The Italian System for Fashion: Present & Future

5 06 2009

Changes Around the Turn of the Century

minimalism grungeThe end of the 20th Century saw the advent of minimalism and grunge, where shopping for fashion was viewed as politically incorrect. At the same time, it was a period of no limitations and turmoil between globalization, the War in Kuwait, unemployment, AIDS, and the constant provision of media-created “emotion” which went hand-in-hand with celebrity stalking. This emotional overload and negative view of overt consumption led to an increased interest in the eco-look and the spread of street fashion and athletic wear (including the Puma/Jil Sander and Adidas/Yamamoto collaborations). The market froze after 9-11, coming back with a sense of controlled vivacity, where people felt a renewed interest in self-expression. The trend of mix-and-match also emerged, allowing people to make their own way, far from the rules of the 80s Total Look.

Rampant consumerism came back, and most brands responded by producing products in lower price ranges to attract aspirational clientele seeking to buy into a luxury lifestyle. The proliferation of retail outlets from first-tier cities through third tier cities, together with mass media and global web communications ensured that people all around the world could access fashion and luxury. While an excessive consumption trend helped contribute to the credit crisis, it also helped to fuel the argument for conscientious spending, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and ethical fashion.

microcapsules_intelligent materialsToday, advances in technology for textile development are increasing exponentially through intelligent materials, with no signs of stopping (including micro, thermo-regulator, anti-stress and perfumed fibers, bio-protective fabrics, etc). The men’s fashion segment also continues to grow into the multi-category system paralleled with womenswear.

Among these market changes, the Italian system continues to evolve.

The Present & Future of Italian Fashion

What is “Made in Italy”?

Today, most of the remaining original Italian designers are reaching retirement, if they haven’t already. The whole of Europe is losing factory jobs in textiles and clothing as firms de-localize and imports increase, although Italy has seen this trend occur more slowly than others.

However, with ever-diminishing production occurring within Italy, and with the country’s most prominent design houses being handed over to the leadership of international talents or private investment firms (the latest is Safilo), it is difficult to say what “Made in Italy” means today. There is currently an ongoing dispute in Europe as to the relevance of “Made in” labels. Northern European countries have already lost the majority of their factories to delocalization, and do not want the “Made in” label, as their goods are imported.

Europe_Factory_Chinese_YaleGlobalWithin the Southern European countries, where the remaining manufacturers are typically located, lobbyists push to maintain the “Made in” labels on garments. However, even in Italy, manufacturers are producing parts in China and law only requires that a portion of the product be made within Italy to be considered “Made in Italy.” In fact, there was great controversy last year when an exposé on shady production processes aired at dinner time in Italy. The news piece showed Chinese immigrants working in sweatshop conditions as leathersmiths for designer brands, though within the borders of Italy (Prato and Florence). This system was initiated so brands could maintain their localized production, though with arguably less-skillful workers. Some Italian manufacturers viewed this move as a way to keep a closer eye on the outsourced production, using the cheaper labor force while maintaining local facilities. (You can read an English write-up on the case here.)

A Dying Breed

Italian_ShoemakerAlso suffering are the Italian production districts, evolved from generations of craftsmen with tacit knowledge of leather goods and textiles. These districts naturally developed into their own textile and leather goods pipelines, with separate small factories or workshops supporting one another through their own particular specialties. They created very attractive production communities, where brands and larger manufacturing companies could source work. Young Italians no longer want to follow their parents into production or craft-related vocations, and so the Chinese are coming to provide the labor necessary to get the job done. Meanwhile, the production pipeline of these districts is breaking down because the cost is forcing the bigger manufacturers and their brands to send work to Asia or Turkey… or it is being internalized with high-tech machinery and operators.

knockoff designers bagsToday’s Italian production companies have grown smaller as imports increase, and knock-offs are a major force in destroying manufacturing innovation. However, even as their numbers dwindle, it was the Italian fabric weavers and leather workers who manufactured the most creative works, making Italy a key player in the international fashion scene.

In addition to the production side, on the creative end we’ve seen prominent Italian designers retiring. While other fashion capitols have a history of nourishing and promoting their young designers, in Italy, you typically must already have a name in place in order to be successful. Very few new designers have climbed the the ranks of Italian fashion since the late 80s. This adds pressure to the “Founder’s Dilemma,” which poses a challenge when a brand is built around a specific personality, and that personality is no longer involved with the brand. In the last year alone, two prominent Italian designs, Gianfranco Ferré and Valentino, left the fashion world and were skeptically replaced by young designers with mixed results.

