The trend area at the 28th edition of textile trade show Milano Unica.

MILAN — A breeze of cautious optimism ran through the hallways of the Milano-Rho fairgrounds during the 28th edition of the Milano Unica textile trade show, which closed here on Feb. 7.

The 467 exhibitors at the fair presented their collections for spring 2020 focusing on high-tech performance fabrics, sustainable innovations, as well as on the implementation of digital services.

Despite soaring prices for raw materials — especially wool — currency fluctuations and uneven trade performances, the textile sector held momentum in 2018, with sales expected to close at 7.86 billion euros, substantially in line with the previous year, according to preliminary data released by Confindustria Moda for the January-to-October period.

Exports to China, Hong Kong and Japan were up 3 percent, 6.1 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, while the U.S. lagged behind, down 12.6 percent compared to 2017. Germany, still the most relevant European importer of Italian fabrics, registered a 2.1 percent fall.

Reflecting the economic trends, the number of visiting companies was stable compared with the same edition in 2018, totaling 6,000 visitors with Japanese and South Koreans growing 15 percent and 5 percent, respectively. The trade show organizer noted Chinese visitors dropped due to the concurrence of the Chinese New Year.

In order to boost its global reach, Milano Unica officially unveiled a marketplace, called e-milanounica, allowing buyers to have instant access to the textile collections presented at the fair throughout the year. The info-commerce platform, which broke online on Feb. 8, was established in a partnership with Pitti Immagine and on the Florence-based trade show organizer’s digital platform.

The pilot phase kicked off in February includes 60 of the “most digital friendly companies,” said Ercole Botto Poala, president of Milano Unica, noting the fair’s plan is to implement the service during the next edition — running July 9 to 11 —  to include all exhibitors. “Starting today, the platform that is e-pitti will also allow Milano Unica to bridge and fill the gap between supply and demand, beyond the fair,” noted Raffaello Napoleone, chief executive officer of Pitti Immagine.

Botto Poala shared the same digital-driven approach in his other professional role as ceo of textile company Reda 1865. One of Italy’s best-known purveyors of fine wool fabrics, the Biella, Italy-based firm debuted its online shop on the first day of the trade show. “A company doesn’t rely on products only, but also on the services it provides; the online destination is both a sale channel and a point of contact with our clients,” Botto Poala said. “You can create interesting opportunities by pushing innovation further,” he added noting the company spends roughly 5 percent of its turnaround in R&D and expects to invest 50 million euros in technological solutions across the next five years. The wool specialist closed 2018 with revenues of 115 million euros, up from 108 million euros in 2017. Following a lukewarm start for the selling season, Botto Poala doesn’t expect the company to grow further in 2019 and mentioned the U.S., China and Japan as the best-performing markets.

Fabrics from the Reda 1865 spring 2020 collection.

Fabrics from the Reda 1865 spring 2020 collection.  Courtesy Photo.

At Milano Unica, Reda 1865 introduced its Active Phase collection, comprising wool fabrics with thermoregulatory features for activewear and sports attire. Along with innovation, sustainability, also high on Botto Poala’s agenda, informed the wool mill’s Flexo range of smart stretch merino fabrics blending in the Roica V550 high-tech elastomer to provide wrinkle-free, as well as water-repellent features without giving up sustainability. “As much as we wanted to broaden our offer, we also sought for synthetic materials that matched our commitment to the planet,” Botto Poala said.

For the third season in a row, sustainability was the key theme of Milano Unica expressing a sentiment that is shared both by exhibitors and the organization. “Sustainability has to become central to textile companies to grant their survival,” remarked Botto Poala during the opening ceremony of the trade show. “They survived this past year thanks to high-quality products and services. They will survive the next natural selection only by investing in [sustainability],” he underscored.

Exhibitors took note.

For instance, Trabaldo Togna is banking on its Estrato collection of naturally elasticized 100 percent wool fabrics, first unveiled in 1998. Enhanced by antibacterial, water-repellent fluorine-free finishings, the collection spans lightweight wool fabrics, as well as cashmere and wool/linen blends, which are also machine washable.

The Estrato fabric from the Trabaldo Togna spring 2020 collection.

The Estrato fabric from the Trabaldo Togna spring 2020 collection.  Courtesy Photo.

“We’ve seen the return on investment for the Estrato [collection] only in the past few seasons, as the market has started to understand the value of such a product,” said the company’s president Luca Trabaldo. The executive underscored that sustainability — as well as traceability — are both winning assets for textile companies and unavoidable, too, due to Italy’s and European strict legislations.

Despite rising prices for raw materials and buyers sniffing at increased fabrics’ cost, the company is still on a growth trajectory, supported by its decision to keep its prices stable and backed by exports especially to Japan, Germany and North America, which account for 90 percent of the company’s sales.

In order to meet customers’ demand for stretch fabrics with performance and comfort features, Tollegno 1900 SpA expanded its signature trademark 3-D Wool line of superfine, elasticized wools, first introduced in 2014.

The new range comprises 56 different colors including bright hues of purple, neon orange and sunflower yellow all within the company’s stock service. In conjunction with Milano Unica, the company also presented the second phase of its project with Neapolitan tailor Atelier Rubinacci offering guests the chance to see the steps behind the creation of a bespoke suit crafted from its 3-D Wool fabric.

