This story first appeared in the February 17, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Renzi will be the guest of honor at a lunch that afternoon, the first day of shows, hosted by Milan’s Mayor Giuliano Pisapia and Carlo Capasa, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion. The lunch will be held at the stunning neoclassical Sala delle Cariatidi, inside the city’s Royal Palace facing the soaring Duomo Cathedral.
The event indicates how much emphasis the dashing, 41-year-old Renzi places on fashion — from the Ermanno Scervino outfits he wears to the key role it plays as he aims to reform and jump-start the Italian economy after years of recession, high unemployment at 11.5 percent and regulatory and political sclerosis.
There is another reason as well: The fashion industry — from Diego Della Valle of Tod’s to Gildo Zegna of Ermenegildo Zegna Group — has been a key Renzi supporter (off and on in some cases) ever since he was mayor of Florence. Indeed, it helped get him appointed prime minister.
Now Renzi is clearly hoping the industry’s backing will enable him to push forward his agenda as he battles critics in Italy’s perennially divided political landscape. Surveys put his approval rating in June 2015 at just above 30 percent, a dive from the over 70 percent level only a year earlier.
“Renzi’s presence strengthens the system,” said Capasa, underscoring Italy’s role as Europe’s largest producer of textiles, apparel and accessories. The country’s gross production value in the sector accounts for 41 percent of all of the Continent’s and dwarfs that of the second-ranking country, Germany, which represents only 11 percent.
Michele Norsa, chief executive officer of the Salvatore Ferragamo group, said of Renzi’s attendance: “It’s very important. It shows that political authorities are involved, that they are paying more attention to the sector, which is a motor for the country and this is gratifying for members of the industry.”
The executive added that Renzi’s “personality and communicative streak” are added bonuses to his image.
When Renzi was sworn in two years ago — wearing Versace — many in the industry hailed the arrival of the young politician as someone who could pull Italy out of what he described as a “quagmire.” Renzi promised to implement electoral, tax and labor reforms in addition to overhauling Italy’s government.
While this is the first time he’s opened the Milan shows, he hasn’t exactly ignored the fashion world during his tenure. In September 2013, he even turned out at the presentation of Roberto Cavalli’s autobiography, to some criticism. Even then he was proclaiming the industry’s importance and potential, saying at the time, “They wrote I should not be here, that I should not engage with the book by a designer. They are wrong: Italian politicians continue to forget about fashion, while this is a fundamental peg in the economy. This is why I came today.”
He reiterated the theme a year later when, in June 2014, he opened Pitti Uomo in Florence. He said the fashion sector “can become increasingly more central. Up until now, the politician who dedicated himself to fashion or design was considered a UFO, because these were considered niche sectors. We must overturn this vision.…The most beautiful and biggest moment for fashion has yet to come. This is why I am here. There is still much hunger for beauty abroad and we and Italy must try to invest in this.”
Last year the prime minister visited the newly opened Fondazione Prada, shortly after privately meeting with Giorgio Armani upon the opening of the designer’s Silos exhibition space and museum.
He’s been in an on-again-off-again relationship with brothers Diego and Andrea Della Valle and has worn a Versace biker jacket on a TV show. Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini often wear designs by Scervino, whose headquarters are in Florence. As the city’s mayor, Renzi attended both Armani and Scervino shows.
“Renzi has always expressed great interest in the fashion system,” said Scervino. “Actually, he’s the first Italian politician to perceive its importance for our country. Before any other politician, in fact, he understood that fashion is one of the leading sectors in the Italian economy and contributes, as art, food and design, to promote Italy’s beauty in the world. For this reason, it’s been an honor to have him as a guest at my shows.”
But if the prime minister preaches the importance of the sector, it hasn’t always taken a kind view of his sartorial choices.
While Renzi’s age and informal look have helped the industry’s image compared to his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi’s staple uniform of dark gray double-breasted suits, orange tan and slicked-back hair that, aptly, made him look like an aging playboy, his busy schedule has sometimes resulted in missteps in the style stakes. Photos of Renzi in his misbuttoned Scervino coat visiting Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in 2014 elicited public sniggering. While generally favoring slim blue or black suits, the prime minister has often been snapped forsaking a tie and a suit jacket, simply wearing white shirts open at the neck — which caused Armani to chastise him for “trying to appear too young.”
Riding the short pants wave à la Thom Browne, Renzi got flak for wearing light blue socks peeping out of a pair of blue pants that barely grazed the ankles during an official visit by the president of the Philippines in December.
But perhaps while his public comments and dress style show he cares, the sartorial faux pas also — thankfully for a nation’s leader — show that he doesn’t care too much as he focuses instead on his national and international political agenda.
In January, Renzi won an early vote transforming Italy’s Senate to give the country a more stable government. He has been calling this “the mother of all battles.” “For years, the political class has done nothing, now there is a new government which has tried to make some things happen,” Renzi said on national television before the vote.
He has spearheaded a labor-reform package praised by Germany and the European Union but opposed by trade unions and parts of his center-left Democratic Party; he has been relaxing austerity rules, and working on cracking down on the “fannulloni,” the slackers in the public sector. He has also been juggling opposite factions as the country is divided over efforts to legalize civil unions and stepchild adoption.
