One year into the worst crisis of a generation, the nation’s artisanal trades may — finally — be on the upswing.
For the ancestral footwear factories that dot Italy’s eastern coast, March is one of the busiest months. Not only do these four weeks arrive smackdab in the middle of manufacturers’ enormous spring deliveries, they also usher in the lucrative resort season, too. So as the Northern Hemisphere begins its annual defrost, Italy’s family-run operations are shuttling their lush silks and buttery insoles across the globe for you to wear all summer long.
Last March was a different story. With a pandemic on the rise, Italy became the first western country to implement a national lockdown. Suddenly, everyday gathering places like restaurants, bars and shops were closed for the foreseeable future — and so were the factories that, in some cases, employ the better part of entire towns. By May, these factories were in real, grave danger of closing for good.
“The real risk is that this network of companies could die,” Matteo Pasca, the director of Arsutoria School, a Milan-based institute for design and technical training, told me while in quarantine last spring.
In early May of 2020, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte enacted a gradual plan enabling factories to resume production in phases — and this was when the hard work began. With consumer demand essentially changing overnight, how could manufacturers accordingly pivot their businesses while still celebrating the generational craftsmanship that has made “Made in Italy” what it is today?
It’s been nearly a year since I last spoke with Pasca. At the time, his forewarning felt more ominous staring down the rabbit hole of a pandemic than it does now, with a global vaccine rollout in progress. Still, Italy’s factories aren’t quite out of the woods just yet. They are, however, more resilient — and maybe even better-positioned — than before Covid-19 hit 12 months ago.
This, of course, is excellent news. In Italy, family-run apparel and accessory factories are part of the country’s culture. With the majority of operations hiring locally and promoting from within, generations honor the proud tradition of passing their skills onto their children. Their labor isn’t something that can be replicated, and to do so, Pasca told me last year, would launch Italy into an economic crisis.
“To be able to have these high-quality products, you need to have high-quality people making them because this job is really labor-intensive,” he said. “You cannot substitute the workers with the machines. If you lose the people, you lose the value in the products.”
Reda, a leading Italian wool mill in the foothills of the Alps, is considered a more recent addition to the factory landscape. Still, it’s more than 150 years old, having served Italy’s historic Biella region since it first opened its doors in 1865. Established by local entrepreneur Carlo Reda, the mill was passed onto Carlo’s son Giovanni, until the Botto Poala brothers, descendants of a renowned textiles lineage, acquired the business in 1919. Today, Reda is run by the fourth generation of the same family, led by CEO Ercole Botto Poala with the support of his cousins, Francesco, Fabrizio and Guglielmo.
In the century since the Botto Poalas took over, Reda has earned recognition throughout the region for its consistent, exceptional quality and industry-leading innovation. In 2020, it even became the first textile company in Italy and one of the first worldwide to receive the B Corporation certification. But as apparel executive Salvatore Giardina reminds me, Reda is still, above all, a family enterprise.
“It’s important today to tell the story of the mill, not just the garment manufacturer, because when you’re buying that garment, not only are you buying the legacy of that garment factory, but you’re buying the legacy of that mill,” says Giardina, who also serves as an adjunct professor in Textile Development and Marketing at FIT. “You’re buying a family business. And just how we want to protect family businesses in the U.S., we should do that with Italy.”
Which is why, when the first spate of lockdowns began sweeping Italy, factories quickly faltered. Mills like Reda may supply some of the largest, most prominent manufacturers and fashion houses with its wool, but they’re still delicate operations, tucked away in quiet communes. In normal, non-pandemic circumstances, that’s what makes their quality so spectacular.
Immediately, the issue became not the factories themselves, but the supply chains. Last I heard from Pasca, an entire season was left unsold. In the span of just a few weeks, retailers were no longer fulfilling their orders from their manufacturers, so manufacturers were no longer fulfilling their own orders from the factories that support them. But the factories had already invested in the material, leaving their supply chains in the lurch. Giardina offers the example of a woman who provides all the buttons for the mills in her region: “That person would have probably been doing that for 20 years,” he says — now, she went unpaid for her labor because no one was buying blazers to sit on Zoom at their kitchen table.
“Where retailers have a lot of inventory still to sell off, mills have a lot of uncut fabrics that are yet to be made into garments,” explains Giardina. “And there’s so much inventory floating around in the marketplace today, in the form of garments or end fabric. Manufacturers can literally go through a season of not even buying raw material because of cancellations.”
So where does that leave factories, now a year into a market blow that has — more or less — rendered entire categories obsolete? As expected, they’re largely down across the board. Financially, Giardina estimates that dip may be to the tune of 70%, in some cases, “which is catastrophic.”
