MILAN — As Milan Fashion Week was coming to a close, some of the biggest names of high-end “Made in Italy” assembled to discuss what is right and wrong with Italy’s fashion system as well as plans to help sustain emerging talents.
During a summit organized by Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, Italy’s national fashion chamber, Patrizio Bertelli, Stefano Sassi and Renzo Rosso — among others — agreed and disagreed on issues ranging from the government’s role in sustaining fashion to what it means to be a luxury brand to whether listing on the stock market is — or is not — an opportunity.
Although this was not the main topic of the summit, on the sidelines both Sassi — chief executive officer of Valentino SpA — and Rosso — chairman of OTB Group — remarked that they were not interested in going public, at least not yet.
“It doesn’t seem like a good year to list,” Sassi told journalists. OTB is in no rush — nor is it in need — of hitting the big board soon, either: “Why list when you then have to give numbers every three months?” Rosso asked rhetorically. He was also critical of financial markets and the valuations they give companies such as Yoox Net-a-Porter, of which Rosso is a prominent shareholder. He said the financial world was “sick” and asked: “Why list in this sick financial world?”
Overall, the mood at the “Crafting the Future of Fashion” summit was optimistic. In opening remarks, Camera Moda’s president, Carlo Capasa, underlined how the just-ended fashion week saw a bump in the number of foreign press and buyers. According to Capasa — compared with last year — there were some 20 percent more foreign journalists and 23 percent more foreign buyers, “many who had never been to Italy before.”
Capasa said renewed foreign interest in Italy’s fashion week was a sign that “Milan is recuperating coolness.” Interest in “Made in Italy,” in other words, is not waning.
That said, challenges lurk. In a presentation, Bain & Co. partner Claudia D’Arpizio highlighted how fashion brands have to be aware of important changes in consumer attitudes and habits and be ready to meet the complex and ever-changing demands of increasingly mobile and volatile Millennials, who will come to make up some 40 percent of luxury goods buyers by 2025. Together, “Generation X” and “Generation Y” will make up 80 percent of the luxury goods market by that time.
“I think the ‘luxury equation’ is in crisis,” D’Arpizio said, explaining that increasing tourist flows are leading to more and more people buying abroad, where they find cheaper prices. In recent years there has been a move toward more discount shopping, more buying in outlets and online, she said. In part, she explained, this is because the idea of “value” has gotten lost or has not been well explained to consumers, who are therefore looking to spend less for what they perceive is worth less.
During a round-table discussion following D’Arpizio’s presentation, Patrizio Bertelli, ceo of Prada SpA, took issue with the very meaning of the word luxury: “Everybody defines it the way they want to. It’s like pizza: homemade, made in the pizza place downstairs. Luxury is like pizza, everyone does it the way he feels like it.” He said the real issue was quality, “which means creativity, how to interpret fashions, strong artisanal and manual capabilities….I think there are some brands who have appropriated this term to position themselves better.”
The slowdown in China — one of the main factors if not the main factor in the recent luxury goods slowdown — was mentioned many times during the summit. OTB’s Rosso said the reason many brands are facing a drastic slowdown in that market is because they were initially too aggressive. “This type of public needs time to understand what luxury means, how to approach this type of product,” Rosso said of Chinese consumers.
During the roundtable, Valetino’s Sassi made a point that luxury brands have to be careful to focus on their identity. “I think fashion’s role is always to define the direction of trends, not only evolve based on what the market wants but to somehow anticipate it. I think this message is important.”
The three executives differed on their view of the Italian government’s recent initiatives — under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s guidance — to support “Made in Italy” fashion, the country’s number-two export engine.
Prada’s Bertelli pointed out that efforts carried out with the government’s support — for example, to schedule key trade fairs such as Micam and Mipel during the fashion week calendars — have been fruitless. “The real problem with Italy is that there are no entrepreneurs,” Bertelli said. “We need companies, not politics. We need people who want to start companies.”
He also came out strongly against what has been often considered a strength of Italy’s fashion system: “It’s 20 years that we’ve been saying that little is beautiful. Little is not beautiful: it leads to failure. We have used the wrong model.” He added that the big fashion brands have been “safeguarding many small firms because if we lose them we lose their know-how.”