“It’s a delicate phase and although 2018 was a good year, wool’s rising prices could potentially hit the business. We have to do our best to keep trade running in 2019,” said Lincoln Germanetti, ceo of Tollegno Holding, the wool specialist’s parent company, noting 2019 marks the first of a three-year business plan aimed at boosting the firm’s international expansion particularly in the U.S. and Asia.

Also for storied Biella-based Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti this is a delicate but promising phase. Ceo Paolo Torello-Viera, who was appointed to the role last August after fund Njord Partners acquired 80 percent of the wool mill a month earlier, is busy fine-tuning a strategy to reach the break even point and “bring the brand back where it deserves to be,” he said. “We were able to inject trust in our clients through the capital increase and settlement of financial liabilities,” Torello-Viera explained noting he aims for the company to close 2019 with sales of 65 million euros, up from 58 million euros in 2018.

For spring 2020, the company focused on functional fabrics with stain-repellent, wrinkle-free and natural stretch treatments within its iTravel range of resilient superfine wools in which highly twisted yarns gave a matte finish to suit and blazer fabrics. Expanding a growing category, the Biella-based wool mill debuted a range of doubles dedicated to women’s wear; a standout in the category was a cashmere fabric matched with a reflective membrane, which stores up natural light for a shiny effect.

“The moment when you actually create a collection is when you sell it,” said Torello-Viera, who explained that product-wise the company is focused on made-to-measure, on “putting the customer first” and establishing longstanding partnerships with clients, as well as on expanding its offering while trying to fix prices, despite “competition and the high cost of raw materials,” he said. In July, the company will present its fall 2020 collection through an unconventional project called “Six for Six” in which famous Biella natives will be asked to interpret a suit crafted from the company’s fabrics including a range of sustainably traceable products.

Traceability is also at the core of another storied textile company. Botto Giuseppe’s ceo Silvio Botto Poala said “clients are asking for traceable pipelines and increasingly mulesing-free wools sourced from sustainable farms.” In the latter category falls the firm’s Naturalis Fibra collection — now in its fifth season — which added the Slowool and Slowsilk ranges for spring.

Botto Giuseppe Slowool mulesing free fabric.

Botto Giuseppe Slowool mulesing free fabric.  Davide Maestri/Courtesy Photo

Superfine, 17-micron wools with crease-resistant, stain-repellent features were engineered with the Multicontrol Weather, fluorine-free technique and sourced from the Congi farm based in Australia’s New South Wales region; the Natural Born Cashmere collection, which avoids artificial compounds in the dyeing process, combined Botto Giuseppe’s eco-friendly ethos with the stylistic offer of natural hues.

The company posted revenues of 64 million euros in 2018, up 6 percent compared with the previous year. In 2018 alone, Botto Giuseppe invested 1 million euros in sustainable assets particularly banking on the efficiency of its plants located in Vallemosso and Tarcento, in the Piedmont and Friuli Venezia-Giulia regions, respectively, including a cogeneration system allowing for a 70 to 100 percent renewable energy production and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 20 to 30 percent. Proud of the company’s green accomplishments, Botto Poala remarked that “despite its added value, sustainability is a cost, which is not always absorbed by clients,” and cited U.S. customers as among the most appreciative ones.

Less dented by raw materials’ soaring prices, cotton specialists are equally feeling the pressure coming from uneven sales performances in the shirting category, hit by the casualization of fashion trends.

“Clients are demanding high-end fabrics and innovation,” mused Stefano Albini, president of Albini Group, parent company of the Albini 1876, Albini Donna, Thomas Mason and Albiate 1830 brands. The company, which already earmarks 3 million euros to 5 million euros annually in products’ R&D, aims to expand its investments and allocate 5 million euros to infrastructures in each of the next three years.

Despite a suffering retail compartment, pivotal to the group’s consistency on the market was its decision to expand the offering, which now includes the Everywear line of outerwear fabrics. According to Albini, the company’s growth to 153 million euros in 2018, up 3 percent compared to a year before, was backed by the firm’s ability to sense market shifts and provide exclusive designs, as well as its Albini Express stock service to demanding clients along with the resilience of top luxury players. Case in point, the company aims “to become itself guarantor of the quality and origin of raw materials,” through its investment in traceable cotton fabrics. One such example can be seen in the recently unveiled partnership with luxury behemoth Kering.

For its Albini 1876 brand the company explored three main themes for spring, offering classic stripes in dusty and pastel hues, neon colors and a range called Techno boosting thermoregulatory, water-repellent and UV protective, wrinkle-free, elasticized features.

The Tessile Monti Group, parent company of the Tessitura Monti and Sic.Tess brands, is also banking on practicality and green fabrics for the shirting category, as well as on a stock service for a range of ready-to-wear products tailored at the company’s Indian premises. “The [rtw] category has seen a double-digit growth, it’s been a winning asset in 2018 and it will potentially allow us to keep growing this year,” said Bruno Monti, executive vice president of the group. In 2018 Tessile Monti Group posted revenues of 100 million euros, in line with the previous year.

Fabrics from the Tessitura Monti spring 2020 collection.

Fabrics from the Tessitura Monti spring 2020 collection.  Courtesy Photo.

At Milano Unica the company, which allocates around 5 percent of its turnover in innovation each year, unveiled a range of products within its Blue Label premium line. They include the Global Organic Textile Standard-certified cotton and linen, the 37.5 Technology collection of cottons sourced from a U.S. supplier which employs igneous dust giving the fabric thermoregulatory features as well as high-temperature resistant elasticized and wrinkle-free cottons blending in 3 percent of the XLance stretch yarn for enhanced comfort features.

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