Made in Italy: inside a nation's billion-dollar business
Oft derided as a mere frivolity, an extravagant indulgence - a shallow and transient whim - fashion’s role as a visual and material symbol of national identity has long been neglected.
And yet, fashion, for many cultures, constitutes a foundational pillar on which national, cultural, and economic standing may be constructed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Italy, the epitome of the opulent luxury of high-end fashion. Nevertheless, beneath this glossy veneer lies a more humble, and arguably humbling, origin. Three little words which elevate Italian fashion to a realm above all others: 'Made in Italy'.
A legally enshrined term, it guarantees that every last detail of a product has been born, bred, and nurtured within the confines of the motherland. Every facet of a garment, from its design to its construction - down to the minutiae of its embroidery is imbued with italianità - reared by the nurturing hands of the peerless artisans. Indeed, these artisans are so tightly woven into the fabric of Italian fashion that even the greatest brands employ their very own in-house artisans, reminiscent of the backstreet botteghe. On their appointment as creative directors at Valentino in 2008, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri proved that a fundamental tenet of Italian fashion is the indissoluble bond between an idea and its making and the quality of that making. Couture is thus the territory of manual experimentation and, crucially, craftsmanship. A symbiotic coexistence of the idea and its realisation. And in turn, this craftsmanship drives creativity, pushing fashion to surpass itself. Fashion is not just a style, it is a perfect execution.
The success of Italian fashion lies in its rich history of regionally diverse artisanry. Handed down from generation to generation, it takes decades to acquire the know-how of these incomparable craftspeople, whose proprietorial pride is translated into the smallest of details. Yet tragically this craft is more endangered than ever. Undermined at every turn by the culture of 'disposability' in which we live, the repositories of knowledge safeguarded within these institutions are vulnerable to extinction. Impeded by the economic necessity of steady employment, the underfunding of arts in public universities, and the nigh-on impossibility of undertaking an apprenticeship, the incentive for the Italian youth to continue their cultural legacy is extinguished with each coming decade. The centuries-old expertise thus vanishes in real time, superseded by the well-oiled machine that is the assembly line.
One would be forgiven for thinking that this is common practice. That the sartorial sphere of every country espouses these values of the national craft. Take, for example, the bastions of British fashion, Mulberry and Burberry, whose publicity spouts phrases professing the iconic and timeless nature of this inherently British luxury. The notion of heritage abounds within their promotion, from mini-films produced by Academy Award-winning filmmakers, to campaigns strategically shot and cast with quintessentially British icons. However, they fail to uphold these values in the realisation of their brand. Crucially, contrary to its humble Somerset roots, a large proportion of Mulberry’s production is outsourced to Turkey and China.
In the modern age, it would be unrealistic to expect a team of artisans, huddled in a shed in the depths of Somerset, to provide the supply needed to support an international fashion powerhouse. And yet I find myself disappointed. For all their rich proclamations of quintessentially British heritage, this appears to be nothing more than a deceptively exploitative marketing strategy (as the recent closure of their factories in Wales, and the cutting of jobs in Northern England would seem to suggest…).
Italy, then, is unique, and this translates into all their products. At Gucci, each piece of leather is treated as a living entity, receptive in its response to the processes of tanning and crusting and coating. No two hides are ever the same. And therein lies its strength; Italian artistry is an antidote to the culture of mass homogeny of the twenty-first century. Ever slicker, ever cheaper, and ever more depersonalised, every aspect of our life promises functionality and necessity. Italian fashion is the antithesis of this. The production of these clothes is a labour of love, invested with passion and pride and centuries worth of innately Italian savoir-faire.
And of course this comes at a (fairly sizeable) price, and yes you may begrudge the hefty price tag, but this beacon of cultural and national tradition is priceless. Until there is another way of valorising this craft, then I am prepared to part with my pennies for the sake of the preservation of what is, in its essence, pure, unadulterated art.