MILAN — Italian fashion retailing is finally catching up to the rest of the world’s.
The global fast-fashion chains are rolling in, led by such companies as Zara, Hennes & Mauritz and Mango. The move is quickly reshaping the country’s traditional shopping methods, which are predicated on thousands of small, independent mom-and-pop stores where personal service, generally high prices and leisurely shopping trips are key.
“It’s about time,” said Stefano Percassi, one of the owners of Percassi Group, the Italian commercial and real estate giant that formed a joint venture two years ago with Inditex Group, the Spain-based operator of Zara, which today counts 573 stores around the world. The agreement brought Zara to Italy and the first flagship opened in Milan last year.
Percassi attributed the surprising delay for such a fashion-conscious country to bureaucratic obstacles, protectionism and lack of real estate availability. “There are countless paperwork problems related to opening a store in a city’s historic center here, [where such groups usually prefer to set up their flagships],” he said. “This is why the help of an Italian partner becomes pivotal.”
In addition, available space in the cities’ historic centers is as precious as it gets.
“We’ve been looking to enter Italy for the past two or three years, but we couldn’t find the right location, a big enough space,” said Carl-Henric Enhorning, head of investor relations at H&M, adding that the minimum required space is 17,280 square feet. “Italy was one of the hardest countries to approach, together with France,” said Enhorning.
H&M will open its first Italian store in Milan on Thursday, a few steps away from Zara. The group plans to open four or five stores in Italy next year.
Isak Halfon, expansion director at Spanish clothing chain Mango, said, “Italy was closed to foreigners, but now customers are saturated with the same old brands and want something else.” The family-owned Mango, which counts 662 stores in the world and registered sales of $997 million last year, will open its first store in Milan at the end of September. Mango has opened eight stores in Italy since 2001, beginning with tourist town Sanremo.
Although some lament the arrival of Zara, Mango and H&M as yet more evidence of globalization, others see Italy’s changing retail landscape as inevitable and more in tune with the times. Designer Antonio Berardi said working for these fast-fashion groups is an accepted reality outside Italy, where financial backing and manufacturing possibilities are scarce. “I grew up with these stores in England, they are well-rooted in our daily life and we are all used to them,” said Berardi.
Besides, fashion insiders and average shoppers contend, the consumer mind-set is more and more about fashion at a price, given the difficult Italian economy.
“Mom-and-pop stores are not economical, and Italy was lagging behind,” said Armando Branchini, vice president of InterCorporate, a luxury goods analyst here. “There were too many stores per person.”
Branchini noted how it is more “modern” to reduce the number of stores while growing the dimension and volume of the business. “Let’s face it, there is much less assortment in a smaller store and there is less customer diversification,” said Branchini.
In addition, he said, there is now a refusal of a designer’s “total look,” a staple in the Eighties. “Now customers follow their own taste and personality to combine different brands, and mix and match a signature piece with a more basic one.”
Mario Boselli, president of Italy’s Chamber of Fashion, said the altering retail landscape was “to be expected,” as a consequence of the economic crisis and the general increase in prices. “The less affluent now have a chance to have access to fashion, but those that do have more spending power still like to have some fun and match cheaper items with designer brand pieces,” said Boselli.
Case in point: Maria Sole Giorgetti, flipping through the racks at Zara, is wearing a Hermes belt, Tod’s moccasins and carrying a Prada shoulder bag and a Valextra shopping bag. “I was introduced to Zara by my daughters and I realized it’s really good value for money: The cut of the clothes allows [one] to mix and match them with more expensive designer items,” said Giorgetti, a well-groomed lady in her fifties.
Stefania Saviolo, co-director of the master in fashion management program at Milan’s Bocconi University, said the role of fashion players has been completely turned upside down. “Designers are now expected to offer continuous, long-lasting products, given the price, while these fast-fashion groups are required to display extreme, of-the-moment clothes that can be quickly discarded without worrying about how much we paid,” said Saviolo, adding customers are “tired of shelling out a lot of money for clothes and accessories that quickly look out of date.”
And the fact that Italy’s economy is going through one of its slowest growth periods in years is not stopping these groups from opening their stores now. In fact, it may be spurring their expansion as consumers become ever hungrier for cheap yet chic fashion.
“If you offer good collections at the right price, there is no crisis,” said Halfon. Halfon said the Mango Rome store, opened in March, is already the company’s 20th best-performing store in the world. “It’s amazing data, given the fact that it usually takes two years to consolidate a business in a new country,” said Halfon, adding the store in Sanremo, which opened a year and a half ago, is selling 25 percent more than forecasted. Halfon noted how Mango encourages its franchisees with a low risk level. “They pay for what they sell and send back any remainders,” he said.
There are concerns, however, particularly over the impact the arrival of such global megachains will have on Italy’s thousands of independent stores. Saviolo said she will miss sending her students to check out the Fiorucci store, which shuttered its door in July and handed over the space to the H&M shop. “We are losing some of the uniqueness we are known for,” she said.
Saviolo contended there is no contact with suppliers and creative, imaginative designers in such large chains and compared the international fashion groups to fast-food chains, quickly coming up with new, cheap offers at a moderate quality.
The Chamber of Fashion’s Boselli cautioned against endlessly reproducing large, global fashion retailing formats to the detriment of inventiveness and research. “We [Italians] should go our own way, if we try to follow [fast-fashion groups], it will eventually hurt us,” he said. “We shouldn’t forfeit beautiful and well-made fashion for clothes that are copied and only decent.”
Designer Anna Molinari agreed, saying “reproductions are approximate and standardized, lacking in creativity and uniqueness.”
Others, though, were more concerned that the self-service formats of the likes of H&M and Zara would undermine Italy’s traditional ways of shopping, where chatting and visiting with customers is almost as important as selling merchandise. “I don’t like the fact that you don’t create a human relationship between customer and personnel,” Roberto Cavalli said of the megachains.
But he wasn’t upset about often finding designs inspired by his own collections on the shelves of the fast-fashion groups. “After all, it means I was right on when I’m copied,” he said.
And, while some observers might be upset over the potential loss of tradition with the arrival of the fast-fashion chains, consumers certainly don’t seem to be concerned. Although inconvenienced by the lack of service and the long lines at the changing rooms, Zara shopper Patrizia Damiano, a student in Milan, said she simply “deals” with spending two to three hours shopping. She visits Zara about once a month and spends about $120 each time.
“I know what to expect and I don’t let it annoy me,” said Damiano.