Fabrics from the Tessitura Monti spring 2020 collection.

MILAN — “Difficulties are also opportunities,” remarked Marino Vago, president of Sistema Moda Italia, during an assembly held at the Confindustria Moda headquarters here Wednesday.

A year and a half in his post, Vago outlined the future agenda of the consortium of Italian fashion and textile companies, praising the work done so far by the commissions he created to spearhead the institution’s initiatives in the fields of education, trade, internationalization, sustainability and traceability.

“It’s important for me to understand if we are meeting the needs of our associated companies,” the executive noted, adding he’s committed to promote a cohesive approach to effectively face the international roundtables. “The association is the right place to consult and create a team, in order not only to protect the system as a whole but also to safeguard each individual company,” he said. “The uniqueness of each of us has been a strength and a weakness, because for too long it prevented us from gathering together,” echoed Ercole Botto Poala, president of textile trade show Milano Unica.

To this end, SMI has strengthened its bond with Europe’s fashion and textile federation Euratex, which gathers 177,000 companies of the Old Continent. “In the past we confronted a lot with other European players, especially the Germans who, in the wake of globalization, were particularly focused on importing goods from abroad and less concentrated on preserving the manufacturing industry,” explained Alberto Paccanelli, who helms the European commission at SMI.

According to Vago, exports for the Italian fashion system accounted for 60 percent of sales last year. As reported, preliminary 2018 data released by the association showed that sales were up 2.1 percent to 55.2 billion euros compared to 2017. According to recent projections by SMI, revenues for the sector are expected to gain only 1.5 percent in the first six months of the year compared to the same period in 2018. Overall, the fashion system contributes around 50 percent of the country’s trade balance.

In addition to free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and Canada, the organization is committed to ink trade deals with North African countries, Turkey and the Balkans, as well as with Brazil. The latter country reportedly consumes up to 2 billion fashion items a year. In 2019, ICE, which SMI collaborates with, is expected to earmark 183 million euros for a range of internationalization programs targeting all the Italian manufacturing industries.

As a sector highly dependent on its domestic supply chain, the protection of Italy’s fashion and textile pipeline was also seen as a key element to survival. “In order to protect our ‘biodiversity’ we need to keep our supply chain — the last surviving one in Europe — intact,” Vago explained.

A number of initiatives promoted by SMI under Vago’s guidance are committed to that mandate, starting from the bottom line. According to entrepreneur Paolo Bastianello, who guides SMI’s education committee, the sector will lose 50,000 employees over the next five years, particularly of the high-skilled type, meaning “it’s crucial to get back on track, as we’ve lost months if not years in education,” he said.

Last November, SMI signed a memorandum of understanding with Italy’s ministry of education, sharing the key requirements for the training of tomorrow’s fashion and textile professionals. In addition, the association has promoted the creation of a network featuring 76 technical institutes to keep the conversation alive as “it’s essential that the entities in charge of education know what we think and are looking for,” Bastianello explained. He also questioned the association’s communication strategy, noting the fashion sector is “often perceived as a saturated job market, with low salaries, while reality is we represent an important asset for [Italy’s] exports.”

Sustainability and traceability are also high on SMI’s agenda, as pivotal assets in both staying at the forefront of international markets and safeguarding the pipeline. “Our sector is facing these topics more by necessity than by goodwill,” Vago noted. “Sustainability has become a trend; there’s a lot of ignorance on the topic and the number of rules created by each company on its own contributed to that confusion,” echoed Andrea Crespi, who guides the sustainability commission. “It’s often employed as a marketing asset, we need to stop green-washing our guilty secrets.”

SMI will hand-pick and suggest to its companies the most authoritative international guidelines to adopt in terms of eco-friendly approaches, including a protocol on chemical compounds shared with the Italian fashion chamber, while also “outlining the business opportunities coming from the upcycling of wasted clothing,” Crespi explained.

Talking about traceability, SMI’s vice president Andrea Taborelli shared data indicating that, in recent years among the manufacturing industries in Europe showing the highest growth rate, the food industry outpaced other sectors “thanks in part to its ability to jump on traceability.”

Despite SMI having set the goal of a traceable supply chain in 2000, the organization is now working more promptly to accomplish the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 12 by 2030. “If our companies want to distinguish from fast fashion, they need to rely on a different pipeline, a more traceable and sustainable one,” said Taborelli, noting the consortium is committed to the Ministry of Economic Development’s National Strategy on Blockchain, based on a standardized system to which the companies can apply on a voluntary basis.

Capping off the assembly, Vago, who also serves as chief executive officer of his family’s textile company Vago SpA, invited his peers to think out of the box. “Our pipeline has always been able to adapt, becoming an excellent system. Now we really need to understand what’s happening at the bottom of the pipeline and move upward to find the right solutions,” he said.

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