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Transforming Tradition

NEW YORK — Italians love life. They revel in good times, from daily two-hour feasts to month-long holidays each August. They’re justly...

Picchi’s wool in a cape at Marc by Marc Jacobs fall 2002
Jackytex’s jersey at Max Mara spring 2003
A Luigi Boggio Casero tweed at Prada fall 2002
Ratti’s Pop Art-inspired prints at Versace spring 2002

NEW YORK — Italians love life. They revel in good times, from daily two-hour feasts to month-long holidays each August. They’re justly celebrated for pursuing everything with passion, whether it’s food, love or even textiles.

From the earliest of times — historians report that as far back as 715 B.C., wool dyeing was established as a craft in Rome — fabric has been part of the fashion equation in Italy. Today, while the country continues as a front-runner in textile trend direction, each region has its specialty — Biella for fine wools, Como for silks and Prato for more moderately priced wools. Italian fabric makers export an estimated $440 million worth of product a year, garnering Italy an 8.1 percent share of the market worldwide. Much of this is accomplished by family firms whose members pass on their love and knowledge of fabrics from generation to generation.

Recently, WWD visited four very different mills, all firmly rooted in tradition and forging ahead despite a tough economy.



Luigi Boggio Casero

For the past 32 years, Luigi Boggio Casero has operated quietly in Biella, in the northwest. And by Biella standards, that’s not very long, since the area’s textile industry dates back to 500 B.C. Currently, the region houses 1,800 textile companies, most of which specialize in high-end wools. Founded by Luigi Boggio Casero and now run by his two sons, Nicola and Eugenio, the small mill did $20 million last year, producing more than one million meters of fabric. While the firm focuses on luxury novelty wovens for the women’s market, it produces less expensive goods as well, with prices ranging from $10 a yard for basic novelties to $60 a yard for a double-faced cashmere.

With today’s short lead times, the key to doing business is to speed up production without compromising quality, according to Mario Melchisedecco, sales manager and North American agent. "The way we do that is to get close to our customers, to develop a relationship and to understand what their needs are so we can act immediately," he says. With that in mind, Melchisedecco spends two weeks each month in the U.S., working closely with clients such as Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman. European customers include Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Armani and Max Mara.

"Fashion changes every month," says Nicola. "There used to be two collections a year. Now, we build on the collection every month with the use of a new yarn or the introduction of a new design or texture." The firm produces exclusively in Italy, either at its main site equipped with 50 looms and four warp machines, or at a contracted off-site facility, where large-volume orders for basics can be filled in as little as two weeks.

"Boggio Casero always manages to combine creativity and quality, which isn’t always easy," says Michael Kors, a customer since the Eighties. "They are flexible and open to new ideas, which is a dream for a designer."

Dana Buchman, who has worked with the mill for four years, echoes Kors’ praise. "They do the best novelties in Biella," she says.



Ratti

East of Biella and just north of Milan lies picturesque Como, a fabric center for centuries, and where Antonio Ratti opened his silk mill in 1945. The firm, which last year did $130 million, has since moved beyond printing on silk-only bases to include pure cottons and linens; silk blends, and polyester, rayon and nylon, mostly in blends.

Known for its brilliantly colored graphic prints, Ratti is a longtime designer favorite, and worked with Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Miu Miu, Cacharel, Ferré and Valentino for spring. "Antonio Ratti wrote the history of silks," says Donatella Versace, who is a loyal customer, as was her brother Gianni. "He is a legend in the textile industry." For spring, Donatella used the mill’s sunflower and Pop Art–inspired prints.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are also long-time customers, and for spring selected Art-Deco motifs — cherubs, cameos and kissing couples. "Ratti captures ideas and executes them perfectly, all while depicting the most intricate and specific of designs," says Dolce. "They understand the Dolce & Gabbana sensibility and design aesthetic, embracing vivid color and glamour."

When Antonio passed away earlier this year, his daughter, Donatella, took over as chairman and managing director. She maintains that strong customer relations lie at the heart of Ratti’s success. "While we have our own ideas," she says, "we must also interpret what our customers are thinking and help them to preserve their own identity."

Ongoing research and development allows for constant newness. According to fashion director Francesco Di Carlo, a new printing base called promilk, derived from milk protein, "exalts the luminosity of color." An improved rotary machine cuts down on production time on even the smallest of orders, and new washes and finishes deliver antiqued or lacquered looks.

