NEW YORK — In a major vote of confidence in American consumers, Italy’s Vice Minister of Economic Development Carlo Calenda on Monday launched a yearlong, $21.6 million initiative tailor-made to bolster Italian fashion exports to the U.S. market.
Before detailing the multitiered program with other leading Italian trade officials at the Jacob K. Javits Center here Monday, Calenda discussed how the dollar’s strength against the euro, the industrialization of China and the shifting global marketplace were among the factors that spurred the effort. Last year, Italian exports to the U.S. totaled 5.2 billion euros, or $5.6 billion, an 11 percent increase compared to 2013. Italy has seen 4.5 percent market share growth in the U.S. since 2013. Because of increased spending due to the dollar gaining strength against the euro, Italy’s growth was 23.3 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period lat year.
“In the first phase of globalization, the mantra was, ‘You have to be present everywhere.’ Now you have to be much more selective. There are places where conditions for business will worsen, and places where they are opening up their borders for our goods,” he said. “We are really trying to guide our companies to avoid taking risks. It is a much more complicated environment for globalization but at the same time there is much more opportunity.”
The European Union’s ongoing financial woes were not the impetus for the Italian-rooted campaign,which was 18 months in the making. “To be honest, the instability isn’t limited to the European market. You have Russia, Turkey, the southern part of the Mediterranean is in turmoil, Argentina, Venezuela — there are many difficulties around the world. Russia, for example is a very important market for us and now it is almost closed,” Calenda said. “The idea with the U.S. is that we have a very stable partner, consumers who want to buy our products and a much more favorable currency exchange [rate]. I think it is the right moment to push.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi couldn’t agree more. “All [Italian] politicians used to think that fashion was something that was frivolous and too luxury-driven. Being associated with fashion was something that was not good for a politician. That’s the reason why for many years in Italy, politics ignored the fashion sector. Now for the first time, the government has put some real money into the promotion and marketing of fashion,” Calenda said.
Renzi’s presence at last year’s Pitti Uomo helped substantiate fashion as a significant industry, and one melded to Italy’s culture, craftsmanship and Made In Italy marketing initiative, Calenda said. In regards to this new U.S. based drive, Calenda said, “If we support 200 small, high-quality Italian companies that could be big brands in terms of their potential, we are creating an opportunity to turn them into new global brands. Brunello Cucinelli is the kind of story you want to replicate. We have many Italian companies with turnover of $75.7 million to $108.2 million annually but they need the push to become global.”
Italian Trade Commission president Riccardo Monti said, “There’s been a lot of rhetoric about emerging countries. But if you look at the hard facts, the U.S. is still by far the biggest market in terms of potential,” he said. “We’re investing more in the U.S. than our entire global budget last year.”
Through the support of namely Lineapelle and Milano Unica, two trade shows now on in New York, between 25 percent and 50 percent of the Italian-led initiative was privately funded. The fact that American consumers are increasingly asking where and how their purchases were made appealed to many Italian brands, due to their rich heritage in craftsmanship, Monti said.
Claiming that an estimated 70 percent of the world’s UNESCO sites are based in Italy, Monti said the campaign draws from the country’s past. “I don’t have any credit for what the ancient Romans or Renaissance people did. But we want to show that the Made in Italy [label] and the beauty of Italy is the result of our history,” said Monti. “We’re not at all playing any sort of nationalistic card — we’re not saying don’t buy from other countries. We’re saying, ‘This is what we do and what we do is part of our history, our land and our tradition — come and see it, come and buy it.”
In addition, many leading Italian brands are owned by foreign investors such as the Qatari royal family’s tie to Valentino and Kering’s ownership of Gucci, said Motti, making “Italian fashion good citizens of globalization.”
Interestingly, while men’s wear sales are particularly strong, Italian exports of women’s wear could use some attention, according to organizers.
The yearlong, four-tiered strategy will include an ongoing alliance with leading U.S. retailers, a bevy of trade shows and special events, incoming services and assistance in Italy and a major media campaign. The Italian contingent is eager to zero in on American consumers, especially the ever-influential youth culture. Organizers are keen on the fact that 34 percent of the U.S. population of 315 million is under the age of 25. The effort is meant to build on the growth last year of Italian fashion goods exports — clothing, textiles, leather goods, cosmetics, eyewear, jewelry and skins.
Lineapelle chief executive officer Salvatore Mercogliano said 26 percent of international leather exports come from Italy. “The fashion world today buys between 30 and 35 percent of the Italian production compared to 10 percent about 10 years ago. In Italy there are currently about 1,000 tanneries — half the number that existed 20 years ago,” he said. “But today the States are performing much better than Europe or Asia. That’s important for us because they are balancing what we are losing in Europe and Asia,” Mercogliano said. “In other words, the new American luxury brands are improving the use of leather.”
To that end, Lineapelle was among the supporters of what was due to be a performance Monday night of “The Cloak of the Dragon,” headlined by La Scala’s prima ballerina Sabrina Brazzo. To celebrate this week’s Made in Italy trade show in New York and to try to elevate Lineapelle’s image culturally, she and her fellow dancers were due to be suited up in Italian-made leather costumes. The ballet is based on a book of fairy tales that Lineapelle compiled and distributed through various schools in Italy last year, even providing special actor performances in the classrooms to bring the books to life. Next up Lineapelle will debut the short film “I Come From,” covering the history of leathers from Pompeii to modern times on Sept. 9 at Teatro Litta in Milan. The movie is being developed by Ricky Tognazzi, the son of the Italian comedic actor Ugo.
“Tanners were thought of as sort of a dirty job in the past. Today it is a very cultivated job,” he said. “We want to try to give back something to society through culture.”