A look inside the 31st edition of Milano Unica held Sept. 8 and 9, 2020.

MILAN — Attending the first IRL trade show since lockdown was lifted in May resulted in a refreshing experience and gave a sign of hope to the Italian textile sector, which was strongly affected by the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although large gatherings are still discouraged, the airy pavilions of the Milano-Rho fairgrounds were expansive enough to host the 31st edition of the two-day textile trade show Milano Unica last week, in compliance with safety regulations while demonstrating the resilience of the country’s textile pipeline.

According to figures released by Confindustria Moda and compiled by the country’s National Institute of Statistics ISTAT, in the first half of 2020 the production of woven and knitted textiles dropped 25.1 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, an indication of mixed performances during the pre-COVID-19 period, the subsequent lockdown and the return to business in May.

In the January-to-May period, exports of textiles dropped 34.4 percent, with China, Japan and the U.S. among the most affected markets.

Despite a volatile economy, the trade show closed on a cautiously optimistic note with the number of visitors below usual levels, as largely expected, but still higher than organizers had forecast, amounting to 2,400 — 400 of whom were from abroad.

In his speech at the opening ceremony, the newly appointed president of Milano Unica Alessandro Barberis Canonico praised the exhibitors’ eagerness to embrace the challenge.

“We need to adopt a long-term approach and hosting the fair was exactly the right thing to do to prove our sector is forward-looking and takes into serious consideration future economic and commercial developments,” he noted. “We firmly believe that creativity and sustainability are the two winning assets to preserve the sector’s global leadership.”

Acknowledging how the global economy has been walloped by the pandemic and describing the current scenario as one of “strong discontinuity compared to the past,” Barberis Canonico addressed Italy’s government and specifically Luigi Di Maio, the country’s minister of foreign affairs who attended the opening event, asking him to support the sector’s export capabilities and the small-and-medium-size enterprises dependent on foreign markets for over 60 percent of their business.

It was a concern expressed by many entrepreneurs, including Andrea Crespi, managing director of Italian high-performance fabrics’ company Eurojersey, who separately said that despite the measures taken by the government to contain the spread of the virus, “it did not follow up from a political and industrial standpoint, with a real support to businesses,” he said.

According to Di Maio, the textile sector — the third-largest manufacturing activity in the country behind mechanical products and automotive — is high on the government’s agenda. “Creativity, entrepreneurship and practicality are intrinsic features of Milano Unica, which is the point of reference for the sector and also a demonstration of the positivity and vitality that characterize Made in Italy,” he offered.

“This sector was severely impacted by the pandemic and the majority of its losses were due to falling exports,” he added, recalling how the Export Pact signed on June 8 has already allocated 2 billion euros to support Made in Italy through communication and integrated promotional initiatives; easier access to internationalization and digitalization programs, as well as a refresh of the country’s trade shows, among other initiatives.

With two pavilions instead of the usual four and the number of exhibitors down to 207 from more than 400 in the previous two editions, 171 Italian textile specialists and 36 foreign players unveiled their fall 2021 collections looking forward to brighter times by continuing to bank on innovation and sustainability, while being cautious about the current instability by focusing on “safe” and classic fabrics.

Ercole Botto Poala, chief executive officer of Reda Group, noted Milano Unica represented a chance to prove how the textile players join forces and argued absent companies have missed an opportunity. “Italy needs to do better than this, we need to act as a system because each of us is too small to press on independently,” he said.

“Compared to previous economic crises, this time everything’s in flux,” echoed Eurojersey’s Crespi.

“We’ve been transported in a sort of ‘time machine’ that brought us three years forward,” he said. “The COVID-19 has accelerated all the trends that were already there, so the companies that were already modern and high-tech are advantaged.”

He praised Eurojersey’s effort in adapting its signature Sensitive Fabrics to apparel, reducing its dependency on the intimates and beachwear categories, which today account for 35 percent of the business, and described the signature easy-care textile as “COVID-19-proof,” in line with the expectations of today’s customers. “If we were to develop a new fabric today considering the current lifestyle, we would probably come up with our Sensitive Fabrics. It’s our moment,” he said.

Eurojersey currently counts a range of premium and contemporary brands among its clients, including Lululemon, Gap, Banana Republic, as well as Theory. For fall 2021, the firm introduced a range of classics patterns, such as houndstooth, tweed and tartan, reaffirming Sensitive Fabrics’ versatility.

A coat crafted from Eurojersey's Sensitive Fabrics.

A coat crafted from Eurojersey’s Sensitive Fabrics.  Courtesy of Eurojersey.

In sync with the current quest for textiles that boast wellness properties, it introduced a bio ceramic-based printing technique that employs nanoparticles able to capture the so-called far infrareds and to distribute them to stimulate microcirculation and metabolism, in addition to providing breathability.

The pandemic is expected to hit the company’s revenues this year, down 20 percent compared to 2019 when Eurojersey generated 74 million euros. However, Crespi stressed his commitment toward industrial investments, including a new textile unit at the company’s headquarters that was to be unveiled by 2022 but will be ready by the end of the year. “We’re asked to be even nimbler and more flexible than in the past,” he noted.

The executive said Germany and the U.S., as well as Italy, proved to be resilient markets, while Holland has been almost “virtuous.” However, he observed, “it’s not really about what markets you are most exposed to, but who your clients are. Long time ago we’ve made the choice to avoid fast fashion, which proved to be more susceptible.”

Over at Reda Group, Ercole Botto Poala sounded less optimistic, noting Europe and the U.S. are both on a downward trajectory, while Japan and China are bouncing back, the latter with increased retail footfall and more demand from the clients the Biella, Italy-based firm supplies.

