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Made in Italy

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The concept of "Made in Italy" is a mere myth and its single-minded pursuance serves only to distract attention from the fact that our once great Italian textile industry is fast disappearing into a black hole.

As the 1970s came to a close, Carnaby Street and King's Road, the areas of London that had shaken the fashion industry to its roots, started to see the end of the famous youth-driven revolution. Paris was, at the time, still in the doldrums and as far as fashion was concerned, was the home of the dead designers society, with only Yves St Laurent keeping the banner flying. The USA hadn't yet come of age and was still emerging, like Sleeping Beauty from a 100-year coma, while Italy was on the threshold of becoming the centre of the world's fashion universe.

Giorgio Armani had just become a superstar designer, and after dressing Richard Gere in American Gigolo became Hollywood's first choice, Gianni Versace was a creative genius who stretched his creativity from fashion to home décor and Gianfranco Ferré was just becoming recognized at top level.

Miuccia Prada took over the reins of the classic leather goods family business and created an unbelievable design powerhouse. Moschino was starting to make ripples with his funny, inspired collections. Italian designers who had made this new development possible, such as Gucci, Pucci and Valentino were then superseded by a new and very talented generation. Even they were able to revitalize their brands on the back of this exciting awakening as did myriads of designers, brands and products emerged from every corner of the country, some existing still today.

Unfortunately, several famous brands are now in the hands of French, Indian or Arabian luxury groups and others are likely to follow suit; the few that aren't are looking as though they need capable heirs to refresh their image. The jewel in the crown is Armani, around whom speculation continues about 'life after Giorgio' - rumours are that the company could end up in the hands of L'Oreal.

Does it matter who owns a company or where its merchandise is made? In my opinion it does, inasmuch as Italy needs to maintain its reputation as the leader of creative design in order to help hundreds of thousands of skilled workers maintain their jobs, keep the fashion industry visiting and buying, and help Italy's exports. However, I believe that the drive to maintain the so-called 'Made in Italy' brand has no meaning whatsoever.

When I was working in Savile Row, the mecca of handmade tailored suits for men, most of the tailors came from Cyprus. One of the most frequented tailors in the world is Sam of Hong Kong: he is of Indian origin and perhaps better known for his 24 hour service than his hand-made artisan craftsmanship and yet all of the most important politicians and well-known celebrities have had suits made by him. Russia has more tailors per head of the population than any country and India has more skilled sewers than even China. Skilled craftsmen, seamstresses and embroiderers who originate from many different countries around the world work together with local staff in the ateliers of most of the best French and Italian couturiers to produce some of the most beautiful clothes ever made.

Many garments that are produced in Italy, USA or the UK proudly carry the label that states that they were made in those countries, but what they don't say is that they were probably put together by immigrant workers (sometimes illegal), in sweatshop-style garages and basements all over Prato, Naples, Los Angeles and East London. Chinese, Mexican and Indian workers are making black market products for little money, long hours and without any employee rights or protection. This is because, in reality, it's the only way that Western manufacturers can make garments that vaguely compete with third-world production prices. Large well-run factories have closed and workers have been laid off. The lucky ones now work in supermarkets and care homes and so tragically they have taken their skills and knowledge with them, leaving their countries without this valuable resource.

Up to ten years ago, Italy was a mandatory stop for most of the international fashion personnel, partly to shop (and copy) the styles and partly to visit print studios, converters and textile and garment manufacturers. Italy was the centre of everything that fashion stood for, in a period when everybody could buy and was buying luxury goods, as if their lives depended on it. They don't come anymore. Italian companies have to go to them. With the cost of travel, time limitations and the increased cost of manufacturing in Italy, the country has fallen behind in the race for innovative ideas.

Mass produced garments can be manufactured anywhere; it requires only good product engineers, modern machinery, capable employees and a willingness to work hard. The big brands and machine manufacturers are happy to send their technicians to help low-cost suppliers set up production to obtain the standards of quality they require; the rest is computerized. There are supply chain companies like Li & Fung who are now gigantic organizations providing real-time logistical management that keeps the work flowing and delivered on time. The machine manufacturers, whose customer bases have now virtually moved entirely out of Europe, continue to provide technical assistance regarding innovative and creative uses for their machines but instead of Italian textile manufacturers it is the Chinese who benefit from this advice. Even brands like Louis Vuitton now manufacture some of their beautiful products in China, clearly indicating that regardless of price advantages, if they are happy with the quality then why would anybody else have reservations?

There is one area where Italy still has an influence and that is as an International centre for industrial and furniture design. During the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan comes to life and mobilizes everybody to accommodate the influx of designers and buyers from around the world. This event is probably the most important annual happening on the international furniture and interiors sector calendar. Every brand, also those that are not Italian, is trying to outshine its competitors, vying for the attention of the visitors and the press by hosting shows, events or parties and by displaying their products in as many venues and windows as possible. But just like the street traders who are on every corner selling counterfeit designer handbags, vanishing hastily when the police (loudly) announce their arrival, the show wraps up after a week and it too vanishes without a trace, as if it were all a dream.

The Camera Nazionale della



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