MILAN — Donatella Versace is making sustainability a pillar of the fashion house that bears her surname, introducing a new store concept and new sustainable headquarters.

It’s just one sign of heightened attention to the issue that Nicola Misani, sustainability professor at Bocconi University, believes has taken place “very recently.”

Sustainability, he remarked, was for a long time a focus of “designers with an environmentalist vocation such as Stella McCartney, or enlightened entrepreneurs such as Brunello Cucinelli.”

Asked if he thought the luxury brands’ involvement is generally significant and sincere, he responded in the affirmative “because sustainability is expensive. In the luxury sector, you can’t be sustainable without a strict control of the production pipeline. There are standards for human rights, chemical substances or biological fibers that can’t be respected without taking action on one’s suppliers. No luxury company has any interest in declaring an engagement to then be unmasked by an NGO [non-governmental organization] that finds violations in the production plants.”

Misani noted that luxury companies have no illusions regarding making a profit through sustainability. “[Gucci president and chief executive officer] Marco Bizzarri recently declared that the impact of sustainability on sales is zero. Customers buy the brand’s products, not its sustainability policies. You will not often find a company determinedly making costly choices that do not pump up sales. It is a question of being in sync with the world and especially with the expectations of the new generations. All luxury companies have realized they must satisfy this need for sustainability.”

To wit: A clutch of top Italian brands have recently inaugurated impressively eco headquarters.

Even before the sale to Michael Kors Holdings was revealed in September, Donatella Versace had started to build a stronger sustainable message for the company, which is planning to move its headquarters to a sustainable building in Milan’s new Porta Nuova district in August.


A rendering of the new Versace headquarters.  Courtesy image

All company functions, except for the atelier, which will remain in the storied Via Gesù palazzo, will be housed in the new location. This will cover 108,000 square feet over 11 floors and two basement levels, and will face the third biggest public park in the city, just recently unveiled.

The headquarters were designed by Daniele Colombo Architect & PM SPI. The building, shaped as an L, was rundown and restored with solar panels and it is expected to receive the LEED Gold certificate. Versace will occupy half of the building, while insurance giant Generali will relocate in the other half. Natural light will be key to the open space areas, peppered with lounges for employees and panels to create privacy. The attention to employees’ well-being is increasingly at the forefront. Stefania Saviolo, professor, strategic and entrepreneurial management department SDA Bocconi, said that “of the three Ps — people, planet, profit — I believe that people is today the fundamental dimension for luxury. Probably for fast fashion, it is more a theme of planet, given its impact.”

In September, Versace received the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana award in Recognition for Sustainability during the second edition of the Green Carpet Fashion Awards Italia ceremony. The designer said at the time that she has “started the process of transformation” of the company in terms of sustainability. “If everyone does a little, things will change dramatically,” she said.

In line with this approach, a new store concept designed by Gwenael Nicolas bowed last month in the new Versace Bal Harbour boutique with the highest sustainability standards in mind. “There’s no bigger luxury than our future,” said Donatella Versace. The new concept, she said, marks a “commitment toward Versace’s sustainable legacy.”

The commitment in the store spans from the choice of materials to the flexibility and management of the space — reaching LEED Gold-level for interior design and construction, a globally recognized certification program of the U.S. Green Building Council.

“I love this new concept that embraces a sustainable future for the people and for the environment,” Nicolas said. “I believe in constant evolution and I think this project perfectly embraces the heritage of the brand with innovative spatial design for Versace’s vision for the future.”

The architect boldly mixed light and shadow. The ceiling is a web of brass strings; the floor, a mosaic pattern is assembled by hand by Italian artisans.


Versace’s new concept store in Bal Harbour.  courtesy image


Transparency, responsible sourcing and end-of-life processes were key to Versace and Nicolas, who employed recycled, recyclable and responsible materials — including glass in the mosaic — one of the staple elements in the brand’s stores. The company employed FSC-certified wood and recomposed marble in certain decorative elements to minimize extraction of raw materials from the earth.

The Miami store was followed by Munich, and a unit will open in Beijing early next year. Versace’s London store, which was inaugurated a year ago, was billed as the first on Sloane Street to receive a LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification.

Saviolo said she has seen more attention to the credibility and traceability of production in Italy and that dealing with the pipeline “is more of an urgent necessity rather than a good intention. In this sense, I really very much believe in Brunello Cucinelli’s initiatives; Gucci, perhaps the best in the creation of a sustainable production ecosystem, and Prada, in terms of its plants and company welfare, even just to be an example and set a benchmark” in Italy’s production districts.

In June, Prada unveiled a new industrial complex in Tuscany’s Valvigna, a stunning steel and glass structure designed by Guido Canali and surrounded by luscious gardens and vineyards. Ceo Patrizio Bertelli said the group spent 2 million euros on the greenery alone. There is a system of lightweight trellises covered in grape vines and mulberries, pomegranates, and jujubes, with beds of lavender, 33 trees, 29,000 bushes and 8,700 climbing plants. The complex includes four buildings and the total area covers more than 1 million square feet.

