THE DREAM WEAVERS
ITALY’S WORLD-FAMOUS MILLS FIND THEMSELVES IN FASHION’S FAVOR ONCE AGAIN.
Byline: Courtney Colavita
In the beginning, before the birth of Italian fashion powerhouses, before the Made in Italy label, there were the Italian mills.
Sprawled across northern and central Italy, the mills of Como, Prato and Biella are known worldwide for their silks, jerseys, woolens and worsted fabrics.
Deeply rooted in centuries-old traditions, yet constantly searching for innovative fabric designs, the mills are keen researchers and masters of customer service. Designers and industry experts say that combination is unparalleled throughout the world.
“All the [Italian] industrial areas share a common reputation of producing not only high-quality products, but products that are beautiful and fashionable,” says luxury consultant Carlo Pambianco. “That’s why so many American and French designers come here.”
For years, the textile industry has been a sourcing mecca for everyone from Versace — the jungle-print dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammys last year was made from Ratti silk — to Banana Republic, supplying the gamut, from super 160s to georgette silk to high-tech microfibers.
Resilient, the industry has survived natural disasters, war and stock market crashes. Today, however, the challenges have changed. Stiff competition from Asia and a fast-moving fashion industry have forced the mills to be twice as innovative — in half the time.
While 1998 and 1999 were lean for the industry, 2000 was a stellar year.
According to the Hermes Lab for Pitti Immagine, Italian yarn and fabric producers generated $25.3 billion in sales, up 4.8 percent from 1999. Exports jumped 11.8 percent to $10.7 million – a level not seen since early 1998.
Analysts credit the recent rise to the strong dollar and a renewed interest in the Made in Italy label. Below, a snapshot of how some of the major mills are moving forward in 2001.
The Return Of Como
For more than a century, the mills here have been producing imaginative prints and luxurious weaves, turning family-run companies into multi-million dollar manufacturers, producing ties, scarves and women’s wear fabric in crepe, twills and mixed fibers. After two difficult years, marked with losses and closures, Como is once again enjoying fashion’s favor. Spurred on by the increasing demand for luxurious, printed silks for women’s wear, companies such as Ratti, Mantero and Marioboselli Holding have all reported healthy gains in 2000.
When Antonio Ratti founded his eponymous company in 1945, Italy was beginning its period of reconstruction at the end of World War II. “It was a new era for Italian textiles,” recalled Ratti. “I was trying to create a company that was both creative and commercial. Along with a handful of young collaborators, we started making silk for ties, scarves and priests’ vestments,” he said.
More than half a century later, Ratti is one of the largest companies in Como, reporting annual sales of $140 million and supplying fabrics to the world’s top designers. While silk is still its primary product, the methods of production have evolved. “We’re concentrating on more technical effects, such as the use of resins, pleating, and finishings,” said Doni Ratti, the company’s president and the daughter of Antonio.
Like Ratti, Mantero SpA has successfully weathered fashion’s trends by continually updating its fabrics. “We invest in technology and we are always in contact with designers – working with them to meet their needs,” said Moritz Mantero, CEO of Mantero SpA. The company also is aiming to grow through investments. Mantero reported sales of $175 million in 2000 and recently its parent company, Mantero Holding, acquired a minority stake in the men’s wear label Piombo. “It’s part of an experiment. A way to diversify and expand our overall operation,” Mantero said.
Marioboselli Holding, another of Como’s stars, was founded in 1956 as a producer of silks and man-made fibers. It cut back on prints and increased production of more technical weaves during fashion’s minimalist period, and now it is returning to printed silks. “The market is hungry for more elegance formality,” said Mario Boselli, president of Marioboselli Holding, Pitti Immagine and Italy’s National Chamber of Fashion.
Biella: No Longer A Man’s World
In Biella, the natives take measurements in microns, not meters. About sixty miles northwest of Milan, is the woolly heart of the Piedmont region with some 3,200 mills and factories. Framed by the Alps and rich in natural resources, Biella has nurtured generations of wool producers.
Thanks to its textile industry, almost half of Biella’s population is employed. According to Biella’s Industrial Union, the province has an unemployment rate of five percent – less than half the national rate – and has one of the highest employment rates for women in the whole country. Traditionally considered a hub for men’s wear fabrics, the industry in recent years has shown its softer side and expanded into women’s wear.
In a bid to boost its growing women’s line, The Ermenegildo Zegna Group bought Lanerie Agnona in 1999. The mill primarily produces women’s wear fabrics in wool and cashmere and the purchase was part of Zegna’s overall strategy to strengthen its share of the market. “To manage fashion trends and evolve with the market, you must be able to grow in different areas, while continually maintaining the quality of the product,” said Paolo Zegna, chief executive of the group.
Founded in 1910, the group is the realization of Ermenegildo Zegna’s dream of complete vertical integration. A producer of fabric and finished pieces and a retailer, Zegna has become a $600 million dollar business, with clothing and accessories generating 85 percent of sales and fabrics making up the remaining 15 percent.
Loro Piana, another famous fashion clan from Biella, is following Zegna’s example by turning its textiles into a luxury men’s and women’s wear brand.
Prato is the Cinderella of the Italian textile industry, having earned its initial reputation as the region where wool rags were recycled into new fabrics.
Once a primary producer of carded wool, Prato now focuses on special finishing and high-tech fibers. “Some people are obsessed with sex; in Prato, they’re obsessed with textiles,” said Nancy Martin, a textile history professor at Milan’s Domus Academy.
Prato has some 6,900 factories specializing in classic cottons, crisp linens and technical fabrics. Through innovation and workmanship, companies like Limonta, Microtex and Giovanni Crespi have helped propel the industry’s bottom-line. In 2000, Prato’s Industrial Union reported industry turnover shot up 9.3 percent to $5.6 billion. Exports accounted for 45 percent of total sales.
In the last decade, cheaper products from Asia and the Middle East have taken a bite out of Prato’s market share, but those in the industry say quality will always win out over price. “If you get into a price battle, you’re never going to win,” said Lorenzo Becagli, chief executive of Microtex, a Prato-based mill specializing in both natural and technical fabrics. “We’re competing in a middle-high market and our clients are willing to pay for quality.”
Lorenzo, along with his brother Massimo, founded the company back in the mid-Eighties as a spin-off from their father’s textile business. With turnover reaching $35 million in 2000, the company is expanding from men’s wear into women’s wear. Microtex makes fabrics from cotton, nylon, ceramic, carbon and steel fibers.
While innovation is key to the company’s success, Becagli said attentive customer service is what keeps clients coming back. “Before we show our line at a major fair, we’ll invite special customers in for a preview and give them an exclusive on the fabric, or we’ll also create unique colors or do a special finishing for them,” he said. “They’re not only paying for quality, they’re paying for that something extra that only Italians know how to do.”