MILAN — The Prada Group held its first conference on sustainability, called “Shaping a Creative Future,” in partnership with Yale School of Management and Politecnico di Milano School of Management.
The two-day event was held at Fondazione Prada on the first day on Monday, and at the brand’s headquarters in Milan, where the show is held, the second day.
Focusing on the relation between sustainability and innovation, the conference was made up of conversations, debates and discussions with leading international academic, creative and business figures, moderated by the two universities.
The first day saw representatives from leading businesses meet with Yale School of Management and Politecnico di Milano School of Management professors and alumni for discussions on sustainability and innovation.
The discussions over the two days hinged on brand heritage and market value; design for sustainability through innovation and tradition; sustainability and value creation, and driving creative excellence.
“One of the universal fundamental virtues is creativity,” said Prada chairman Carlo Mazzi. “Positive creativity requires equality and liberty, and we need courage and a strong mind. Where creativity is focused on the good and beauty [there] is also sustainability.”
The first speech centered on brand heritage and market value and Yale Professor Ravi Dhar explained how “products are more valuable when they contain history.” To drive the point home, he showed a slide of a pair of old glasses, with a different value once they were identified as belonging to Mahatma Gandhi. Italian heritage, he contended, was not only about where and how the product was made but also when, and he underscored how a product is seen as more valuable when made in the original factory, where the roots are.
Another example was that of a pair of Levi’s jeans, perceived by customers as more valuable when made in San Francisco in the old plant, rather than in a modern one or in another city. “Companies can do more to exploit the original source,” said Dhar.
Moderator Michela Arnaboldi from Politecnico di Milano said the panels from a day earlier had highlighted new professions such as that of a “chief memory officer, in charge of cataloguing intangible assets” and how “heritage is in the hands of the customer, while [brands preserve] genetics and history.”
Carlo Capasa, president of the Italian Camera della Moda, said that heritage in fashion should be “a dynamic story,” and that its value is accrued when combined with innovation. He emphasized Italian creativity and new ideas — “we are very good at that” — but beautiful products must also be sustainable, he stressed. “We have to balance technology and nature, it’s a big responsibility and sustainability is not esoteric nor is it about what I call green-washing, we must create real values,” observed Capasa about companies when they are not fully involved. He said the fashion association started “fixing rules on chemicals, and now is looking at processes to achieve full traceability.”
Former Luxottica chief executive officer Andrea Guerra, now executive chairman of Eataly, said how it was “fun to observe behavior looking at similar things in the last three to five years,” attributing the different views and reactions to “living in an age of uncertainty, and to three revolutions: globalization, [which] brought new opportunities as well as challenges; technology, which has not finished yet — we are not able to use all technologies — and social responsibility.”
All this translates into more scrutinized behaviors, “more talks about the brands, their authenticity and how credible and reliable they are,” said Guerra. He underscored the endless discussions on how to define Made in Italy.
“There is a huge behavioral challenge, whatever we do or say or advertise is known around the world quicker and to a bigger and knowledgeable audience judging us,” said the executive, concluding that the challenge must be accepted with a clear strategy and proposal. The alternative, “playing games,” would lead to losing the competition.
Industrial designer Giulio Iacchetti said that “not all brands can boast heritage and it is not enough to be a brand to have heritage. Those brands that were born already with the awareness of their value are those that can claim heritage.”
Manfredi Ricca, chief strategy officer Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America at Interbrand, said “a brand is a promise of an experience, and heritage is inert if not translated into action.”
He urged companies to “raise loyalty and advocacy” and to focus, choosing “to be excellent on one thing.”
Ricca concurred with Capasa, saying that craftsmanship must be both about preservation and innovation. “History is not about longevity but about holding true to the brand’s DNA, reinventing and staying relevant.” He also emphasized rarity, which is not exclusivity, he said, and not about highly priced products. These are “businesses of excellence and profits are a mean to pursue and sustain the mission,” he concluded.
Gabriele Troilo, senior professor at SDA Bocconi School of Management, said he was “fascinated by the negative side of heritage,” and “how it can impede by building constraints through a conservatory attitude” in an effort “to preserve what has been done so far and avoiding thinking outside of the box.”
He contended that a defensive attitude and a “structure or powers and established actors block changes.” In addition, looking solely within the company with “limited attention to the outside” also curbs growth and expansion. As an example, he cited a label he noticed on a bottle of Amarone dry red wine, which was being exported to Japan without any changes. The label suggested pairing the wine with “game and wild pig, notoriously part of Japan’s daily diet,” he said to a round of sniggering in the audience.
