MILAN — Fashion lovers around the world have over the years come to identify products bearing the Made in Italy label with quality, luxury and design.
But just as Americans have had to adjust to a new European currency, they might have to come to terms with a new label, Made in Europe, endorsed by the European Community. Currently, there is no country of origin label required on garments in Europe. But according to a regulation now under discussion, European nations will be obliged to state origin of production on their imported and exported items, just as it is required in the U.S. and Japan. A controversy has arisen over whether to state the specific country, or to use the more general Made in Europe.
Industrialists and fashion designers, with the help of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, are asking the European Community to add the specific country of production to the label. For some, this request is made even more pressing by the fact that 10 more countries are joining the European Community in May. Among these, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia are low-cost manufacturing countries already competing with Italian artisans and the country’s production base.
Many Italians view the Made in Europe label on products coming from Eastern Europe as a sure way to lose more market share.
The Italian fashion industry, including textiles, clothing, leather goods and footwear, reported sales of $84.23 billion (68.04 billion euros at current exchange) in 2003 and expects sales of $88.02 billion (71.1 billion euros) in 2004, according to the Italian Chamber of Fashion. Of this figure, exports totalled $46.73 billion (37.75 billion euros), and imports $27.14 billion (21.92 billion).
Some observers say the loss of the Made in Italy label will deprive Italian products of an added asset, a sort of quality endorsement. Others believe the brand is a guarantee of the product’s integrity and quality and consider the debate over the labeling obsolete in light of the industry’s globalization and the inevitable outsourcing of production, a consequence of Italy’s high labor costs.
“While the designer label should guarantee its quality, customers are entitled to being correctly informed, so I applaud the new regulation, with compulsory labeling,” said Massimo Ferretti, chairman of Aeffe, the luxury goods group that produces and distributes lines for Alberta Ferretti, Moschino, Narciso Rodriguez, Jean Paul Gaultier and Pollini. “However, since it doesn’t cost more to have more information, why should we do away with the specific country on the label? After all, Germany has its cars, France its wines, Italy its fashion. We should enhance our best assets,” he said.
Vittorio Missoni, marketing director and sales manager of the family-owned company, concurred.
“The Made in Italy label is our privilege, we should maintain it,” said Missoni. “Italy means quality, well-made and good taste.”
Missoni noted that foreign clients, from the Far East especially, specifically ask for the Made in Italy tag and are willing to pay more for it. “That’s why Italy’s symbols are copied all over the world,” he said. He pointed out that Italian production is especially significant for high-end products, but not as important for diffusion and secondary lines in fashion or in the mass market, where looks, appearance or brand are less important. “Nobody cares where Coca-Cola comes from, but you expect champagne to be French,” he said.
Luciano Barbera is a firm believer in the tradition and value of Italian-made fabrics and is currently engaged in a battle to create a DOC label. That stands for “d’origine controllata,” or “control of origin,” and it guarantees the origin of a product. It’s found on such products as oil, wine and parmesan cheese. “This would guarantee a superior quality and a product wholly made in Italy, with retraceable steps of production,” said Barbera.
Franco Bruccoleri, chief executive of Capucci Corp., who relaunched the fabled Capucci brand last year, also values the DOC label, in particular when it comes to fabrics. “The Made in Italy label qualifies and elevates a product, and it should be maintained, and the price should be proportioned to the quality,” said Bruccoleri, although he believes the final customer is “not really interested” in these details.
“I don’t and cannot agree with a watered-down Made in Europe label,” said Janet Brown, owner of the eponymous store in Port Washington, N.Y. “Italy has a creativity that goes back to Michelangelo…can you imagine the Sistine Chapel tagged Made in Europe?” quipped Brown.
She added that each country has a “fabulous history” and is a staunch believer in provenance and essence of the brand. “Remember all those artisans clapping on stage at the Missoni show last fall [celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary]? There is pride and honor in that work, and doing away with the Made in Italy label would mitigate and suffocate all that value,” she said. “So many luxury brands cannot conglomerate for such… mashed potatoes.”
Brown attributed her trips around the world looking for the best jacket or the most perfect coat to her belief in product integrity. “This business cannot only be about the bottom line,” she said, noting it’s up to store owners to educate their customers.