Focus on Retail

toyo_ito_tods_buildingFashion companies have moved their focus downstream into retail, where experience shopping became the new communication tool. Italian brands have excelled in this retail model, rolling out branded temples to shopping in both developed and emerging markets. This had been a great model for generating revenue until the beginning of the financial crisis, which forced many retailers to close their doors, pack up and go home. In addition to creating more demand than most Italian manufacturers were able to economically provide, it also had the controversial effect of spreading luxury goods across such a vast environment that many began to ask if an item that could be found anywhere could still be considered luxury.

Question: if it’s no longer Made in Italy, and it’s available everywhere, does it still fit within the Italian model? Can it be considered luxury?

Digitally Challenged

In spite of having a historic foundation of market-savvy entrepreneurs who enabled Italian fashion to flourish, Italian companies have been among the slowest to evolve their business model in support of the digital age we will live in from this point on. YOOX has been working diligently over the last 2 years to expand their e-commerce services from fewer than 5 Italian brands to more than 20 by the year’s end. However, with such rapid growth of the company’s client group, complaints about disorganization and customer service, quality control issues and a general lack of bleeding-edge technology and brand imaging must be dealt with, in order to preserve the luxury status so carefully simulated in the physical retail environment.

A New Foundation

With the current state of the economy, many brands are struggling. Budgets are being pulled from fashion week and marketing to make ends meet. However, as new designers refuse to become celebrity circuses, and supermodels are an extinct breed, the system needs an infusion of excitement to revitalize the industry.

In the place of generations of craftsmen, a new group of technologically skilled, creative young people have emerged. Universities in Italy have provided a focus in research and development in new textiles and industrial techniques, as well as fashion design, e-commerce, brand management and marketing. The way I see it, Italian companies still have a chance at maintaining their Italian-brand viability if they focus on some key success factors which they maintain.

The following are my ideas of some key resources in Italian fashion and luxury, and how to utilize them:

  • Italian heritage and family ownership of the majority of brands: market the origins of the brand and focus on the highest craftsmanship within the labels, and reign in investment in cheap production that dilutes the brand image (focus on the top of the brand pyramid, not the mass-market base). Nothing is worth damage to the brand.
  • The last remnants of skilled Italian craftsmen, who have tacit knowledge passed down through the generations in addition to more recently acquired technical skills: groups like Altagamma would serve the industry well to promote these people, as they have a lot to offer in terms of passing down a great legacy. Since time is running out on this resource, it seems prudent to put some marketing muscle behind these artists, promoting their irreplaceable skills as something honorable and special, not “country” and uneducated.
  • Students trained in textiles R&D and business innovation: there is an increasing market for ethical fashion, and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) will continue to grow as a concern for fashion and luxury consumers. These young graduates can help move the Italian industry forward to implement new techniques that are environmentally friendly and ethically sound. Italy can be a leader in this realm based on a heritage of innovation, the existing manufacturing infrastructure and the skills of its labor pool.
  • A large labor pool of digitally-savvy, internationally minded young people who grew up in a branded environment: as the Luxury Society just reported, it’s time that the patriarchs of the European fashion and luxury sector took a moment to listen to their grandchildren. The necessary knowledge and capabilities required to move the Made in Italy industry into the future is ready and waiting (and currently underemployed).

Main point: The commitment to heritage in production is what boosted the Italian brands in the world’s eye. The reluctance of some of the most prominent brands to continue advancing with an evolving market may be the downfall of the Italian industry.

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The Italian System for Fashion

2 06 2009

1950s ferdinandi

Italian Fashion Industry – Cycles of Development

Though some could argue otherwise, according to the experts in Italy, there are 4 primary phases or cycles of Italian fashion industry development.

  1. 1950s-60s:  Industrial production systems are developed after WW2
  2. 1960s-70s:  Economic and social change emerges, apparel system reacts
  3. 1980s:  Democratization of fashion and surge of “Made in Italy” around the world
  4. 1990s:  Brand concentration, financing revisions and mergers & acquisitions

The 1st Cycle: 1950s-60s

Prior to industrial developments in Italy, which occurred only after WW2, 90% of Italians were rurally employed. The elite acquired their luxury products from France, and Italian goods were considered “poor”. Most higher fashion was reserved for men, as women did not have as many black tie events to dress for.

At the time, the fashion industry in Italy was largely non-existent. With the high-end consumers buying their fashions from Paris, or having copies made by local tailors, some industrialists noticed a gap in the market supply, which called for functional, durable, high quality garments. To begin to meet this demand,  Italian company Gruppo Finaziario Tessile (GFT) took the first initiative to measure a wide sample of the Italian population to create national sizing system.