Last spring, I also spoke with Rosanna Fenili, a product manager who oversees quality control in footwear factories all over the Tuscany and Le Marche regions. This includes San Mauro Pascali, a commune that has served as the regional capital of high-end women’s shoe manufacturing since the 1830s. In Italy, the footwear industry is so small, Fenili estimated she knows or has partnered with 70% of the artisanal shoe factories across the country. When Fenili returned to work on May 4, she noted a cautious optimism on the factory floor. Everyone, she said, was just happy to have work to do.
When I catch up with Fenili again more recently, she explains that her clients have been hard at work to stay hard at work. The crisis has separated the wheat from the chaff in the sense that those factories with already-lukewarm quality haven’t had much success in a COVID-19 world, and have closed. The vast majority, however, have trudged ahead with the renewed sense of rugged confidence.
“Many things have changed during this period in Italy, and have improved, I think,” she says. “Obviously, there are factories that are going to close. All the quality factories, the historic factories, are working a lot, some of them more than before the pandemic. They’ve changed. They’ve understood that something needs to be different in the organization.”
After the initial shock of the spring, factories have spent the last year investing in technologies to enable new categories, like loungewear, that require unique material constructions. For some of Fenili’s most seasoned clients, these new systems have also changed the way they’ve done business.
In Italy, Family-Run Factories Are Part of the Culture. What Happens If They Close?
Workers Who Form the Backbone of the Secondhand Market Are Especially Vulnerable in a Time of Pandemic
For Behind-the-Scenes Shoe Designers, the Glory Is in the Craft
“Using new machinery, factories can be faster,” she says. “They can deliver in a shorter time. Especially when you sell online, time is important — because when a brand sends an order, they need the shoe as soon as possible.”
In the footwear world, equipment like lasting machines — of which there are no less than 15 different varieties, according to the National Association of Italian Manufacturers — can automate the creation process entirely. What’s more attractive to Italian manufacturers, though, is that they can complement handcraftsmanship while still expanding production capabilities. But they don’t come cheap: Lasting machines alone can run anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 for something truly top-of-the-line.
“What mills are trying to do now is diversify to make other types of products,” says Giardina. “That’s not so easy. Because you have to have major investments in machinery, the products you make have to be competitive in the marketplace, and you have to make sure that your product is competitive enough in terms of price. One can’t just flip a switch and enter a new category overnight.”
In order to make these investments in the first place, many mills have had to make cuts, most notably in the output of fabric being produced. To this point, however, the factories’ workers have been protected with the Cura Italia decree, a federal ban on the dismissal of employees for economic reasons, with retroactive effect. This January, the Italian government extended Cura Italia through March 31, but it’s already mid-February, and furlough protections are now running out — unless the order extends again.
“The situation is difficult, but it is life,” says Fenili. “You know that if you don’t invest in your company, sooner or later you’ll stop working. It’s business. But I’m happy that most of the factories are working better than before, so it’s good for Italy.”
Part of that, Fenili explains, is simply because factories are eager to bring in new business — any business, even business they wouldn’t have considered pre-pandemic. As recently as a few years ago, Italy’s factory culture was truly so artisanal that it was difficult for smaller, independent or otherwise early-stage brands to ink production contracts with manufacturers that have had a full roster since the 17th century. If you’re a brand-new footwear brand looking to secure that “Made in Italy” label, now’s your chance.
“Now, these organizations have also had the chance to welcome new brands, small brands,” says Fenili. “It’s very important for the Italian market. And it’s good because a small brand can become a big brand. Factories are happy to work with new, fresh designers because work is work.”
Though Fenili concluded our conversation last year with a sense of buoyancy, the previous 10 months have been especially challenging. To date, Italy has suffered more than 92,000 Covid-19-related deaths — the sixth most in the world — since its very first documented case in February 2020, more than 86% of whom were aged 70 and older. But Fenili is just as hopeful today as she was on her first day back to work last May, and not only because there’s now, finally, a real light at the end of this very dark, devastating tunnel.
The Italians have a saying called, “Finché c’è vita c’è speranza,” translating to, “As long as there is life, there is hope.” It can be interpreted literally now, on the descent of a real crisis that has left millions of Italians grateful for the opportunity to be alive. But it can also be used as a gentle reminder of perspective — that it all isn’t really that bad if you have a job, or beautiful clothes, or family whose company you can still enjoy.
“Everyone is appreciating this moment,” she says. “They did a lot in the last year to be ready for a different way of working, but for now, I see that they’re not nervous. Everyone is curious to see what will happen going in the future.”