The National Chamber for Italian Fashion wins hearts and minds, stylishly
MILAN – In late September, as Italy’s august fashion pinned eleventh hour adjustments to Spring / Summer 2014 ready-to-wear women’s collections that would premiere on the Milan Fashion Week runways the following day, the country tuned televisions to the raising of the capsized Costa Concordia from its Tyrrhenian Sea grave.
Almost two years earlier, the 114,500 ton cruise liner had run aground the rocky Giglio Island shoreline under the reckless navigation of its Italian captain, Francesco Schettino. In the accident aftermath, Schettino and his cowardly, caught-on-tape abandonment-of-ship became a symbol of national embarrassment that allegorically echoed former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s bottom-up rule over four sporadic terms.
On a grander scale, the shipwreck mirrored Italy’s keeled-over economy, stemming from the second half of 2008, which has plunged the country into its deepest recession since World War II. So when the Costa Concordia was finally righted, following a 19-hour engineering spectacle at the cost of $800 million, national pride was redeemed and reflected by inspirational newspaper headlines: Il riscatto dopo la vergogna. The Redemption after the Shame.
The salvage operation triumph couldn’t have been more prophetic for the Italian fashion industry’s leading association, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, on the eve of its own meticulously-orchestrated deliverance – the Milan Fashion Week women’s collections that ran here from Sept. 18 to 23.
Founded in 1958, the Camera della Moda is the influential Italian muscle behind the Milan intermezzo of the international fashion weeks. It culminates biannually – September for Spring / Summer collections and Feb-ruary for Autumn / Winter collections – with a month-long women’s fashion circuit that traverses New York, London, Milan and Paris. Also under its auspices (but with much less fanfare) is the twice-yearly Milan menswear cycle, with Autumn / Winter collections showing in January and Spring / Summer collections in June.
Under Italy’s debilitating financial crisis, visiting buyers, editors, retailers, celebrities and socialites had begun regarding Milan Fashion Week as an uninspiring, sober stopover between feisty London and opulent Paris. Milan, running on espresso and prosecco fumes, risked extinction from inefficient scheduling, lackluster appointments, a famine of young talent and unconquered digital frontiers.
It was a baffling setback for the Northern Italian city that had cultivated the understated elegance of Giorgio Armani, the intellectual polish of Miuccia Prada and had nurtured Gianni Versace from a provincial tailor to a worldwide fashion ambassador. In the city of 9.3 million inhabitants that produces 10 percent of Italy’s GNP, fashion’s a key industry and an economic lynchpin, and culturally, luxury is a birthright. But unlike Italy’s guidebook-friendly cities, Milan doesn’t court publicity. So when its fashion pulse went into stasis, only the Camera della Moda knew how to restart it.
This spring, helmed by president Mario Boselli and armed with a healthy cash injection, the Camera della Moda rolled out a rejuvenated board under the blessing of Milan’s mayor Giuliano Pisapia. New senior vice president Patrizio Bertelli (Prada Group ceo and husband of its chairwoman and creative director, Miuccia Prada) is flanked by vice presidents from Italy’s storied fashion dynasties such as Ermenegildo Zegna (ceo of Ermenegildo Zegna Group), Diego Della Valle (chairman and ceo of Tod’s Group) and Angela Missoni (creative director of Missoni), and buttressed by Ferragamo and Etro family councilors, among others. The board tapped Jane Reeve as its inaugural ceo, a British-born businesswoman who’s been living in Italy for decades as chairwoman and ceo of the advertising and marketing firm J. Walter Thompson-Italy.
Next, a vade mecum brimming with long-term goals was drafted – particularly relevant in the run-up as host city of the 2015 Universal Exposition, a six-month global congress to be attended by 138 participant countries – to boost Milan’s brand solidarity, retail vivacity, young talent and Made in Italy ingenuity.
Before bowing its most ambitious Milan Fashion Week in years, the Camera della Moda had to shake-off disheartening downticks of the latest Fashion Economic Trends report. Although 2013 exports remain strong – predicted to reach 45.1 billion euros, up 4 percent compared to 2012 and expected to grow 7 percent in the first half of 2014 – domestic revenues are down, anticipated to drop 2.5 percent to 58.85 billion euros from last year. Imports are expected to drop 1 percent in 2013 to 26.09 billion euros.
