The Quandary of the “Made in Italy” Label

Two recent articles published in the New York Times are like bookends on the Made in Italy label and the economic malaise in the Italian textile industry.

In August journalist David Segal reported from Biella, Italy, at the foothills of the Alps, where he interviewed Luciano Barbera of the famous Carlo Barbera fabric mill for a widely disseminated piece titled “Is Italy Too Italian? From Taxis to Textiles, a Nation Chooses Tradition Over Growth.”

This piece brought back memories of my visit there in 1999 when I was working for the men’s wear newsmagazine DNR (WWDMens). I was thrilled that Carlo Barbera, who was in his ‘80s at the time, gave me a personal tour of the mill. He took me to the grotta, the subterranean cave cooled by the waters of the River Strona, where the yarns sit and rest in wooden crates for six months to a year, in a sort of natural aging process. The theory is that the yarns need time to recover after the stress of the combing and dying process, and they absorb the river’s humidity as it seeps through the grotta’s brick walls. In the Times article Carlo’s son Luciano calls it “the nobilization of the yarn.”

The clothier Luciano Barbera in his family’s “spa for yarn,” where crates of thread rest for months. Economists fear that such small-scale artisanship cannot sustain Italy’s economy forever. (Photo by Dave Yoder for The New York Times)

The mill supplies fabric to dozens of luxury brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, Armani and Ralph Lauren. An executive that I interviewed at Hickey-Freeman for my DNR article said “Carlo Barbera is the premier family of Biella. It has been and continues to be one of the very select mills of the world noted for innovation…. They would rather be very, very good than very, very big.”

But the firm is now struggling financially and its orders are down. Luciano Barbera has been focusing on the “Made in Italy” label and claims that “a growing number of clothing designers have been buying cheaper fabric in China, Bulgaria and elsewhere and slapping “Made in Italy” on garments, even if those garments are merely sewn here.”

He’s now fighting against a new law taking effect in October which would allow manufacturers to use the label if at least two stages of production (out of four) occur in Italy. He maintains that the law “will wreck the national brand, which has long been built on the skill of its craftspeople.”

Barbera advocates for a label “that simply lays out the origins of a garment, stating where its fabric was made, where it was constructed, and so on.” David Segal writes that “Mr. Barbera says he has no qualms about globalization. In his opinion, Italy can’t compete when it comes to low-skill labor and shouldn’t try.” He is hoping that the European Commission will overturn the law. Meanwhile, garments in the collection that he designs are labeled “Entirely manufactured in Italy.”

More recently, Times reporter Rachel Donadio visited Prato, another textile hub located further south in Tuscany. The title of the piece says it all: “Stitched in Italy, by Chinese, Newcomers Redefine a label.” Having been familiar with the efforts of the Italian Trade Commission and its “Made in Italy” promotions, this article was almost painful to read.

The first few paragraphs set the scene:

Over the years, Italy learned the difficult lesson that it could no longer compete with China on price. And so, its business class dreamed, Italy would sell quality, not quantity. For centuries, this walled medieval city just outside of Florence has produced some of the world’s finest fabrics, becoming a powerhouse for “Made in Italy” chic.

And then, China came here.

Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital — enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.

The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.

It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end.

In Prato, Italy, the Chinese manager of a textile factory closed it down after a police raid. (Photo by Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times)

And the following description brings to mind a sweatshop in China:

The work — long hours at sewing machines — takes place in back-room workshops with makeshift sleeping quarters. The heart of the “fast fashion” sector is an industrial area on the outskirts of town, Macrolotto, filled with Chinese fashion wholesalers.

Here, vans from across Europe line the parking lots as retailers buy “Made in Italy” clothing to resell back home at a huge markup. By buying in relatively small quantities and taking advantage of the fluid borders of the European Union, most manage to avoid paying import tariffs.

On a recent afternoon, a couple from Montenegro loaded racks of cotton summer dresses into boxes in the back of their van. The wife wielded a label gun, tagging each dress “Made in Italy.”

Needless to say, the aforementioned scene has little in common with the rarefied fabric production of the Carlo Barbera firm and high-end collections designed by the likes of Luciano Barbera. Simply put, it’s night and day – and a perfect illustration of what Italian designers and fabric mills are up against.


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