He forecast a high double-digit sales contraction, north of 30 percent, looking forward to the fall 2022 season and the restart of social and business occasions to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. “In the meantime, there will have been a natural selection, with weaker companies unable to restart, especially if and when in 2021 the government’s financial aid will no longer be provided,” he said.

While for its premium Reda 1865 brand the company banked on traditional tropes of formalwear with a range of woolen fabrics in glen plaid, check and windowpane patterns, for its Reda Flexo label it upped the ante on sustainable innovations, including a renewable blend of wool and fibers derived from eucalyptus, and Back2Life, a carded fabric crafted from leftovers of Reda’s production — all despite the fact that the company is working at 30 percent of its capacity.

A blazer crafted from a Reda 1865 fabric from the fall 2021 collection.

A blazer crafted from a Reda 1865 fabric from the fall 2021 collection.  Courtesy of Reda Group.

“There’s an ongoing transformation that the country’s [textile] supply chain has yet to fully acknowledge: Sustainability and innovation are the real pillars moving forward and we need more concrete actions and rules to avoid our efforts being only marketing moves,” Botto Paola noted.

To this end, the company has recently obtained the B Corp certification, as the first Italian textile firm to join the global network. “Each certification represents a challenge because they set a target triggering us to do better,” he said.

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Italy and elsewhere in Europe spiking again in the aftermath of the summer holidays, the future still looks uncertain.

“We will need to come to terms with the virus for a long time I think and that forces us to rethink our approach,” noted Barberis Canonico, who’s also the ceo of his family woolen mill Vitale Barberis Canonico. “The real concern comes from what will happen at retail, with the fall 2020 season potentially staying in-store longer and impacting sales of the spring 2021 collection,” he noted.

“I believe that investing on new and innovative products that are not already available is the winning recipe,” Barberis Canonico said. To this end, for fall the Biella, Italy-based textile maker went back to the future, retrieving a mulesing-free 21-micron wool sourced from South American farms, which it usually offers for the summer collections, and applied it to a range of winter fabrics including a mouliné flannel and the signature shimmering Beausoleil.

Loro Piana also updated its signature codes for fall 2021, with a collection that celebrated the house’s heritage while introducing new iterations of the luxurious and cozy fabrics for which the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned company is known.

“Loro Piana continues to look optimistically toward the future, despite uncertainties. There’s an acceleration of some trends such as attention to quality, a shift from formalwear to a casual and personalized attire and a sensibility toward the environment,” noted Fabrizio Ciafrei, manager of business unit textile at Loro Piana.

The collection comprised the Pecora Nera textile, an RWS-approved merino wool that is offered undyed to preserve the animal’s original shades of brown and black. The same merino wool was also matched to a bio-based fiber derived from castor oil plants, without impacting deforestation, for the Green Nylwool range of fabrics aimed at sportwear with a tactile feel.

The Loro Piana Jersely fabric as part of the fall 2021 textile collection.

The Loro Piana Jersely fabric as part of the fall 2021 textile collection.  Riccardo Bucchino/Courtesy of Loro Piana.

Banking on the appeal of stretch and performance fabrics, the Jersely range spun with shuttle looms is a woolen jersey-like textile that boasts increased resilience and it’s easier to tailor, while the Cashmere Wish collection, a blend of 93 percent wool and 7 percent cashmere, was paired with an inner graphene membrane with thermoregulatory features and appeared on a chic baracuta jacket.

Similarly, cotton specialist Albini Group, despite the uncertain outlook, kept its focus on sustainability and innovation, as well as digitization, with an eye on performance and natural dyes.

For fall, the Bergamo, Italy-based firm unveiled Wooderful, a fabric made of vegetable-derived and traceable Tencel and Techno, a cotton fabric with thermoregulatory and UV-protective features that absorb infrareds.

This year, through its Albini Next think thank for smart innovations, the company has also taken to market not only a family of antiviral fabrics dubbed ViroFormula developed in partnership with Swiss company HeiQ, as reported, but also Mineral Colours, a range of mineral-based dyes sourced from European quarries and used for cylinder printing. Up next is another family of bio-based dyes derived from leftovers of the food industry and a collection of pre-consumer upcycled fabrics.

A measured executive, the company’s ceo Stefano Albini, expressed a cautious optimism, noting orders in the first week of September were in line year-over-year, after flat business in the first post-lockdown weeks. The U.S., he said, is recovering, as are Italy and France.

“We’re probably going to close 2020 down 30 percent compared to last year, slightly above our expectations, if the economy continues on today’s levels, which is a good outcome given the circumstances,” Albini said, adding the fall 2021 season could coincide with recovery, provided that consumption returns to pre-COVID-19 levels, a condition he’s not sure about.

The Albini Group booth at Milano Unica.

The Albini Group booth at Milano Unica.  Giovanni Marchesi/Courtesy of Albini Group.

Although he’s looking forward to next February’s Milano Unica — when hopefully travel bans will be lifted — for more in-person meetings, the pandemic has pushed every other player along the supply chain to understand the importance of a digital infrastructure.

To this end, the group has forged ties with Oracle to develop an integrated system that combines e-commerce, the group’s CRM and the digitization of textiles, both of those from current collections and from the archives (for instance, exploring the archives of the group’s Thomas Mason label uncovers a rich range of luxurious shirting fabrics, including a chic, pleated cotton version).

“The project will not only benefit our clients with a nimbler purchasing experience and our design studio, but also the collection of data and analyses through AI that will further support our marketing, creative and commercial departments,” Albini explained. The full transition to the Oracle-backed platform is expected by mid-2021.

“It stemmed from the need to be closer to our clients and to improve our efficiency, especially because a lot of them want to work on bespoke projects and this system will enable us to be even closer to the market,” he added.

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