But sometimes there’s no substitute for history. The company’s research library includes 8,000 volumes while the fabric archive houses 150,000 fabrics, each constantly inspiring new designs. Says Ratti: "They’re like a dream."



Picchi

Based in Prato, just north of Florence, Picchi produced mostly outerwear fabrics when Francesco Picchi set up shop in 1947. Since then, the family mill has evolved into a leader in competitively priced wovens used in better, contemporary and bridge sportswear lines. It’s client roster includes a broad range, from Zara, Gap, J. Crew and Liz Claiborne to A|X Armani Exchange and Marc by Marc Jacobs.

The mill, which did $38 million worth of business in 2001, has the ability to produce up to 30,000 meters a day. It specializes in yarn-dyed wools and wool blends for winter and linen blends for summer, with 70 percent of its business in the women’s market. Equipped with 36 looms which are updated every five to six years, Picchi also owns a factory in Poland with 150 looms, where 70 percent of production is done.

Today, the mill is run by Francesco Picchi’s son Piero and grandsons Francesco, managing director, and Filippo, general manager. Recently they changed direction to focus on a smaller range of selections. "We cannot be everything to all people," says Piero. "What’s important now is to offer something that has been proven to work either in terms of price, quality or service. So instead of offering 200 qualities, we’re offering 50. Now is the time to be smart."

Piero’s plan also calls for exploring uncharted markets. His current favorite: Russia. Picchi recently opened an office in Kiev to accompany the office in Moscow, established four years ago. "Although [the Russians] are not seasoned in manufacturing, I believe that it will get better," he says. "The novelty fabrics we create are something they don’t have access to there, so they really appreciate these looks."

Recently, the mill premiered its Filopuro line, which, at $8 to $14 a meter, is priced slightly higher than the regular collection. Dreamed up by Francesco and Fred Rottman, president of the New York office, it features lighter, more refined fabrics. "It’s a move away from the heavier fabrics we produce to cleaner, more tailored fabrics," says Francesco.

His goal with the line is to offer a better quality of product for a competitive price. "You can’t try to be the least expensive anymore because someone is always going to be cheaper. Now, we have to focus solely on the product, not the price."

Michael Maccari, vice president of product development at A|X Armani Exchange, looks to Picchi for all-important basics. "The fabrics are always tweaked with a special finish or an interesting blend," he says, noting Picchi’s superior service as well. "Without being aggressive, they will approach me with new novelties that they feel will fit nicely into my line. They work very hard on new developments for us, such as a more pressed woolen cloth that retains a soft hand."



Jackytex

Jackytex, a jersey mill in Tuscany’s Chianti region, established its $20 million business by catering to a niche clientele, the luxury knit market. "It is essential that we keep our business small so we can control all of the merchandise," says president Piero Giachi, son of Valerio Giachi, who founded the business in 1972.

Today, the mill runs 70 looms, half for basic jerseys and half for such fancy qualities as velvet, embroideries and fils coupes. Jackytex goods, which range from $12 to $50 a meter, are used by Gucci, Prada, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana and Max Mara. "They trust us immensely," Giachi says of his clients. "In the last two or three years, especially, they simply don’t have the time to really develop knits, so they depend on us to work with them to create new ideas."

Given the industry’s ever-shrinking lead times, this is no easy task. "We have to develop readily available goods that are commercial, but still different and unique," Giachi says. "This is the challenge." And increasingly, clients expect quality at a price. "One solution," according to Giachi, is using more blends, "so we spend less money on the yarn and more on the finish."

Laura Lusuardi is design director at Max Mara, which has had a 15-year relationship with the mill. "They use avant-garde research to create wonderful fabrics for us," she says. "They’re also a great overall partner." Case in point: For spring, Lusuardi wanted a drapey jersey. Jackytex delivered with a fabric that could easily drape, suspended from a collar at the neck. "This fabric was a collaborative effort," she says.

Giachi notes the constant need for research and development. "Customers need something new every two months — a design, a finish or a blend," he says. "We serve an exclusive niche market, which means we need to completely concentrate on our product. Jersey is all we do. It’s like a culture that we have to preserve."

Yet he believes that tradition goes hand in hand with daringness, and encourages the industry as a whole to take more chances. "Just because the economy is suffering doesn’t mean we have to," Giachi says. "It’s important that clothing not become unimportant. It’s a challenge, I’m sure, but retailers around the world need to take more risks because in life, if you don’t take risks, you will never succeed." Spoken like a true Italian.