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What it Means to be Made in Italy

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  1. 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.

    The Competition

    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.”

    Claudio and Stefano Merola

    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?

    Missed our Pitti 87 coverage? Read about our "real time" shenanigans, and share your thoughts.
    First time you've read the Brief? Check out previously published articles.​

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  1. unbelragazzo
    Fair enough, li. I was contrasting with the Italian experience, and in the process generalized, perhaps too much. Many, but not all, of the states Bismarck appropriated into the new Germany were acquired through conquest. But the biggest difference is that Prussia was both the heart of the earlier system of German states and the force that united them into a German nation. The Piedmont didn't really have this former role for Italy. So in so far as both of them were conquerors, the Piedmont was more of a foreign conquerer.
  2. lithebast
    David, your article is fascinating. I enjoyed reading it. I have to take issue though with the term, "German people". Germany was formed through conquest not just collaboration. I say that as the offspring of someone whose great grandfather fought under Bismarck and hated the job of going off to war to help Bismarck conquer yet another people. There is truth to the cliche that "History is written by the victors". My great grandfather, legally Prussian, came from a Baltic tribe, which was conquered by the Templar Knights. The history of many of those who were conquered has been hidden, ignored, or lost. End of history lesson.
  3. dnmtsn
    @Peter1 what exactly do you know about the "conditions" in Romania? I'm Romanian and I would like to know, as I am not aware of any sweatshops using underage workers or anything similar which seems to be implied by your sentence. If there is anything like that that you have knowledge of, I'd be interested to know. Thank you
  4. unbelragazzo
    I've always thought of Cicero's statement more as a claim to legal rights than an expression of solidarity. In any case, as the Empire fell into decadence and citizenship expanded well beyond the Italian peninsula, Roman citizenship became as much a burden as a privilege, because it entailed taxes and military duty. Surely you wouldn't claim that all these later citizens of the Roman Empire felt the same degree of membership in the civic, political, and cultural entity that you describe? Or that the people living in those territories today have inherited some kind of alliance with modern Italians?

    Off topic: how did I manage to get through this whole article without quoting the classic line from Tommy Boy, "these shoes are Italian, they're worth more than your life"? Such a fail.
  5. maxlonmil
    Thanks unbelragazzo. I liked your article and appreciated your comments.
    I still disagree on 1). The Roman empire was a container of peoples kept united by one major feature: being Roman. Civis Romanus sum (I am a Roman citizen) is what Cicero says and everyone felt: part of one civic, political and cultural entity. And at the end, yes Italians are very different (and this is a huge richness) but the key question is: was a Venetian closer to a Neapolitain or to a French or an Austrian? Well, I go for the former.
    If Made in Italy includes the allure of the Belpaese (the beautiful country as we call it), well, this cannot be replicated and I don't see how it can fade away as nothing is changing in regard to those features. In relation to quality, it's great that they are trying to set up standards on quality levels: this is the only healthy way to defend it. So again, it seems to me an indication that the Made in Italy is likely to progress in a stronger and more mature way, rather then slowly deteriorating. And if we compare this with that has alreay happened in other European countries (that have almost lost their artisanal capabilities) well there remains a strong competitive advantage. To me the main challenge is more providing these artisans with the infrastructures (financing, logistics, etc.) to compete in the global market, that will represent the vast majority of business.
  6. unbelragazzo
    Also I'll add, it's interesting that Italy is the only country (so far as I know) that has tried to put not only origin restrictions, but also quality restrictions, on what can be labeled "Made In Italy." That is, under these rules, even a product completely made in Italy could not be labeled "Made In Italy" if it doesn't meet certain standards. This is both a statement that "Made In Italy" is intended to mean more than just a description of the provenance, and an admission that the provenance does not completely determine the quality of the goods.
  7. unbelragazzo
    maxlonmil -
    Thanks for your thoughts. Regarding 1), of course it's superficial, but I think it's correct in spirit. Obviously people who used to live in what is now Italy shared the weight of the Roman yoke. But they were all considered provinces in the Roman Empire, not really equal partners in a single nation-state. Many cities (Naples for instance) have origins that are not Roman. Also, the "conquering" of the Roman empire by the Visigoth hordes was more a demographic invasion than a military one. As a result, many, many modern day Italians are descended from those invaders. Not to mention the Arab conquests of Southern Italy. So I think it's really difficult to find any way that Italians could be thought of as having much common ground prior to unification. There was no ethnic unity. No political unity. No linguistic unity. Of course you've got people living near each other so they're not totally unrelated. But no more related, I would say, than people living across the French/Spanish border, or the French/German border, at the time.

