ITALY EYES THE FUTURE OF THE CRAFT

Byline: Alessandra Ilari

MILAN — To hear some of the old veterans tell it, young people today are selfish, want glamour and instant gratification and have no idea what it means to create from the heart — they know only the computer keyboard.
While perhaps just a slight exaggeration, it represents a real problem for the future of Italy’s tradition of centuries-old craftsmanship and artisanal handiwork, long ingrained in the culture of a country that brought the world the likes of Michelangelo and Botticelli.
As in other countries, there is a growing inclination among Italy’s youth toward the high tech worlds of clicks and bytes instead of high-touch environments centered around leather, suede and fine metals. The scenario is one that could threaten Italy’s stature as the world’s premiere maker of luxury goods, and brands large and small are struggling to recruit the next generation of craftsmen.
The country’s roots in design, detail and hand workmanship — traceable to ancient Rome — have turned the “Made in Italy” label into a badge for the best quality products as well as a valuable sourcing mecca for luxury companies including Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton.
A long-familiar Italian image is that of apron-clad workers, bent over their workbenches deftly cutting, sewing and decorating shoes and handbags, or the nimble hands of jewelers, skillfully engraving an exquisite piece of gold or setting precious stones.
The reasons for a dearth of young people entering the accessories making work force are varied, according to industry executives:
It’s more glamorous to clock in and out of an office than a factory, and it’s cooler to don a suit rather than an apron.
Young people are spoiled, and they expect immediate success.
Career choices are made for the rewards they offer to one’s wallet instead of the heart.
“It’s true that young people are not sufficiently interested in carrying on in this category because it’s not valued enough,” said Silvia Venturini, style director at Fendi. “They would rather be mediocre entrepreneurs than superb artisans. It is a shame and damaging for our economy, which boasts an important cultural heritage in artisan production.”
Venturini speaks from experience. It was she, together with the Fendi clan, who revamped Selleria, a handbag line originally created by founder Adele Fendi in 1925. After a period in obscurity, Selleria resurfaced in 1996, still entirely handmade and available only in a limited edition.
“People have a twisted image of working in a factory,” said Gabriele Frantappie, an owner of the handbag firm Desmo. “They think they’d rather sit behind a desk for 30 years even if they do the same boring job all the time.”
The image of the “maestro,” or master craftsman, who meticulously trains his young apprentices in a cluttered bottega or workshop, is also slowly disappearing. Though some alternatives exist in the form of specialized schools, concentrated in Tuscany and Lombardy, enrollment there has also slowed.
“In the last two years, our student numbers have dropped from an average of 160 to 90,” said Marta Martini, owner of Sarteco, a Tuscan school based in Empoli, where a cluster of manufacturers craft half of the nation’s output. “Companies keep inundating us with requests for labor, which we can’t satisfy.”
Students graduate from Sarteco with a thorough education that encompasses everything from the anatomy of the leg and foot and the history of costume to practical techniques. “A year ago, we introduced a highly interactive course for which we organize internships. We show the students the retail scene so they learn what’s selling, they talk to store managers and check out the competition. We also send them to shoe fairs so that they understand that a shoe can’t only be pretty, but must also sell,” said Giorgianna Appignani, director of Polimoda, a Florence-based fashion school, who added that many of her students ended up working for prestigious accessories companies such as Trussardi, Diego della Valle and Fratelli Rossetti.
Gucci is also working closely with schools and the Tuscan region to convey the message that working in this sector is fun, lively, creative, prestigious and financially rewarding.
“This field offers a high potential for career growth,” said a company spokesman. “Gucci has an average of 70 interns each year, many of which stay, and we’re working closely with small manufacturers that produce for us, to help them monitor the sector.”
“Young people today are more concerned with vacation time, going skiing or wearing the right clothes, at least in Italy,” said Riccardo Braccialini, an owner of Braccialini, an upscale Florentine handbag manufacturer who added that only three of his 30 plant employees are under 30 years old. “It’s not as appealing for a young person to work in a factory or to learn a craft as it is to type on a computer. It’s unfortunate, because there is so much potential if one wanted to pursue those jobs, which are slowly disappearing.”
Underscoring his point, Braccialini said he recently received 200 responses from people interested in a sales position versus two for a factory post.