Although most agree that in fashion, Italy is associated with positive qualities, many point out that the Made in Italy label alone is no longer enough to be competitive. “I think we should mention Italy on the label, but we can’t hide behind it. This is no longer fundamental or strategic for our sector,” said Paolo Gerani, creative director of Iceberg and executive vice president of Gilmar, which produces that brand.
Franco Pené, chairman of Gibó, the manufacturer of collections for Viktor & Rolf, Hussein Chalayan, Antonio Berardi and Paul Smith, among others, and its own Gibo line, said that, as an Italian, he obviously defends the Made in Italy concept, but that the brand is increasingly becoming the real guarantee, as a consequence of the world’s economic globalization. “A Ferrari [car] remains a Ferrari, wherever the components come from,” said Pené. While acknowledging Italy’s know-how, Pené said “it will not last forever” — hindered by strong competition, a lack of generational continuity and production structures that are not growing. “Know-how is connected to [physical labor] and human resources. More and more artisans left their work over the years for industrial companies,” he said. “It is wrong to think that all that is made in Italy is quality and expensive, and that all the rest is discredited.”
He cited the ever-evolving skills and craftsmanship of Chinese workers and suppliers.
“Just because it’s made in Italy doesn’t mean it’s well done,” echoed Missoni.
Matteo Marzotto, chief operating officer of Valentino, and a scion of the historical Marzotto textile and clothing empire, said the Italian textile and apparel structure is more complete compared with others around the world, but that it is losing competitiveness. “While in favor of a Made in Italy label for transparency, I’m sure this does not guarantee more sales,” said Marzotto.
With a history of 200 years in fashion and surviving dramatic social and political changes, Marzotto has in recent years focused on its clothing business and, in particular, on the designer labels it controls, the Hugo Boss and Valentino brands. Over the years, to be competitive, it has moved part of its production to Lithuania, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Tunisia and elsewhere. “The brand is a guarantee — in other sectors, the brand is more than enough…look at Sony, for example: Nobody cares where [its products] are produced,” Marzotto said. “We will be more credible and reliable when we are competitive.”
Tonino Perna, chairman and chief executive of IT Holding, which controls the Gianfranco Ferré, Romeo Gigli and Malo businesses, among others, said he finds “this debate obsolete and a false problem. Consumers want more quality at competitive prices.”
In fashion, the designer’s signature or the brand is increasingly “the most important thing” for a customer, according to Carlo Teichner, managing director of the Teichner boutique in Rome. “We are so used to products that are made around the world, and China’s production, for example, has so improved,” he said. Teichner said that 10 years ago, there was more attention to details and materials or the quality that made an outfit more noble. “Now there are customers who prefer a plush sweatshirt because it feels as pleasant and as warm as a cashmere sweater,” he said.
Teichner conceded, however, that the Made in Italy label has more appeal to foreign customers. “Italians don’t really care and there is some confusion between manufacture and design,” he said. Teichner noted that the Italian provenance is more important when a customer is looking for a tailored suit, especially for men, or long-lasting items, such as coats, where the fit and the cut are more valued. “But the majority of our sales come from impulse shopping and pure of-the moment desire — and in that case, the designer’s label is more important [than country of origin],” he said.
Linda Dresner, owner of stores in New York and Birmingham, Mich., believes this issue was more important 10 or 15 years ago. “In truth, I don’t think customers think about [provenance] now and don’t see it as vitally important,” said Dresner, who thinks her customers are used to European goods, and believe the brand’s identity determines the quality. “We must adjust to changes, just as we did with the euro, and expect more Continental products — customers will adjust unless there is a backlash in quality. In the end, they want what they want.”
On the other side of the issue, Roberto Cavalli, for one, believes that having made an effort for a united Europe, “it seems logical to have a Made in Europe label.”
In any case, Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, said a lot is at stake, as countries such as Italy and France “have more need to communicate” through a specific label. “I’m confident a more detailed label will prevail,” he said, “as people are increasingly conscious of ethical and moral values and social and ecological dumping — otherwise why wouldn’t one want transparency? What would the explanation be?”