Inevitably, there was discussion of Milan Fashion Week and how some brands — Gucci in the lead — have taken to unifying women’s and men’s shows.
“I think every brand has to decide its own strategy. It’s no longer possible to channel [everybody] and tell everyone ‘you do this and this,'” Rosso said. “We take the beauty out of entrepreneurship this way.” If anything, Rosso said, brands should increasingly look for ways to differentiate even in terms of collections: “We should make specific collections for different countries and even for specific stores.” But he admitted that, in some ways, merging shows makes sense: “We’re talking about lifestyle now, not so much about men’s and women’s collections. It would also lead to cost savings, and everybody wants to cut costs because the product is too expensive.”
Sassi called himself out of the issue, pointing out that Valentino has been doing its shows in Paris for some 40 years — and will continue to do so, for “this is part of the brand’s DNA.”
As for Prada, Bertelli pointed out that the company has already merged its men’s and women’s shows: “We’ve been doing it for three years. But we never made a fuss about this as an idea,” he said. “Everybody should do as they please.” He also pointed out that in 2010 he had suggested moving women’s shows to July, after men’s shows in June, so that once they were over “everybody could go on vacation.” But he suggested that Italy bends to the will of others: “There is a French [fashion] chamber that doesn’t want this, there’s [Anna] Wintour in New York, whose hair falls out at the idea….Italy should take the ball and run with it, do what it wants, men’s shows in June, women’s shows in July.”
Asked his opinion on the issue, Capasa told WWD on the sidelines of the summit that merging men’s and women’s was something Camera was not pushing. “Every brand has to decide what path is most appropriate. It’s the right thing to do when it’s authentic….We have to push brands to make their choices. As Bertelli pointed out, Prada has already been doing it.”
The summit was also an opportunity to discuss how to help promising young designers make the jump from promise to success. Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Vogue Italia, explained how competitions like “Who Is On Next?” — organized with Alta Roma and Pitti Immagine — have over the years helped names such as Stella Jean and Massimo Giorgetti make it in the business. She said the important thing was not so much the talent scouting, but “helping them as they go forward.” Here she cited the main problem facing young designers: “No one wants to invest in them. There is fear; no one knows who they are.” And she took issue with the idea that there are few young designers in Italy. “Foreigners come to Italy and ask always about young designers, as if there weren’t any. We have found many and we have had the patience to help them grow,” Sozzani said. “In England why are there so many young designers? Because often after one collection they disappear, so every year new ones appear.”
And it is in support of new talents that Capasa announced Camera Moda’s newest initiative: Together with bank UniCredit and high-end department store La Rinascente, Capasa introduced “Fashion Lab Project,” a program he called a type of incubator that will help some 20 young designers that already have a couple of years of activity to their name establish themselves and their brands. The program — which will start with a new batch every January — seeks to guide the participants through varied stages: Camera Moda will help the designers find contacts with producers and distributors and help them tell their stories on digital platforms. Gabriele Piccini, country manager Italy of Unicredit, said the bank will offer the designers business courses so that they can learn to manage the business side of their brand, organize business-to-business meetings with potential buyers and organize an “investor day” on Dec. 13 to help them contact potential investors. And La Rinascente will give them space to show their work and get contacts with end consumers. “Every October, we will host four days of fashion shows [in the Milan store] and then for four weeks we will display their products — something like what we do during the Salone del Mobile with new designers,” Alberto Baldan, ceo of La Rinascente, told WWD on the sidelines of the event. “In this way, the fashion designers will be able face off with competing products of already established brands right away.”
Wrapping up the conference, Capasa said that in the end the winners will be authentic brands, those that “tell something real.” He added: “I would say we are winners…when we are creative. The Americans push on marketing, they say ‘eliminate the designer, put a stylist/merchandiser in his place; what do we need a designer for?’ Perhaps in the medium term they are right. Our fashion has to create dreams. That’s why we need to work on sustainability, storytelling, because they create dreams. When we create dreams we are the best; when we try to fight on the level of meeting needs — like fast fashion — then we lose.”