Antonino Laspina, U.S. Trade Commissioner from Italy

The Italian Trade Agency is working hard to bring more Italian goods to the U.S. and has committed nearly 28 million euros to help small- and medium-size brands increase their export capabilities.

The figure marks a 45 percent increase from the amount it spent in 2019. Nearly 8 million euros will be earmarked for consumer goods including fashion, furniture and design with some 12.8 million euros devoted to food, wine and spirits and an additional 7 million euros allocated to technology.

The investment will be revealed at the Project trade show in New York on Sunday.

In an interview at the Italian Trade Agency’s Upper East Side town house, Antonino Laspina, the newly appointed U.S. trade commissioner and executive director of ITA, said: “We hope to engage at least 300 fashion companies by offering them educational training, visibility and sales across the country, while targeting specific states and demographics that show a strong inclination in receiving our cultural authenticity.”

He said since arriving in New York two months ago, he has visited several U.S. cities including Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas and believes there is substantial opportunity to increase the reach of Italian brands in metropolitan areas such as these. That will be done by partnering with retailers in those areas as well as through promotional activities such as pop-ups and events sponsored by the ITA.

Laspina said the primary message the government-sponsored agency is hoping to relay is the quality and the manufacturing expertise of Italian products. “There is an outdated perception of what is Italian,” he said, adding that many brands simply use an Italian name but are not produced in that country.

The ITA hopes to showcase Italian creativity by hosting retailer trips to trade shows and factories as well so merchants can see firsthand how the merchandise is produced.

“Our task is to help people understand the whole system,” he said.

Exports to the U.S. are already a big business for Italy, but Laspina believes there’s a lot more potential left on the table.

In 2018, there were more than 6 billion euros in fashion exports to the U.S., a figure that jumps to 8.7 billion euros if jewelry, beauty and textiles are included. That marked growth of more than 10 percent and made Italy the fifth largest supplier to the U.S., he said.

Italian exports are especially popular in men’s wear. In 2018, men’s fashion exports totaled 548 million euros, an increase of 11.8 percent over the 490 million euros exported in 2017. In the first nine months of 2019, the most recent figures available, he said, men’s fashion exports increased 3.4 percent to 408 million euros.

He said the success of the top brands such as Gucci and Ferragamo is “undeniable,” but there are many other companies that produce artisanal merchandise that are being overlooked.

Laspina added that although exporting to the U.S. is difficult, especially for small companies, “it is not impossible.” And ITA will work to cut through the red tape to ensure their success. He added that the ongoing tariff negotiations, currently centered around China, currently doesn’t impact the European fashion community — “at least not at the moment,” he said.

Fashion and textiles rank third behind mechanical equipment and automotive products as a top export for Italy and encompass almost 46,000 companies and 369,600 employees. As a result, a “significant portion” of the money earmarked for fashion and design will be dedicated to promote Italian brands at leading North American trade shows. At the top of the list is Project and its sister show, MRket, which the ITA has collaborated with since 2009 by hosting a Made in Italy section at the men’s show in New York.

Last year, more than 50 exhibitors showed at the January and July editions of the show. This time, for the show that will run through Jan. 21, about 52 companies will be participating. Laspina expects that number to grow in the future. It will also include the Coterie women’s show.

Laspina also revealed that part of the program includes the launch of an Italian pavilion on Amazon. He said his team met with the online giant last year and is working to select a number of Italian brands that will be highlighted and sold on the site. “We are the facilitator,” he said, adding that Italy already works in Asia with Alibaba and other companies.