Italian Apparel Finds a Niche

giorgini's la sala bianca show of italian designs for the us market, 1951In 1951, an Italian importer for American goods, named Gian Battista Giorgini, realized the the US market was also ready for something new and different from that offered by France. They had mass-produced garments, the elite could buy haute couture from Paris, and yet there was nothing in between. Giorgini used his US contacts for market research and development, and began to organize Italian designers, whom he encouraged to abandon their French knock-offs and pursue an affordable Italian style. With new production technologies from the States being imported into Italy as part of the recovery plan, and a large skilled workforce of women to operate the machinery, GFT and other Italian manufacturing firms such as Marzotto and Lebole developed the production end of the industry. As many of top producers had a background in men’s tailoring, there was still a strong industrial concentration in menswear, but the mass-production capabilities in the States would find their way into Italian womenswear production soon enough.

You could summarize that the beginnings of the Italian Fashion Industry were characterized by:

  • Large manufacturing facilities
  • Economies of scale (primarily the US market)
  • Strong specialization

The 2nd Cycle: 1960s-70s

girl_trioIn most cultures, up until this point, children and adolescents had dressed as their parents dressed. In the States and the UK, pop culture shifted in the wake of the Baby Boom as young people struggled to develop a new identity and used fashion as a means to demonstrate their separation from the values of their parents’ generation. (England was becoming a hub for the new youth culture, inspiring fashion and trends around the world, in addition to American hippies.) Women had entered the workforce in increasing number, and no longer wanted to dress as housewives. Further, as there were fewer and fewer occasions for dressing up, people began to seek more informal clothing. Trends had begun to be driven by market needs, as opposed to the stylistic direction set in Paris.

Big Business Gets Smaller

woolworths union strike 1970At the same time, there were many social and union conflicts that helped create increased labor costs in developed countries, resulting in a surge of apparel imports from developing countries. The combination of these elements together with the oil crisis of 1974 and the Italian economic crisis of 1975 caused the big manufacturers to lose their hold on the mass market. There was no longer a one-size-fits-all model for fashion (and that was only the beginning, as we now know!).

As the big manufacturers in the States and elsewhere had maintained large scale standardized production even after consumer demand had decreased and diversified, the labor costs in Italy were falling and new small/medium-sized production companies were forming. Manufacturers began to outsource production in Italy, and even France began to rely heavily on the cheap yet skilled Italian labor pool for their pret-á-porter lines.

Designers Respond to a Changed Environment

1979 versace for genny adA new generation of designers emerged in Italy, capable of working with industry partners to produce collections that were fashionable and more affordable than their French counterparts. (Consider Armani & Cerruti, Versace & Genny, or Soprani/MaxMara.) These designers had relationships with market-savvy business leaders, who ensured that the Italian form of fashion would meet the demand of developed markets. The Italian Fashion Week cycle, following on the heels of Paris, became increasingly popular to buyers and press who saw the potential of Italian fashion’s middle ground between haute couture (France) and mass fashion (the US).

In summary, this cycle of development in the industry of Italian fashion can be characterized by:

  • New consumer values and lifestyles (youth, rebellion, rock, women in business, etc)
  • Market segmentation (no longer one-size-fits-all)
  • Increased demand for informal wear
  • The decrease of influence from Paris and haute couture
  • The increase of influence from London and the youth culture

The 3rd Cycle: 1980s

DynastyCast-Season6-1985-1986This was the decade where the world found Italy.

By the 1980s, Italy had little competition from other developed countries for quality textile production. However, developed markets were building a habit a rampant consumerism, with a renewed interest in fashion. The Italian style had gradually been gaining consensus, especially in the States, which had become the largest consumer market. Meanwhile, Italian industry was looking for new formulas to stay (or get) on top of the fashion game.

Total Look, Branding & Hollywood

A new type of relationship began to form between industry and the designers, which was more a partnership that a contractual business relationship. With the craze for “Total Look” taking the fashion scene by storm, designers began to throw their labels onto every conceivable product in their quest for notoriety and brand building.

Internationalization, mass media and the help of Hollywood brought Italian industry onto the main markets. For example, Armani exclusively clothed actor Richard Gere for his role in American Gigalo, bringing the brand notoriety throughout the States and abroad. You can see an early example of product placement with Armani’s menswear collection in the closet scene of American Gigalo, in the clip below:

Love for Licensing

Licensing agreements had become the method of choice for labels to expand their designer names into new product categories (including second and third lines, kids wear, athletic wear, homewear, eyewear, fragrances, etc.). The cooperation between industrial companies and designers, mainly based on these licensing agreements, was the key success factor to growth for the Italian fashion industry.

Fashion companies moved from product-specialization to develop multi-product capabilities through their licensees. In addition to manufacturing, licensees were used to handle distribution and retail activities for the licensor brands, while the brands in turn provided the design concept, the brand name and image.

Throughout the 80s, much of the Italian fashion system depended on licensing agreements for growth and for specialized production (after all, what does a ready-to-wear designer know about producing furniture or fragrances if he can’t rely on experience professionals to help him?). However, as the brands amassed capital, and learned from their licensees about best (and worst) practices, it became clear that licensing could be equally beneficial and detrimental.

