"In recent years, the meaning of 'Made in Italy' has become opaque.
We take a close look - and uncover Italian brands returning to a rich heritage of manufacturing."
This story has been written by Cutler and Gross, the authority on eyewear since 1969.
THE 'MADE IN' STORY
A change of attitude has swept the luxury goods market. As the home of some of the worlds best known fashion brands, from Gucci and Prada to Armani, Versace, and Fendi, Italy finds itself once again looking at a bright new era for its luxury handmade industry.
Italy has always been associated with classic style. It is perhaps this flattering national stereotype that has played so well to the new phase of global luxury consumption; that indefinable, exquisite good taste that exudes, rather than shouts, excellence.
Italy’s history, then, is playing a huge role in securing its future. Cutler and Gross itself began producing in Italy in the 1970s, in Cadore in Northern Italy, an area renowned for its expertise in the manufacture of eyewear – just as Florence is famed for leather goods and Lombardy for its textiles. In fact, the Italians are generally credited with inventing eyeglasses back in the 1300s. With a production bed based on small, artisanal, often family-run factories, Italy has built a strong and genuine association with quality over the centuries.
It was the expert craftsmanship and time consuming attention to detail that drove luxury brands to become so well respected and prized among the upper classes, particularly in the UK. Those who could afford fine Italian artisan products drove the luxury industry with demand for such accessories as beautiful handbags and silk blouses.
However, a catch 22 situation arose as the world modernised itself. A decade ago, with the boom in cheap manufacture in Asia and other developing regions entering the globalised economy, Italy's luxury goods output took a huge hit. Mass production was not an option. Consequently, many luxury fashion brands moved production overseas to meet huge demand, and home revenues suffered.
The 'Made in Italy' stamp, although it has always indicated quality, suffered a knock as a result. According to EU law, any product may carry the ‘Made in Italy’ tag if it has received its final 'transformation' in Italy; the majority of its production may lawfully have been carried out elsewhere. This legislation only made cheaper overseas production more appealing, dealing another blow to what remained of the Italian handmade Industry.
Although some groups like Aeffe S.P.A, through buying a factory of their own, have maintained their Italian production lines for brands including Alberta Ferretti and Pollini, luxury the Italian way no longer necessarily means an exclusive product handmade in Italy. Instead the term has become simply a marketing tool. It may be attached to brands that had reputations built on craft, but have since pinned their survival to a greater extent on high profile designers and strong PR. With huge turnovers garnered from mass production in Asia, brands enjoyed expendable budgets, enabling them to keep the hype surrounding their products without having to rely on backing it up with handmade, quality products.
In more recent years, as global communication reaches new levels of advancement, it has become increasingly harder for companies to hide behind good marketing and EU law. Slowly, the the lack of exclusivity behind products with a mass-produced provenance has become apparent to experienced luxury clientele. Nevertheless, despite decline in trust in companies who use the ‘Made in Italy’ tag on goods not wholly produced in Italy, the demand for products that genuinely are made in Italy grows and grows.
Another force driving the changes in luxury markets is an increased desire in consumers for low-key, understated fabulousness. While Italy is cashing in on its 'Made in Italy' brand identity, logos on goods themselves are less popular than they have been for decades.
In a time of financial crisis, stealth luxury has replaced conspicuous consumption. Even Asian markets, who have proved to be more logo-happy than those elsewhere, are seeing a move towards logo-less luxury at the top end, with discrete but extravagant leather handbags, for instance, replacing heavily branded counterparts.
In harder times, people also want their top-end goods to be truly durable, not just physically but in the eyes of fashion. Products catering to short-lived trends are losing out to classic design that speaks its quality quietly.
Political shifts and a more knowledgeable buyer have equally enabled and forced brands to capitalise once again on Italy's hard-won reputation, and have forged a real lifeline for their country's luxury goods markets. It seems politicians, too, are finally waking up to the implications of customs law on the burgeoning luxury market. As of 30 September 2013, the European Commission is to present a study of the feasibility of an origin labelling scheme. At last, 'Made in Italy' will once again mean - literally - made in Italy (although it is unclear whether this law will extend to the sunglasses industry).