And the economy has begun to pick up at last. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Italy’s GDP growth is expected to rise to 1.4 percent in 2016 and 2017 and “the labor market is improving, helping to drive private consumption higher” while “the government budget deficit will continue to decline gradually.” Italy still lags far behind Europe’s economic engine Germany, though, as well as the U.K. and even Denmark, according to data released earlier this month by the euro zone. Instead, Italy is mired amid the slower-growing nations like Spain and Greece and is far from attaining the economic growth it saw before the global recession of 2008.
So Renzi and the country he leads have a lot of work to do, which is another reason he is leaning on the fashion sector, one of the nation’s largest employers and exporters. The appeal and relevance of Made in Italy production is not lost on the government, which has been pumping up investments in fashion and keeping a closer eye on the sector. Armando Branchini, vice president of Italian luxury goods association Fondazione Altagamma, said that with Carlo Calenda, former vice minister of economic development who is becoming Italy’s representative to the EU, Renzi “favored the creation of a committee that would coordinate Italian fashion trade shows to achieve more pulling power.” Renzi, he added, has been very active in supporting Italy’s manufacturing system.
Calenda last year revealed government plans to channel 40 million euros, or $45.2 million at current exchange, into the nation’s fashion industry. That’s up from an annual average of 5.2 million euros, or $5.9 million, for the previous five years. Among the main goals: The government is working to attract more international buyers, who come from expanding markets, and boost business with Chinese, American, Canadian and Japanese firms. In large part, the government aid will go toward helping promote Italy’s main trade fairs. Last year, Calenda launched a yearlong, $21.6 million initiative tailor-made to bolster Italian fashion exports to the U.S.
To be sure, trade shows have been seeing an uptick in attendance and an increase in buyers from outside the country. At yarn show Pitti Filati, which closed on Jan. 29 with a 2 percent growth in buyers compared with the previous year, attendance from the U.S. and Japan was up 8 and 5 percent, respectively, while Russia made a comeback with 50 percent more attendees. Ercole Botto Poala, Milano Unica’s new president, said 2015 was a good year “thanks to a North American market that finally returned to buy in Italy consistently.”
Massimiliano Bizzi, president of niche show White, noted that the fair in September registered a 12 percent gain in buyers, especially from northern Europe. Last year, Cirillo Marcolin, president of annual eyewear fair Mido, said that the challenge for 2016 would be to meet and even beat the record attendance from the 2015 edition. Jewelry fair VicenzaOro closed on Jan. 27 hosting 1,500 brands coming from 31 countries and posting a 5 percent increase of visitors. Under president Matteo Marzotto, Fiera Di Vicenza, which organizes a range of trade shows including VicenzaOro, is considering an initial public offering on the Milan Stock Exchange.
Altagamma has presented a project to Calenda to achieve a 50 percent increase in 10 years through the creation of a “strategic table of the Altagamma industry” that can flank entrepreneurs and state investment funds. Andrea Illy, president of the association, said, “Renzi managed to sit everyone around a table to identify issues with the goal of finding a common intent and avoid divisions and a conflict of interests. This would not have happened spontaneously. The purpose is to work together. He brings a whiff of a new culture.”
The city of Milan is seen as reflecting this newfound energy, following the closing in October of the international Expo, which drew more than 20 million visitors, with 5,000 events over the 184 days of the exhibition.
According to The True Luxury Global Consumer Insight by Altagamma and The Boston Consulting Group presented earlier this month, Milan last year rose to fourth place in the ranking of favorite destinations for luxury shopping after Paris, New York and London but is seen in third place on the list of cities to be visited in 2016. Milan last year became one of the top five destinations for Chinese travelers compared with 2014, as Seoul and Macau were bumped off the list.
In the study, a chapter is called “The Rebirth of Milan.” Antonio Achille, partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group, said the city responds to the needs of the Chinese, who are looking for “a broader selection, to buy in the country of origin of a brand, and superior customer experience.”
To be sure, Ferragamo’s Norsa pointed to “a very significant movement of the Chinese to Europe and Italy,” trumpeting a renewed interest in the country and Milan and the consumers’ “increased perception of the quality of fabrics and treatments, and attention to sustainability. It’s a combination of different factors, such as the Expo, for people that did not regularly come to Italy; a new political and economic image of the country; a growth in GDP; investments in infrastructures and industrial systems, and the enhancement of art and tourism.” The brand has seen double-digit growth in sales at its stores in Milan and Florence, he said.
“There is excitement in Milan,” concurred Mario Filippi Coccetta, president and ceo of Fabiana Filippi. Specialized in fine cashmere apparel, Filippi Coccetta saw double-digit growth in sales last year.
Given the industry’s growth, Massimo Ferretti, executive chairman of Aeffe, trumpeted Renzi’s appearance at Milan Fashion Week as a stamp of approval, “a very positive signal that gives more credibility to our system. The sector is now seeing the recognition it deserves. The government is increasingly more connected to the textile and fashion industry.”
His sister, designer Alberta Ferretti, also underscored Renzi’s commitment: “Politics realized the importance and centrality of fashion as a cultural vehicle for our country and as a symbol of Italian quality and excellence in the world.”