Brands like Gucci were widely diluted through numerous licensees, all whom had a different idea of what the brand represented and how their designs should appear and retail. On the verge of bankruptcy, they needed to build capital and buy back their licenses, in order to impose a universal brand strategy throughout their comapnies.

Within the decade, four different groups of players on the Italian fashion scene had clearly emerged. They were:

  1. Industrial companies (GFT, Marzotto, Miroglio)
  2. Small to medium-sized industrial companies with product orientation (Max Mara, Zegna, Genny, Aeffe, Ittierre)
  3. Designer/entrepreneurs who both design and produce (Missoni, Mila Shon, Mario Valentino)
  4. Pure designers who take designs to production firms (Versace, Armani, Ferré, Moschino, Krizia)

By the end of the 1980s, Italian designers had entered into a new system of growth:

  • Most remained family industries (Missoni, Prada, Versace, etc)
  • Designers maintained direct control over their “first lines” (the highest line in their brand’s “food chain”  –   typically ready-to-wear)
  • Brands developed second lines and brand extension, typically under general artistic direction of the original designer and through licensing agreements
  • Brands developed direct control of distribution, taken back from licensees
  • Focus was kept on retail, to create a unified harmony across a branded retail outlets

You could therefore conclude that the Italian model for the fashion industry, at this point, consisted of designers sketching models for the primary line, with manufacturing and additional product development farmed out to licensees, with the finished products then brought back under internal control for distribution and sales. Just ten years prior, licensees had handled everything but the initial design, brand name and image direction for the Italian brands.

Unlike France, Italy typically relied on lower-end textiles – not fragrances and accessories – to make the big money.

The 4th Cycle: 1990s

Versace w supermodels 1991 guardianTowards the end of the 20th Century, the fashion system was undergoing many changes. The fashion system had become increasingly global in supply and demand, affecting Italian, French and American firms together.

versace-couture 1994New players were entering the field; for example, the luxury conglomerates. New market segments were being created as well, including the bridge segment, which spoke to a market beneath ready-to-wear but above mass fashion. Entry barriers into the industry had become increasingly higher, with great investments required in marketing (fashion show and advertising extravaganzas, parties, supermodels, etc) and retail. Retail itself was undergoing change through the introduction of the lifestyle concept, pioneered by American designer Ralph Lauren.

Fronting the Tab

In order to meet the new financing needs of the fashion system, many companies opened on the stock exchange. With this move came a market rush by the luxury conglomerates to acquire and reposition the Italian brands with marketable heritage. Much like the French houses before them, Italian brands were gradually having to transfer creative direction from the original designers onto new creatives.

As for the four groups of players on the Italian fashion scene, the 90s saw the following changes:

  1. Industrial companies: begin to acquire brands – typically from past licensors, launch their own brands based on their acquired capabilities, or develop retail strategies (Aeffe/Moschino, GFT/Valentino, Exté, Max Mara, Zegna)
  2. Designer/entrepreneurs: control production and distribution processes with the purchase of production facilities, utilize very few licenses (Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani)
  3. Multibrand Groups: conglomerates acquire brands and designer companies (LVMH, Gucci Group, Prada)
  4. Pure designers: sell their companies to industrial or multibrand groups (Jil Sander, Valentino)

In “Short”

The Italian fashion industry really took off after WW2 with the help of technologies provided as part of the Recovery Plan, the entrepreneurship of business and manufacturing leaders who saw an opportunity, a newly-urbanized population of skilled textile workers, and a burgeoning demand for quality apparel and ready-to-wear.

The first phase of industrial fashion in Italy was made by a few concentrated, large-scale production facilities. As the economy turned south and many new market segments emerged, big business lacked the flexibility to diversify their business model, and small to medium-sized manufacturing companies took the lead.

Designers and their business partners (typically family) recognized the changing market as an opportunity, and developed partnerships with manufacturers who had once contracted work to them. Under this model, the designer became responsible only for the initial designs of his collection, while his business partners managed the brand and image, and licensees took care of the rest – from manufacturing through distribution and retail.

By the end of the 1980s, many brands had gained the capital and the knowledge base to buy back their licenses in specific product categories, as well as their distribution and retail systems. Some were able to purchase their own manufacturing facilities. The typical model now had the design company controlling the initial designs of the highest line and whatever licenses they had brought in-house, as well as their distribution and retail. Manufacturing was still typically licensed out.

During the final years of the 20th Century, the costs of running a fashion business had exploded with a need for mass marketing. Many companies went on the stock exchange to build capital investment. While some brands took control back from their licensees, others were acquired by luxury conglomerates. Some manufacturing leaders developed their own lines or acquired brands they had once licensed production rights from.