The Business Of Fine Fabrics In Northern Italy
Like a big family reuniting for a holiday dinner, the Italian economy as a whole can come across as a superficially dysfunctional set of strong-willed individuals who really do love each other, warts and all. As expected, there is lots of shouting, lots of good-natured arguments among the most vocal relatives that by dessert time will have degenerated into heated disagreements barely restrained by the bonds of love. Nieces and nephews sit ever more quietly as the older generation celebrates.
The favoured adjective in describing Italy, whether discussing Roman traffic, macroeconomic theory, or family reunions, is ‘chaotic’. Portrayed with relentless zeal in the media as an economic basket case waiting to be delivered to the door of the EU financial nursery, the true picture of the state of the Italian economy is more complex and better understood at the micro level. Talk to Nonna Maria and Zio Paolo when they are away from the dinner table and a different side of the story emerges, sometimes even contradicting the position they so ardently defended just to keep someone else from winning the argument.
Long recognised as a world leader in design, Italy retains its status—and its clients—as a country where excellence in design is far from an unexpected surprise. On the contrary, it is de rigueur. Since the days of Ancient Rome, Italians have enjoyed the finer things in life; whether in expensive automobiles, sleek yachts, fine jewellery, or a simple yet exquisite ball of mozzarella di bufala, quality is a trait not readily sacrificed in search of a bogus bargain that hypnotises the customer with a low price and nothing else—as is disturbingly and increasingly common in today’s global marketplace. Sounds like Switzerland, doesn’t it? It comes as no surprise, then, that Switzerland is a good market for Italian goods. Among them are the exquisite fabrics produced across the northern part of our neighbour to the south, especially in the Piemonte region. From the workshops of relatively small family enterprises come some of the finest fabrics in the world.
Driving through Varallo, in the Sesia Valley west of tranquil Lake Orta, one sees signs everywhere pointing toward the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sacro Monte di Varallo. As befits the company, indications as to the whereabouts of Maison Claire are far more discreet. A small company whose clients have big wallets, Maison Claire is the apotheosis of the Italian family textile enterprise. It is a company that has never advertised its products at any time during its history yet is consistently working at full capacity in order to satisfy the demand of its eager customers. Maison Claire creates linens for bed, bath, and table for the home as well as for weddings, parties, anything…and from this simple business model has sprung a small empire of success catering to the world’s most demanding customers.
Meticulous in the application of detail, assiduous in pursuit of quality, Maison Claire is known amongst the cognoscenti yet remarkably anonymous among the general public. Having recently provided all the table linens for VIP functions at the London Olympics, Maison Claire’s reputation extends into the realm of corporate clients though most of the company’s customers are private individuals who cherish sheets sewn to their specifications and bathrobes made to measure; sleeping on sheets threaded with gold has drowsy Maison Claire customers counting carats instead of sheep before drifting off into slumberland.
At the foundation of the business is the family. The Scalvini-Bertoli family, like many others in Piemonte’s Rimasco area who have historic roots in the Valais, built their company on the pursuit of quality based on the knowledge of textiles and lacemaking brought by immigrants from Switzerland who came to the area in the 1600s. It suits them well, this pursuit, as it does Maison Claire’s Swiss clients who likewise appreciate quality in their purchases.
Not that Maison Claire is by any means the only successful business working with fine fabrics in this part of the country. The northwestern part of Italy has long been famous for its finesse with fine fabrics. While Maison Claire caters for the home, another powerhouse in the region dresses both men and women for success with stylish suits engineered from the top-quality cloth. Just down the road in the small(er) town of Quarona Sesia is the worldwide headquarters of Loro Piana. Maker of refined business attire and snappy sportswear as well as arbiter of good
taste, Loro Piana takes the best textiles and cuts them into suits for the gentleman who himself cuts a dashing figure and the lady who know yachts with the same familiarity as boardrooms. It’s no coincidence that Loro Piana suits have deep pockets; after all, quality comes at a price. Refreshingly, though, Loro Piana also has a discount outlet where the goods from last season are marked down from the mouthdrying prices applied in the world’s high-rent retail outlets to render them merely expensive here.
Fine fabrics are also found in one of Piemonte’s most unusual hotels. Villa Crespi, a member of Relais & Châteaux, is located in Orta San Giulio, a small town on the eastern shore of Lago d’Orta, the smallest, most westerly of Italy’s glacial lakes and the least visited by the casual tourist. Orta has long been a happily discreet getaway for the industrial élite from Milan and Turin; those not lucky enough to own one of the beautiful villas around the lake can find material comfort at Villa Crespi, whose landmark Moorish tower rises above the town amidst a private park. A fantasy of architectural whimsy built as the private home of the Crespi family, who counted King Umberto di Savoia as their guest on several occasions, Villa Crespi today welcomes gourmet travellers from many countries, including Switzerland, who think nothing of driving to Orta just to have dinner prepared under the watchful supervision of chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo, whose name may be a mouthful but one not nearly as tempting as those listed on the menu at the Villa’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant, where the seats are as smooth as the sauces.
On the other side of northern Italy in Venice is Fortuny, one of Europe’s most fabled fabric makers. Given its centuries of history as a trading empire, it comes as no surprise that Venice has seen extraordinary cloths come and go through its ports; that tradition of fine fabric lives on today. From its demure headquarters on Giudecca, away from the crowds of St Mark’s Square, Fortuny dresses the rooms and furnishings of some of the world’s most lavish homes— though ostentation is the antithesis of the Fortuny creed, which emphasises quality and exclusivity above flashing the cash. As with all the best products, employee dedication to excellence is of paramount importance; it begins with the example of Director Giuseppe Iannó and plays a role in the work ethic of every Fortuny employee.
To experience Fortuny firsthand, stay at the peerless Hotel Cipriani, also on Giudecca, and enjoy fine fabrics in situ. One of the most famous hotels in the world, Cipriani understands the importance of high quality and provides it in abundance in every aspect of the hotel experience. Not surprisingly, Cipriani and Fortuny are BFF; visitors coming to Venice to discuss their bolts of fabric at Fortuny find that Cipriani makes a perfect bolthole as a bastion of excellence in elegant accommodation.
Article by Robert La Bua