Eataly’s Guerra concurred, saying that the “challenge was to play a more global game.”
“We as Italians have been unbelievably lazy. Italian food is loved around the world and Italian food is found around the world but Italians have not been there. Be sure that if you are not there, someone else is occupying your space,” said Guerra, pointing to counterfeit food products outside Italy, such as “parmisan.” He also lamented the fact that “too frequently, products are lined to functional and not emotional [elements].” He urged companies to “go global” while reaching out and talking about Italian culture, “to show our hearts. If we do that, we create a lot of value.”
During the third roundtable, which was dedicated to sustainability and value creation, Anna Zegna, president of the Zegna Foundation, explained how, putting the focus on the value of legacy, the Ermenegildo Zegna company managed to turn the founder’s local philanthropy into activities impacting the global community in order to promote environmental, social and economic sustainability.
“Our challenge is to be cocreators with the community,” said Zegna. “To do this, we have to start from the individuals, because it’s people connecting dots; second, education needs to be at the base of any project, and economy is the last thing…if you manage to get social and environmental sustainability, economic value will come.”
In order to highlight the huge impact of creativity in the development of sustainable businesses, Zegna discussed the projects supported by the foundation with Italy’s San Patrignano rehab community. “In 2012, I visited the community’s textile department and I realized they had a lot of skills but there was a lack of creativity,” said Zegna, highlighting that San Patrignano’s unit dedicated to the production of fabrics features special hand looms, which cannot be found anywhere else in the country.
“So we tried to understand how we could use the knowledge we have of the textile market to help the department and the girls working there in finding their own path. We injected their work with creativity and we immediately saw a total change in their attitude.”
Over the years, San Patrignano’s textile division managed to provide a range of luxury companies, such as Chanel, Agnona, Salvatore Ferragamo and Faliero Sarti, as well as architect Peter Marino and artist Jeff Koons, with high-end fabrics. “Creativity generated passion and passion stimulated the business,” Zegna said.
Creativity should inform all the initiatives promoted by companies’ different business units, said Prada Group information technology director Enzo Greco. “At Prada, we apply creativity to the industry, the supply chain, logistics and IT,” he explained, highlighting that creativity also plays a relevant role in problem-solving and in the development of new ideas. “Creativity can be a tool for creation and to guarantee a sustainable future,” he said, highlighting the importance to shift from an individual paradigm to a social collaboration point of view.
But how can companies manage creativity to generate value? There are three ways, according to Exane BNP Paribas luxury goods managing director Luca Solca. One of them is accelerating change in leadership, as in the case of Gucci, where “the new creative leader generated a significant growth,” he said, referring to the appointment of Alessandro Michele.
Solca cited merchandising, “the bridge between creative talent and the market,” as the second tool, which companies are embracing, mentioning the recent appointment of a chief merchandising officer at Salvatore Ferragamo. “The third is the creation of partnerships, such as the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme.”
When it comes to promoting their creative content, companies have to consider the growing importance of mobile devices, according to Facebook country manager Luca Colombo. Communications need to be meaningful and impactful, also considering that most of social media is based on feeds. “In the digital environment everything competes with everything so it’s not just about being dominant but it’s more about being relevant,” he said, stressing the importance of created content which can immediately catch the attention. “Content [also has] to be expressive, immersive and inspirational.”
In addition, Colombo highlighted the relevance of data science for the creation of a company’s creative vision, as well as the importance of people empowerment within an organization to promote talent.
The identification of excellence is a crucial task for companies’ leaders, according to Sergio Rossi president Andrea Morante. The Italian manager cited, for example, the foresight of Pomellato founder Pino Rabolini, who established the jewelry company in 1967. “At a certain point he hired a creative talent, he cultivated him and when he realized he had become better than him he took a step back. He left his firm, which was transformed into a managerial company,” said Morante, who, in 2009, acquired a minority stake in the jewelry label, which is now controlled by Kering Group.
Morante also mentioned the case of Maurizio Gucci, who, in 1989, courageously decided to hire former Bergdorf Goodman president Dawn Mello to inject a new, international twist into the Florentine fashion house. “At a certain point  she thought it was necessary to hire a real creative director and she wanted to bring in Tom Ford,” he said. “There is a fine balance between creativity and business and leaders need to be a bit [like] analysts.”