FIRST AND ALWAYS
THE ITALIANS SEE THEMSELVES AS PIONEERS AT LUXURY BRANDING, AND OLD HANDS AT THE FOLLOW-THROUGH AS WELL.
Byline: Samantha Conti
For Giorgio Armani, it was top billing in Hollywood. For Gucci, it was a spot along the ticker in the stock market. And for Prada, it was the high seas, in the America’s Cup race. Italy’s luxury goods brands like nothing better than to break new ground.
And they know how to extend that first-mover advantage into a more enduring edge, by concentrating on consistently high-quality production, of both products and brand image. Whether it’s making sure the sequins on every jacket are sewn with precision, or that the flagship on Madison Avenue looks and feels the same as the one on via Montenapoleone, the order of the day is quality control, right down the line.
In essence, the Italians’ recipe for launching, building up and renovating luxury brands is to get there first — and then have quality goods on hand for the follow-through.
The leaders in Italian luxury have each succeeded with interpretations of this recipe. Armani was the first big-name designer to touch down in Hollywood and dress the stars offscreen; Gucci was Italy’s first major luxury goods company to be relaunched and to seek an IPO, and Prada was the first fashion brand in history to single-handedly sponsor, and race a boat in, the world’s most exclusive yacht race, the America’s Cup. All three companies are also adamant about owning their production plants and controlling their retail outlets in order to safeguard quality and image.
As Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli puts it, “The motor…is never the ordinary, but the extraordinary. It’s about searching for a fresh approach, solution or idea and going beyond what you already know. My business is business as unusual.”
“Italian companies have always been willing to be different and ready to reinvent themselves,” says Ruben Igielko-Herrlich, the co-owner of Propaganda, a Geneva-based company that specializes in product placement and special events for luxury goods companies. “And they have been successful at transferring the glamour of Hollywood, the lifestyles of stars and socialites, to their products.”
The Italians’ approach of coupling an aura of glamour with a reputation for quality emerged after World War II, when its mom-and-pop tailors, dressmakers and shoemakers took advantage of a bustling economy, as well as a budding film industry in Italy’s Hollywood on the Tiber, Cinecitta. Designers such as Sorelle Fontana, Fernanda Gattinoni and Emilio Schuberth stitched made-to-measure dresses for Ava Gardner, Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman and others, dressing them both on- and offscreen.
Salvatore Ferragamo, founder of the renowned accessories house, got his start making shoes for Hollywood films. He later moved back to Florence, a roster of famous clients in hand, and founded his luxury shoe business.
In the early Nineties, when Gucci was in need of a turnaround, Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford drew on Gucci’s glamourous past as accessories maker to stars and socialites in order to revitalize the brand. While Ford, who is the creative director of Gucci Group, was busy designing Jackie O hobo bags and jersey column dresses for his red-hot runway shows, De Sole, group chairman and ceo, and his team were keeping a close eye on production, canceling most licenses and taking manufacturing in-house. They also bought back franchises and gave Gucci stores a facelift with help from architect Bill Sofield.
“In the end, the key to success is communicating with your customer, and the only way to communicate is through your stores,” says De Sole. “The more you give your brand to other people — and especially licensees and franchisees — the more they will interpret it. It’s all a question of brand control.”
So far, Gucci’s strategies have paid off: The company was the first Italian luxury goods brand to seek a stock market listing and stands as a textbook example for fashion managers of how to revitalize a luxury goods brand.
Last year, the group bought the house of Yves Saint Laurent and now plans to apply its relaunch formula to the French company. Referring to his strategy of slashing YSL’s licenses and buying back its franchises and production plants, De Sole says: “The YSL brand is not going to acquire credibility if the wrong product is in the wrong location.” Prada Group, too, has pinned its success on twinning the glamour factor with tight controls over production and distribution. Bertelli has never believed in franchises or licenses and is adamant about owning all or part of the company’s production plants.
Bertelli’s I Pelletieri d’Italia oversees all accessories production. He has minority stakes in Prada’s apparel and knitwear manufacturers, and he has developed a strategy of forming joint ventures or other agreements, instead of granting licenses for products such as eyewear and cosmetics. All of the stores in the Prada Group — which includes Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Church & Co. and a majority stake in Fendi, jointly held with LVMH — are wholly owned or in the process of being purchased from franchisees.
Like Gucci, Prada also knows how to crank up the buzz. Bertelli not only sponsored a team in the America’s Cup race earlier this year, he also managed it and buzzed behind his boat, the Luna Rossa, on a motorized raft during all of the races.
He knew all along that taking part in the America’s Cup was all about glamour and lifestyle. When he announced he would enter the race, Bertelli referred to the challenge as “a step toward a new way of communicating about fashion after the year 2000. People are tired of fashion; more and more they are living their lives in relation to their free time. Values are shifting.”
Giorgio Armani, the patriarch of modern Italian fashion and the only major designer who makes money the old-fashioned way — through apparel sales — was also one of Italy’s first production pioneers. During the late Eighties and early Nineties, he began to purchase production companies, namely Simint for his jeans and knitwear collections and Antinea for Emporio Armani. Currently, he is in negotiations to buy men’s wear factories from his longtime licensee Gruppo Finanziario Tessile.
In September, the designer created an accessories division with production that will be in-house. Small laboratories around Florence will manufacture for the division, as they do for Gucci and Prada.
“Protecting the Armani name and brand image means taking control of manufacturing and distribution,” explains Robert Triefus, Armani’s corporate vice president of communications.
Triefus adds that the company is deliberate, too, in how and where its jeans, innerwear and eyewear lines are distributed. “We are very careful about the distribution of all of our lines and very aware that whatever you do at the bottom of the pyramid will inevitably affect the top of the pyramid,” he says.
In terms of marketing his lifestyle, Armani knew from the start that Hollywood would be a spectacular vehicle and that a quality product would ensure that his name would remain on top of the fashion heap. “He was the designer who first recognized the value of Hollywood,” said Madeline Leonard, the head booker at Cloutier, a top Los Angeles stylist agency. “He had offices out here way back in the early Eighties, and no one ever had any problem getting Armani clothes.”
Armani continues to play the Hollywood game well, flying stars and their stylists to his fashion shows in Milan. “An Armani-sponsored weekend in Milan! It’s like the Fresh Air Fund for those of us who live in L.A.,” said Phillip Bloch, a Hollywood stylist who has been an Armani guest on several occasions.