By David Isle
My Italian has gotten good enough that I can understand pretty much everything the locals say to me. The only words I consistently miss are the English words that they insert into conversation like french fries stuck in a spaghetti carbonara. WTF is “Nike” when it rhymes with “hike”? “Levi’s” when it rhymes with “heavies”? “Ee Red Hot Keelee Pepper?” But one English phrase comes up so often in conversation, at least within the rag trade, that I can pick it up on the first take: “Made In Italy.”
Cosa Vuol Dire “Made In Italy”?
To understand the meaning of “Made In Italy,” you have to go back to the genesis of the Italian nation, in the second half of the 19th century. Before that, Italy was a geographic concept, but not a political or cultural one. There was no real sense of an “Italian people” in the same way as there was already for the Germans, who formed a nation around the same time. Italy became one country not through collaboration, but through conquest by the Piedmont in the far north, which might as well have been Sweden as far as many Italians were concerned. If you think of Italy as a boot, the Piedmont would be the knee. A knee the rest of the peninsula would feel at their throats.
Citizens of the newly formed Italian state had little shared history, so newly-crowned propagandists created one, often relying on Roman iconography. Over the following decades, nationalistic myths hypertrophied into fascism - also largely a Northern phenomenon. Italy’s defeat in World War II broke this fever, but at a huge cost. The War was, for Italy, also a civil war, mostly pitting North against South, breaking open all the fissures that had been plastered over at the nation’s birth.
Two industries recreated Italian identity following the war - the film industry, and the fashion industry. Film helped the country understand its experience with the war and the poverty that followed. Fashion gave Italians a new nationalistic myth. Its appeals were more to the artistic achievements of the Italian Renaissance than the empire-building of the Roman era, and it helped that the industry’s first successes were in Tuscany, birthplace of Michelangelo. The Sala Bianca in the Pitti Palace hosted the first Italian fashion show in 1951, as well as Brioni’s men’s fashion show, famously the first of its kind, in 1952. Italian designers were able to capture something of the uniquely Italian approach to luxury and craft that had eluded the stuffy couturiers and tailors of Paris and Savile Row. As post-war realist film gave way to Fellini’s surrealist fantasies, Marcello Mastroianni became the guy everyone wanted to look, dress, and act like. And he wore Italian suits.
Allure, but Insecure
By 1980, the industry had grown tremendously, but had become something different. It had mostly moved to Milan, the industrial behemoth of the North. And it had begun to shift its focus from brands like Brioni to emerging giants like Armani and Ferre’. It was at this point that the “Made In Italy” campaign began, with the ambitious goal of branding an entire country. As one politico at Pitti’s “Opening Ceremony” said this year,” ‘Made In Italy’ is not just about selling fashion - it’s about selling Italian quality of life.” “Made In Italy” was intended to convey more than just the country of origin, but elegance, sophistication, craftsmanship - as if Leonardo DaVinci himself had blessed every stitch.
The campaign has been a massive success. Armani remains one of the most valuable brands in all of fashion. Gucci, Prada, and Zegna aren’t far behind. The manufacturing infrastructure that supports these brands is now also used by brands from Huntsman to Tom Ford to Ralph Lauren Purple Label, all of which are Made In Italy.
But the future is uncertain. At the Pitti’s Opening Ceremony, politician after politician announced their full support for the Italian fashion industry, for Pitti as a trade show, and their belief in the enduring allure of Italian luxury. Each one pledged a re-investment in “Made In Italy”. Which is what you do when you’re worried that a good idea’s time is running out.
The worries come mostly from China. A decade ago, there were no Chinese factories that could produce an approximation of Italian goods. Even if you stuck a “Made In Italy” label on a Chinese product, it wouldn’t fool anybody who cared enough to know the difference. Today, that’s no longer true. Chinese workers can produce high quality - they just can’t sell it at a high price without the “Made In Italy” label. As a result, there’s a lot of money to be made by someone who can figure out how to get that label on a Chinese product.
A few miles outside of Florence is a town called Prato. The Pitti Opening Ceremony panel referenced it a few times as a major player within the Italian fashion industry, as in “Milan, Florence, and Prato.” I had never heard of Prato, and you probably haven’t either. But it is home to about 3,500 workshops that produce clothing, textiles, and accessories. The majority of people working in these workshops are Chinese.
Nor is it the only population of Chinese workers within Italy. There’s even a Chinese neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples that includes garment workshops. Of course, their work gets the “Made In Italy” label - how could it not?
But other products can get the label too, even if only some of the manufacture occurred inside Italian borders. It may not even take very much work on a product within Italy to make it “Made In Italy”. This is because the percentage of Italian work that goes into a product is calculated based on cost, rather than time (which would be difficult to measure anyway). Since wages in Italy are much higher than in China, you could have most of the work done in China for $4.90, pay an Italian $5.10 to put on the finishing touches, and the entire thing can get stamped “Made In Italy.”
It goes without saying that Italians have no monopoly on craftsmanship or design taste. There is no reason a well-trained Chinese person can’t do at least as good a job as an Italian. One way to view this development is that Italians traded for decades on a promise of inherent superiority, and Chinese workers have now proven that promise false. Not only have they become just as good as “Made In Italy,” they have become “Made In Italy.”
But it’s difficult for native-born Italians to be so generous. For one thing, competition from immigrants eats away at Italian wages and profits. Heirs of businesses that span multiple generations worry that they will have to choose between keeping their companies afloat and maintaining the quality and integrity of their product. For another, if customers hear about Chinese workers in Italian factories, the mystique of Leonardo’s blessing seems to lose its luster. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to maintain national pride in “Made In Italy” when many of the workers behind it are foreign. So opinions are strong. Companies that dilute “Made In Italy” by employing immigrants or moving production overseas are considered traitors who don’t respect their product or their heritage.
Protecting the Brand
The backlash prompted some political movement in 2010. The Italian government raided factories in Prato and found illegal immigrants working there. It also passed a law restricting further the products that can use the “Made In Italy” label, including creating a new “100% Made In Italy” label that can be used only by products completely made in Italy.
But this is a losing battle. Illegal immigration is difficult to prevent. Italy’s national laws on product labeling are constrained by EU rules, since there is a free trade agreement among all member countries. The new levels of “Made In Italy” only confuse the consumer and sound defensive. Consider this Pitti booth insistently declaring itself “Absolutely Made In Italy”:
Doesn’t exactly instill you with confidence. When they start using intensifying adverbs, you know it’s bad.
The most encouraging development for Italian manufacturing in the past few years is not new regulations, but rising prices elsewhere. Alberto Merola told me that his glove company, Merola, saw some of its private label clients take production to cheaper countries a few years ago, but now many are coming back. “If the workers are good,” he said, “they get paid, no matter where they are.”
Even if “Made In Italy” is eventually doomed, it can look forward a long and stately decadence. Right now, Italy is still sexy. Pitti has been such a huge success that the Italian government is trying to replicate it with other trade shows - further support for the Milan show, and collaborative shows with the US in New York and with China in Shanghai.
Italy already exports 62% of the clothing it makes. In the end it may be this that finally dilutes the Italian national brand beyond recognition. Many of the Italian brands I spoke to at Pitti were there hoping to attract Asian buyers. At one stand, I was shown a wall of double-breasted plaid waistcoats, complete with watch chains. After some discussion, they brought out from hiding a very nice plain navy overcoat that they planned to show the Italian buyers the following week in Milan. I wonder how many of the chained waistcoats they have to sell before they stop producing the navy overcoats. How much “Italian quality of life” can you sell and still have some left?
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