The murky report is countered by forecasted upticks in the New Year, as domestic imports are predicted to grow 4.5 percent in the first half of 2014, with a 3.5 percent increase in revenues for the Italian fashion industry, including textiles, clothing, leather goods and shoes, up from 3.1 percent growth in 2013.
When Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2014 women’s collections bowed here on Sept. 18, the official calendar hosted 146 collections and 69 presentations for 63 brands over six days. Out of 74 runway shows, eight were inaugural, half deigned to young Italian designers. The latest edition crushed the numbers of last season’s Autumn/Winter 2013 women’s edition, which ran here from February 20 to 26, with 127 collections, 71 runway shows and 50 presentations for 49 brands. It’s bolstering news as Italian luxury houses traverse an identity crisis following foreign buyouts and a flurry of public listings. Recent foreign acquisitions have been met with ambivalence as family-owned and private equity-owned luxury goods, fashion and lifestyle companies partner-up with French luxury conglomerates Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
This summer, when LVMH bought an 80 percent stake of Italian luxury brand and cashmere spinner Loro Piana for two billion euros, Boselli (to Condé Nast fashion trade paper, Women’s Wear Daily) praised French shareholder monoliths for, “maintaining the Made in Italy production in the most rigorous way, fully respecting this value – something that not all Italian designers have always taken into consideration,” but lamented the metaphoric end of the brand’s 89-year-old, multigenerational heritage.
A new round of public listings is predicted for the first half of 2014, which includes Moncler, a luxury brand with French skiwear DNA. In mid-October, its chairman and creative director Remo Ruffini filed documents to list on the Italian Stock Exchange, which industry sources predict could value the company around two billion euros.
Although the buyout trend comes on the heels of family-run luxury houses that have recently floated in Milan with exceptional success – Brunello Cucinelli (2012) and Salvatore Ferragamo (2011) have both tripled shares in the years following IPOs – many are critical of long-term effects that could eventually shift production, profits and business direction outside of Italy.
The tide of foreign acquisitions has encouraged Italian luxury houses to look inward and reinvest in its enviable Made in Italy heritage. Despite the soaring prices of raw materials such as exotic skins, silk and wool, Italy continues to turn out a high-quality, customized product. Fittingly enough, luxury embellishment was a key trend of the S/S 2014 collections. Texture and movement was emphasized through artisanal workmanship. At Bottega Veneta, creative director Tomas Maier amplified silhouettes with crisply-pleated, meticulous-crafted ruffles, pleats and frills. At Dolce & Gabbana, creative directors Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana beset their Sicilian-themed collection with silk petal appliqués and faceted crystals over laser-cut leather.
Off the runway, new flagship stores opened doors along Milan’s luxury Golden Triangle, the high-end shopping district bisected by Via Montenapoleone, to reignite the city’s retail charisma and fortify an unshakeable Italian clique. According to tax refund giants Global Blue and Premier Tax Free, luxury doors on Via Montenapoleone are thriving, with a 30 percent jump in 2012 revenues from the previous year, merit to increased international customer traffic, the majority from Russia and China – average purchases on luxury goods netted $2,500 and $2,200 respectively at each store visited. Accordingly, the sixteenth century Casa Carcassola-Grandi on Via Montenapoleone hosted two openings – Salvatore Ferragamo unveiled a refurbished showroom and Fendi relocated into a two-floor boutique. A few blocks over, Prada and Bottega Veneta bowed new stores on the cobblestoned Via Sant’Andrea.
Milan’s retail punch comes at a time when dwindling disposable income has remapped domestic consumer habits – luxury and apparel spending has been reallocated to autos, home improvement and appliances. The Italian luxury goods association Fondazione Altagamma reported that 2013 gains included cars, wine/spirits and hotels, which is expected to overtake personal luxury goods spending and contribute to a total business of 800 billion euros, up almost 6 percent compared to last year.
Troubling also is the youth unemployment crisis that has emerged in Italy’s post-recession landscape: 40.1 percent of Italians ages 15 to 24 are jobless. Around 60,000 move abroad every year, about 70% with college degrees. In the past decade, almost 400,000 Italian graduates have left the country to seek employment elsewhere.
