Byline: Valerie Waterhouse

While some businesses bask in staggering sales numbers, strong brand names or star designers, others have found a quiet success by making clothes the old-fashioned way. Italian companies that specialize in handmade and hand-finished clothing say a small production capacity can be beautiful — and profitable, too. “We can’t — and don’t want to — become the next Armani,” says Antonio De Matteis, commercial director of Kiton. Based near Naples, the factories of Kiton turn out about 140 garments and 250 ties a day. “We are an industrially organized tailor producing handmade clothing, and we intend to stay that way.”
Centuries of tradition stand behind the unique garments produced by Italy’s handmade clothing producers, most of whom are based in Naples or Rome. Many of the companies were founded during the post-war industrial boom, on the back of a tailoring tradition that can be traced three or more generations.
While Rome’s tailors began as clothing-makers for the clergy, they got their first commercial boost from the ranks of film stars and well-heeled tourists who flocked there during the days of La Dolce Vita. And Neapolitan tailoring dates back to the arrival of the style-obsessed Aragonese kings in the 14th century.
Thanks to the swelling ranks of modern-day royals, celebrities and luxury connoisseurs who are perpetually on the hunt for custom clothes, the demand for handmade clothing — where prices can go as high as $15,000 for a suit — is soaring.
This is Italy’s answer to the Paris couture, although the Italian business is less regimented, with fewer requirements and restrictions. And while most of the Italian garments are handmade, they are sometimes, but not always, made specifically for individual clients. But unlike the Paris couture, the Italian hand-tailoring houses make money.
Still, producers find themselves in a Catch-22. Their painstakingly made clothing depends on costly, labor-intensive methods that require fleets of specially trained workers who, as the years pass, are increasingly difficult to recruit.
Furthermore, companies such as Kiton, Attolini and Brioni have to stay afloat in the global economy, where costs of distribution and advertising increase almost daily.
Companies approach their dilemma in different ways. Some dig in their heels, limit growth and refuse to sell to luxury giants, while others have introduced more industrial production, and are open to the idea of mergers or joint ventures.
“In 1999, we launched the Brioni Ladies Collection, which should help us expand our sales, but there is a limit. Obviously, we can’t compete with the big fashion brands, nor do we want to,” says Umberto Angeloni, Brioni’s chief executive.
The Rome-based Brioni operates eight hand-production factories, in Abruzzo, Bologna and near Milan. And since Angeloni took over as ceo in 1990, the company has grown five-fold. Five years ago, there were three Brioni stores, now there are 13. Ultimately, the company would like to have as many as 60 stores, but that will be the limit.
Brioni’s sales in 1999 were $100 million, and the company is expecting growth of 15 to 20 percent for 2000, and — thanks chiefly to the women’s collection — 300 percent over the next five years.
Since 1978, Brioni has also run one of Italy’s top tailoring schools in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, the heart of its production. At the school, 20 tailors complete a four-year course, which has helped Brioni resolve the skilled labor shortage in this sector.
Like Brioni, most of Italy’s handmade clothing companies say that diversifying their product ranges to include shirts, ties, women’s wear and even leather goods and shoes is vital for future expansion. Executives are divided, however, when it comes to boosting growth via increased industrial production.
For Kiton and Brioni, the thought of producing a lower-priced line is out of the question. The Neapolitan tailored clothing company Attolini, though, already makes a lower-priced, semi-tailored line.
“The hand-made part of our business must remain exclusive and with a limited production,” says Giuseppe Attolini, the commercial director of Attolini. “The Sartoria line — 60 percent of which is made by machine, and 40 percent of which is done by hand — offers greater potential for development.”
Indeed, his grandfather Vittorio, who made suits for Marcello Mastroianni, Clark Gable and the Duke of Windsor, would hardly recognize the company today.
Attolini can turn out about 100 garments a day. To meet increasing demand, Attolini is expanding one of its two factories and seeking new personnel. The company could consider opening its own stores in major cities around the world, he says, and it might seek a financial partnership, merger or even an initial public offering.
By 2006, Attolini aims to create its own luxury association, gathering together top producers of apparel, footwear and knitwear.
Meanwhile, Kiton and Brioni said they would not become involved in merger-and-acquisition style deals.
“We are not interested in generating billion-dollar sales at the expense of brand equity,” avers Angeloni.
To keep up with demand, last year Kiton opened a second factory, hired 40 new employees and boosted sales by 25 percent. That’s enough for now, says De Matteis.
“A 25 percent expansion is about as much as we can take in a single year — and we might even have to consolidate for a while,” he points out.
On Kiton’s factory floor, hundreds of specially trained tailors wield giant scissors and steam irons. Other tailors sit in small groups, needles and thread in hand, sewing buttonholes, fitting shoulder-pads and making sure the collar on a jacket lays just right. The average suit takes about 25 hours to produce.
While the smaller tailoring companies debate the hows and whys of growth, larger industrial companies are trying to integrate sartorial techniques with higher-output production. Herno, a $50 million company that, in addition to its signature line, manufactures clothing for Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Jil Sander, is one example.
“We blend high technology with tailoring, so that we can save time without ever interfering with quality,” says Claudio Marenzi, commercial director at the family-owned company founded 53 years ago. Cutting, for instance, is done by machines, while the company’s signature double-face is made by 100 fully contracted seamstresses who work from their own homes.
(There is not the same wage-and-hour issue with home work in Italy as there is in the U.S.) In January, the luxury cashmere company Malo, which is owned by IT Holding, recently announced an agreement with the Neapolitan tailor Sabino to produce up to 950 garments a year.
Malo first ventured into handmade tailoring territory last fall, with a sweater-jacket that is produced in an annual limited edition of 200, and which now has a waiting list of 8 months.
Although retail sales of the jackets generated just $340,000 last year, the company has added three more styles — two lightweight overcoats and a new jacket — to its handmade list.