to pursue the market, but to forge your own path.”
Rivetti, who ranks creativity as a top priority, pointed to the importance of creating solid relationships with customers as a key to success.
“There is an Italian drummer that, before leaving for a tour, always checks out where the closest Stone Island store is to do some shopping. He also used to send us postcards from his tour, even if we didn’t know each other,” he said. Rivetti also revealed that he is treated as “a rock star” when he travels to England. “They ask me to take children in my arms and to sign autographs,” said Rivetti, with his usual irony.
He is very focused on post-sale customer service. “We once got an e-mail from a Neapolitan lawyer complaining about one of our sweaters he had just bought that had an unsavory smell. I immediately picked up the phone to call him asking to return the piece and explaining that the problem had occurred with our own washing. I’m sure that’s a customer I will never lose,” he said.
At the company’s headquarters, Stone Island produces prototypes through an elaborate process involving several departments. For sure, the most extensive area is the one dedicated to dyeing.
“This place is like a Renaissance painter’s studio,” said Rivetti, referring to the room where the colors are created and re-produced.
Every season, Stone Island, which uses a dyeing method that allows it to obtain 11 different colors with one washing process, includes about 200 hues in its collection. “Here we have all the colors of the world,” Rivetti said. “Making our own tones and dyeing our pieces, we are not bound to the color wheel of our fabric suppliers.”
In Ravarino, Sportswear Co. also produced the prototypes for CP Co., the outwear brand Rivetti sold to Enzo Fusco in 2010.
“I saw what was going to happen in advance [the financial crisis that has hit international markets] and I thought it was not fair to take away resources from Stone Island to give them to CP Co. As a wise captain, I ordered to haul down the sails and to check the hatches were battened down,” Rivetti said. “People here were all scared and, for the first time, I felt the loneliness of being on my own making such a big decision,” he admitted.
But Rivetti’s choice paid off, and the first year without CP Co., Sportswear Co.’s revenues increased to 51 million euros, or $66.81 million at average exchange, from 49 million euros, or $64.19 million, in 2010.
Although 70 percent of Stone Island’s collections are made in Italy — a percentage that Rivetti believes is destined to shrink – the company delocalized the production of specific items.
“I go to find technology and innovation where they exist and I feel very easy about it,” Rivetti said. “We search the world with open eyes and with imagination.”
Stone Island produces its dyed down jackets in Indonesia and its cotton thermo-welded down jackets in China, while the garments with metallic coating are made in Japan.
“What makes me happy is that we are growing in all the markets with all our categories,” Rivetti said.
Stone Island, which registered more than 18 percent growth in orders for its fall collection, is present in 30 countries and operates 11 flagships across Europe, Korea and China. The company’s directly operated stores posted a 35 percent increase in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period last year.
In the U.S., “a challenging market to approach because it requires huge investments and where creating an efficient distribution is not easy,” the brand’s collections are available in 43 multibrand stores, including Barneys New York and Atrium in New York, Ron Herman in Los Angeles, Mario’s in Portland and San Francisco’s Unionmade.
“Now I have a good reason to go to New York more frequently,” said Rivetti, referring to his 20-year-old daughter Camilla’s move to the city. “She has just been admitted to Parsons, where she will study fashion marketing.”
Even if outerwear and knitwear remain the company’s core business, Stone Island is working to improve all product categories with dedicated design teams.
To appeal to a younger audience, Rivetti started selling smaller pieces, such as polo shirts, with lower opening prices.
The company has a children’s wear line, which was launched in 2002, and unveiled its first collection of sunglasses last March. The carbon fiber frames, the company’s first license, are manufactured by EG Brands.
“I listen to the market but I interpret it and I give answers reflecting Stone Island’s identity,” said Rivetti, who underlined how specific communication activities boosted the performance of the brand over the last few years.
“In the past, we were a bit afraid to invest in communication, but we understood the importance of telling people the story of the brand,” he said. “I realized that if I managed to talk to people, I would have room to grow. The problem was not to talk to my generation, but to my children’s generation.”
In order to become more appealing to young customers, Stone Island developed a Facebook page, where the brand has about 90,000 followers, a Twitter account and a Web site regularly updated with short movies and news.
The close relationship with his children — Silvio, 28; Matteo, 26, and Camilla — and the influence of his students — Rivetti teaches fashion marketing to third-year students at the Politecnico undergraduate school in Milan — undoubtedly pushed him toward this sort of digitalization.
“I enjoy teaching,” he said. “Teaching is like making wine. Every year is different, it can be better or worse, but always unique.”
In the last few seasons, Rivetti also revised the brand’s advertising strategy. Stone Island abandoned its bare still life images for a new formula, consisting of bold and clean shots of models, who look “frozen.”
“I was used to making advertising campaigns with still life images because I didn’t like the idea that a face could identify the brand,” he explained. “But now we have found a sort of an evolution of the still life and it’s working very well.”
On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Stone Island tidied up its archive of 20,000 pieces. And on June 19, the brand will unveil “Stone Island 30,” an exhibition that will remain open until July 7 at Florence’s Stazione Leopolda, which will highlight both the stylistic and technical evolution of the label since its founding in 1982.
Curated by Britons Simon Foxton and Nicholas Griffiths, founders of the creative agency &Son, the retrospective, organized in eight different themes, will include more than 200 jackets and a big focus will be put on the processes and methods used to manufacture them. Among the items that will be showcased will be three special 30th anniversary pieces including a replica of the tela stella anorak on which the brand was founded; a knitwear piece created by using a reflective yarn, and the 30/30, a reversible jacket that features cotton-based satin coated with a polyurethene film on one side and a heat sensitive and reflective fabric knitted inside.
During the opening party, guests will also be able to preview “Stone Island, Archivio ’982-’012,” a photographic book that collected more than 307 Stone Island pieces worn by 30 cosmopolitan young men. The exhibition will include about 15 oversize versions of select images from the book, which includes an introduction written by president and creative director Carlo Rivetti and a sociological essay by Francesco Morace, who analyzed the brand in the context of the international fashion scene of the last 30 years. The book will be available starting in September in selected bookstores and museums, as well as the company’s flagships and other specialty stores worldwide.