As the country hemorrhages its emerging generation in record numbers, Camera della Moda councilor and editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, Franca Sozzani, with glossy publishing giant Condé Nast, rolled out an umbrella of youth-focused initiatives called ‘Empowering New Talents’. To further entice nascent, domestic stars, a scholarship program curated by Kering ceo François-Henri Pinault was unveiled. “The key to this year’s edition is through projects that discuss and elevate Italian valor and highlight sustainably,” said Sozzani at a press conference here, shortly before Milan Fashion Week. “Without the younger generations, it’s impossible to create a future.”
To flaunt its cultural prestige, Milan preened its best landmarks. In a literal coup de théâtre, Condé Nast rented out the 18th century opera house, Teatro alla Scala, where photogenic Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo serenaded a VIP-packed audience (including editor-in-chief of American Vogue Anna Wintour and Condé Nast chairman and ceo Jonathan Newhouse) with Italian opera arias.
For the global tastemakers who couldn’t attend shows, the Camera della Moda negotiated internet-streamed runways and social media exclusives, which allowed trendsetters, like the creative director of Swatch Ltd., Carlo Giordanetti, to vicariously navigate the events. “In the September shows, I’ve been delighted by trends that many brands have undertaken – a sweet approach and a sense of lightness, which resonates perfectly with one of the major themes of the S/S 14 Swatch collection: candy colors mixed with make-up shades (and shiny hues from reflective surfaces) together with micro-patterns from classical heritage and pure graphic strength, reinterpreted and remixed,” he said.
For all of the Camera della Moda’s enterprises, the most difficult tenet is esprit de corps. Powerful Italian houses such as Dolce & Gabbana have declined partnership. Giorgio Armani publically rebuked invitations to sit on the board, which he later overturned in a late November decision based on a goodwill gesture made by colleague Ennio Capasa. As the founder and creative director of Italian brand Costume National, Capasa returned to Milan from Paris where he had been showing his collections for 23 years.
“I was asked to show my summer collection in Milan and I decided to accept. Italy is a country that is full of beauty, creativity and art and it is going through a very difficult time at the moment. The international fashion community which has always loved this country has to help it to overcome this difficult time. I feel that I am one of those people that can make a small contribution through their work,” Capasa told the Camera della Moda. “As a designer I see fashion as a global system, without borders and I hope my gesture can help to attract new talent from all over the world to make the Milan catwalks increasingly more important and interesting.”
The Camera della Moda hopes that Capasa could help lure back the handful of native houses that have decamped to Paris (for various reasons) to unveil runway collections such as Valentino, Miu Miu and Giambattista Valli.
Giorgio Armani’s Camera della Moda accord signals a caesura of incendiary infighting among Italy’s notoriously competitive houses. In fact, in the great tradition of Italian opera’s tempestuous divas, a then-unallied Armani and Della Valle traded barbs towards the end of the fashion week. Nothing new: the Italian luxury giants have publically sparred before, like in 2011 when tempers flared over a flood of Milan bourse listings – Armani remains staunchly private while Della Valle’s luxury Italian shoe and leather goods icon Tod’s Group has been publicly traded for over a decade.
This time, they clashed over philanthropy. Della Valle, who had pledged 25 million euros in 2011 to restore Rome’s crumbling Colosseum, called on Armani to augment his corporate social responsibility by funding Milan’s sagging landmarks, such as the 15th century Sforza Castle.
Armani responded with a reminder that in the past, he had quietly pumped three billion lire (of his own money, not company shareholders’ funds) into renovations of Milan’s early 20th century architectural gem, Villa Necchi Campiglio. In a twist of irony, Villa Necchi’s been the exclusive Milan venue of Della Valle’s Tod’s Group presentations and events for years.
In the city of gray cashmere and miniature dogs, grudges among rival fashion empires are as predictable as Milan’s winter fog that rolls in nightly from Parma. Now that Armani’s extended the olive branch, the great hope is that these powerful brands restructure into omnipotent luxury conglomerates. After all, passionate infighting included, it’s in the great Italian spirit of la famiglia.
Article by Courtney Smith