Bertelli at the time took the opportunity to underscore how Prada has been focusing on sustainable activities for many years, conversely to “others” who he felt have jumped on the bandwagon. “The Arezzo area [where Valvigna is located] has been treated badly by chemical companies and the goldsmith industry. We respect the territory, down to the attention to waste. Nobody talks about how waste is handled.”

Prada purchased the land and the abandoned plant that made concrete roof tiles on the site in 1998, buying the bordering properties over the years, and the new industrial headquarters were completed last year; they now employ 785 workers.

Prada’s industrial complex in Valvigna, Italy.

Prada’s industrial complex in Valvigna, Italy.  Courtesy Image

In November, Prada held its second “Shaping a Future” conference exploring the impact of digitalization on business and sustainability. “As a public company in Hong Kong, it is mandatory to pay adequate attention to sustainability,” Prada’s chairman Carlo Mazzi told WWD ahead of the event. “That said, it could just be a formal rule, but beyond that, there are reasons, subjective, of an ethical nature and driven by the world outside. Consumers are developing a different sensibility compared with the past, and today the theme of sustainability, in all its very different forms, is a fundamental principle, especially for the new generations but also for the older ones. Subjective and objective needs to converge, because, even if someone were so selfish to not think about sustainability, to stay on the market, they would have to respect the consumers and their demands.”

Brunello Cucinelli has been restoring Solomeo, 10 minutes outside of the central town of Perugia and home to the brand’s headquarters, for the past 30 years, setting up a theater, a tailoring school, the Ginnasio garden and the Aurelian Neo-humanistic Academy, among other sites. The latest step presented in September, called the Hamlet of the Spirit, was the conclusion of a project first unveiled in December 2014 and carried through by the Brunello and Federica Cucinelli Foundation, which sees the restoration of the outskirts of Solomeo. Cucinelli recovered 173 acres of land near his manufacturing plant and tore down six old industrial buildings, planting vineyards, olive trees, sunflowers and wheat, among other things.

“There is a beautiful, growing awareness of what I would like to call human sustainability,” Cucinelli said in a phone interview. “Nobody can remain indifferent or deaf to the issue today because the world around us is watching. Young people are informed, they ask where and how a product is made, if it has caused any damage to the world.

“After 30 years of economic growth, we have realized we had to be custodians of the world,” he added.

Brunello Cucinelli Presents the Hamlet of the Spirit

A view of the land in Solomeo recovered by Brunello Cucinelli.  Alexia Stok/WWD

In the beauty industry, in September, Davines, owner of the high-end hair-care Davines and skin-care Comfort Zone professional brands, inaugurated its new Davines Village headquarters in Parma. In addition to the architectural complex, the village features wide, green spaces conceived by the del Buono Gazerwitz landscape studio, including two courtyards — one of which designated as a functional, relaxing space for employees — and a botanical garden showcasing some of the plants used in the company’s natural formulations and vegetables and fruits to be cooked in the firm’s restaurant. A greenhouse featuring tropical plant species is also added to complete the open-air laboratory. As the group’s headquarters overlook the Autostrada del Sole motorway, Davines is planting 300 trees along the highway to tackle pollution. 

Misani pinpointed to a watershed moment in the luxury industry on October 2017, when Gucci announced it was going fur free. “What was new was the visibility of Gucci and the reason for the decision,” said Misani, noting that president and ceo Marco Bizzarri “did not talk about ethics but declared that fur was no longer consistent with the brand’s aesthetic values, it was not modern.” From that moment, Misani contended, it became important for all industry brands to take a stance. Over the next few months, Gucci was followed by Burberry, Michael Kors and Versace. There was a shift from the animal issues to the problems related to the environment and diversity, he observed. “Those who speak of sustainability today also talk of inclusivity, to target customers as well as to attract talents in their organizations.”

Stefania Saviolo, professor, strategic and entrepreneurial management department SDA Bocconi, disagreed with this view. Her position on boycotting exotic skins and furs is on the opposite end of the spectrum as she believes it “is more harmful in the sense that it kills jobs in the pipelines that rely” on the animal skins. Also, fur has less of an environmental impact and is more long-lasting than synthetics, she said, echoing several other industry observers. She also lamented a lack of visibility on the production pipeline, or issues such as working from home and minimum wages. For this reason, she expects “more clarity beyond marketing on what sustainability in luxury means to determine the credibility of certain actions taken in a world of fake news,” she said.

Despite the steps taken so far, and speaking in general, excluding the examples made above, Saviolo believes sustainability has been approached as a series “of fragmented initiatives” driven by “marketing more than the evaluation or measurement of the real impact on people or the planet.”

Saviolo believes that what happens throughout the pipeline does not really reach the end consumers. “I don’t know how prepared they are on these issues so as to be able to reward those brands that are really and credibly engaged by being willing to pay a higher price. And in the end it’s the consumer that decides.”