Stefan Hafner, the owner of the Bologna-based fine jewelry firm bearing his name, agreed, saying, “Young people today are concerned with having hip jeans or cool sneakers. They are not willing to sacrifice.”
When six of his more qualified workers recently retired, Gianni Dori, an owner of the high-end handbag firm Rodo, claimed he was left dry for four months.
It’s not like there isn’t a pool of labor available, either. While accessories manufacturers struggle to fill gaps caused by retiring older staffs, Italy has an 11.4 percent unemployment rate, according to a spokesman at the Minister of Work in Rome.
Stefano Branchini, the owner of a small company that produces bespoke shoes, blamed the current difficulties on the fact that people treat business more as a money machine than as choice from the heart.
“The goal is to make money, so the interest in making a beautiful product is waning,” said Branchini.
Undeniably, a six-figure pay check has its charm, but low salaries can hardly be blamed for the shortage of new workers. Companies are inclined to pay proportionately higher salaries in order to secure skilled labor. The annual salary of a skilled stonesetter or a seasoned pattern-cutter can reach $110,000; while a person specialized in hand-painting hides and leather accessories can take home as much as $200,000.
Carlo Pambianco, a luxury goods analyst, is confident that the current labor shortage is just another cycle in the fashion world, and that with a little more attention given to analysis, strong curriculums and adequate salaries, the tide will turn.
“A lot of people find it demeaning to work in a factory because all the attention is on the brands and designers, whereas the workers get no credit,” said Pambianco. “That’s why we must stimulate this sector.”
At the Florentine headquarters of Ferragamo, the strategy is to incorporate the past with the future.
“This problem started about a decade ago,” said Giovanna Ferragamo, ready-to-wear director for the luxury goods house. “We have to take advantage of the potential that high tech machinery offers us because young people are happy to work on sophisticated machinery and computers. Handmade details are the finishing steps.”
From the fine jewelry sector, where the problem is less magnified, came other suggestions. Fine jeweler Roberto Coin believes in creating modern and functional work environments that have little in common with the shabby, neon-lit work spaces frequently associated with low-class employment.
“Secondly, it is important to give space to young people for their ideas and input so that the work doesn’t become monotonous,” said Coin. “Even at times when there is less need for labor, you must have people around to train. It’s a sacrifice in terms of cost, but it’s worth it.”
A similar picture was painted by Leopoldo Poli, an owner of La Nouvelle Bague, a Florentine fine jewelry firm.
“If you motivate young people and you offer them good quality to work with, then they can be [more] creative and open-minded than their elders,” said Poli.
Instead of setting up a small factory in the company’s headquarters, Poli opts for satellite labs that are each specialized in different steps of jewelry making.
“This system is more time-consuming and expensive than having everything in-house, but the quality is much better, said Poli.
With quality being a top priority, training sessions for new workers are imperative, but the process can take months — if not years. According to Rodo’s Dori, it can take five years to coach a good patternmaker, especially today, since accessories center around quirky heels and funky styles and bags feature couture-like embellishments.
“We’re not talking about sticking a sole on a shoe,” said Dori. “That’s why, once we find the right person, we have to invest in them even financially.”
Rodo’s annual production is 70,000 pieces, including bags and shoes, for total sales of $6.1 million.
It took Branchini more than six months to get his apprentice acquainted with the numerous steps required to assemble his handmade shoes, a process that starts with the animal hides buried underground for three months and finishes with a manual massage to dye shoes using colored natural beeswax. The whole procedure takes a month and 10 days, for an annual production of 3,500 and a retail price tag of $1,000 per pair.
Like Poli and Coin, Branchini affirmed that young people should acknowledge the effort made to better the work environment.
“We’re not talking about the old cobbler, closed in a dim workshop and hammering nails all day. Today, the structures are more modern with computers, music, nice lighting and AC,” said Branchini.
To some extent, foreign labor could make matters easier. Many schools claimed that there is an increase of foreign students, from Northern Europe, China and Asia.
Companies are not snubbing the option, although Dori, who hired two Pakistanis to work in his factory, is still skeptical.
“They treated the work as any other, without that extra care and love for the product that makes it so special.”
But as Coin puts it, optimism in the air.
“Once again,” he said, “we will find a way to get around the obstacles.”