    I absolutely agree with you that Italy remains a country with a ton of advantages, among which is a stock of skilled artisans and a rich cultural heritage that includes a lot of wisdom on how to enjoy life. As you say, and as I write in the article, business is still good, for the most part. But the "Made In Italy" campaign is much more than that. It has tried to create the impression that the Italian way of life, cultural riches, and level of craft are indistinguishable from the "Made In Italy" label. I'm not sure that's true anymore, if it ever was, and I don't think I'm the only one.
  8. in stitches
    Very interesting write up, D.
    The Swiss have faced, and still are facing, similar issues, with Swiss Made stamps on watches. Its a tough issue defining what, if any, is the inherent quality of items being made in a specific location. Obviously you have national pride involved when it comes to a craft that a certain location has poured its heart and soul into perfecting.
    Personally, it appeals to me, but its hard for me to say thats not rooted in pure romanticism which is likely a result of exposure to long time PR and advertising, or if I really believe there is some true value/benefit to the stricter rules about what constitutes "Made In" and how it should be enforced. Great topic.
  9. maxlonmil
    Interesting piece, but with two observations: 1) it is superficial on the description of the historical foundations of fashion 2) the comments on Made in Italy look a bit like a wishful thinking rather than an accurate description of reality.
    In relation to 1), Italy has been shaped by the Romans. Then there have been fifteen centuries of divisions, but the underlying common background has always been there. So there are many more things in common than those that divide the different regions. After WWII the country needed to rebuild itself, but it was not about identity and much more about economic growth. Fashion has been much less relevant in economic terms than many other industries. And its industrial success was mostly due to the unique combination of taste, design, manufacturing and supply chain capabilities that were present in the country at the time when it got started.
    On 2), most importantly, made in Italy is essentially two things: a) the appeal of the Italian lifestyle and beauty and b) the amazing artisanal capabilities. On a) that is the reason why people like Italy, for its beauty, way of living, food, art, etc. All of this is strongly reflected in the taste of the goods produced in the country: you may be able to move the pure manufacturing to another country but there is no way that this can be replicated elsewhere. In relation to b), yes there is a lot of production in other countries and the law should be improved, but Italy remains the country of artisanal districts (shoes, fabrics, silks, leather, jewelry, etc.) and the number of artisans still working and operating in the country is by far higher than in any other competing country (European or elsewhere). So even if there is some foreign share, the share of what is made in the country remains much higher than elsewhere. To the extent that even foreign brands produce in Italy. And there is a new trend now of production getting back to Italy from other countries, at least for the highest quality manufacturing.
    Quite often there is this this description of Made in Italy that is slowly fading away, but sadly it looks more as a hope from people working in competing countries rather than an accurate reflection of reality (in relative terms).
    I am Italian
  10. Peter1
    European manufacturing is a slippery slope. There are some countries, like France, Germany and the UK, where costs are so high -- and regulations are enforced -- that only boutique-y or legacy brands can still produce garments or shoes there. But head into southern and eastern Europe and it's a free-for-all. I can't imagine that conditions in Prato are any more ethical than in Bangladesh, or Romania for that matter. Best you can do is be an informed consumer -- for instance "Made in CE" almost always means Romania, possibly Montenegro at this point.

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