Indeed, it is its small-scale manufacturing structure that is partly responsible for Italy’s change of fortune. The policy of making less, but making it better, has been an obligatory step for some Italian businesses trying to survive and, as the senior design consultant for Pollini, Kathleen Connors, notes, 'You can't always meet demand and that is meant in a positive way. Sometimes things need to be exclusive.' She continues, 'Italy is an expensive place to manufacture now, but they have the skill and scope to produce beautiful things.' Brands are making their own business compromises based not on EU law, but on the skills for which Italy is best known – leatherwork for instance. Manufacturing is being brought back to Italy's shores, despite the continued economic downturn and potential barriers, such as poor infrastructure.
"The policy of making less, but making it better, has been an obligatory step for some Italian businesses trying to survive."
China is now considered by many to be the world's biggest consumer market for luxury goods. Such emerging economies, which once steered earnings away from Italy, are now pouring money back into the country by spending heavily on genuine Italian-produced goods.
THE CADORE STORY
Forty years ago, a large number of family-run factories operated from Cadore, each producing beautifully crafted, handmade spectacle frames designed locally or by global luxury brands. Since then the number of global brands has increased substantially as glasses have morphed from medical aids to essential fashion accessories.
As a result, specialist global companies have been created to take care of mass production of ‘designer’ frames for the majority of brands under a licensing structure. Of course the pursuit of economies of scale has forced many of these companies to move their productions to Asia, resulting in the closure of numerous factories in Italy.
Cutler and Gross' expansion plans, which required the production of quality, handmade frames, could no longer be satisfied by the small number of remaining factories in Italy. Assuming control of its own destiny, in 2007, Cutler and Gross started to set up own production facility in the region, taking over a 25-year-old family-run factory. In the last five years that factory has been extended and modernised to cope with high demand for the company’s products.
Cutler and Gross is now one of the few global eyewear companies still manufacturing entirely in Italy in its own controlled factory. To avoid any confusion, “Handmade in Italy” is no longer used to label the products, but reference is made to the unique factory in Italy where the frames are produced: 'Handmade by C&G Italy'.
Recent partnerships created by Cutler and Gross stand testament to this forward-looking trend in manufacture based on the county’s history. For instance, recently, Pollini has teamed up with Cutler and Gross’s Cadore factory, and Cutler and Gross has also licensed Alberta Ferretti to make its sunglasses. According to Massimo Ferretti, president of Aeffe SPC, Alberta Ferretti’s umbrella corporation, the appeal of Cutler and Gross as a manufacturing partner is exactly what characterises Italian luxury production in general: it is an 'expression of tradition and quality’.
'Italy has a particular sensibility for art, fashion and design' continues Ferretti. 'Its growth in artisanal production is based on sophistication, attention to detail, the quality of their material and unique design.' Kathleen Connors at Pollini also remarks on the irrepressible style of the country: 'Milan is still the home of design, and almost everywhere I have been in Italy the graphics, colours and style have been thought out, even when it is outmoded'.
To draw on another stereotype, the 'passion' of the Italians was remarked on by Nicholas Kirkwood, Creative Director at Pollini, as he described the importance of manufacture in Italy for the brand. In a recent article, Don Baum, senior vice president of global manufacturing at Polo Ralph Lauren attributed Italy’s success to fulfilling the promise offered by the ‘Made in Italy’ tag. ‘They really love making what they make’.
SHOP-IN-SHOP: You can browse our Cutler and Gross online store here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is reposted with the permission of Cutler and Gross, the authority on eyewear since 1969.
For the original publication, we invite you to read the superb Cutler and Gross magazine here. Warm thanks in particular to Marie Wilkinson, the very inspiring design director at C&G.
TO GO FURTHER
Two must-read articles:
- Can China save Made in Italy?, by Vanessa Friedman (published on FT blogs) where it says among other things: "Why Made in Italy? Because Chinese consumers have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the idea, widely promulgated by European luxury brands to justify their pricing premiums, that Europe is the cradle of luxury and all associated know-how. In other words, the Chinese market players may be the saviors of the luxury industry not just because they buy the goods, or even because they are buying distressed brands (Fung Brands having purchased not only Sonia Rykiel, but also Robert Clergerie and Delvaux), but because they are funding factories."
PICTURE SOURCE Stephanie Rushton