MADE IN ITALY

THROUGH RICH TIMES AND LEAN, PRADA HAS NEVER COM­PRO­MISED ON QUAL­ITY – NOT ONLY ITS STORES BUT ITS FAC­TO­RIES EX­PRESS THE DE­SIRE TO BE BET­TER.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING W - STORY DAVID MEAGHER

Lux­u­ry­fash­ion houses have long been com­mis­sion­ing star ar­chi­tects to de­sign flag­ship stores for them, to cre­ate in­spi­ra­tional spaces to dis­play their wares. It’s not for noth­ing that lux­ury stores have been la­belled “cathe­drals of com­merce” by some com­men­ta­tors. Where once the most dar­ing pa­trons of ar­chi­tec­ture were churches, to­day they are more likely to be fash­ion brands. Now some of world’s lead­ing lux­ury la­bels are bring­ing that de­sign magic to bear on their fac­to­ries and, in the process, they’re not only rein­vent­ing how brands pro­duce their highly cov­eted prod­ucts, they’re pre­serv­ing the al­lure that sur­rounds them.

And nowhere is this more preva­lent than in Italy. In Rome, Valentino com­mis­sioned David Chip­per­field, the Bri­tish ar­chi­tect re­spon­si­ble for its min­i­mal­ist re­tail stores, to re­fur­bish its cou­ture ate­lier in the 16th-cen­tury Palazzo Mig­nanelli. Ber­luti asked the French firm Barthélémy-Griño Ar­chi­tectes to de­sign its tim­ber-clad shoe and leathergoods fac­tory in Fer­rara in north­ern Italy. And Prada, which owns and op­er­ates 15 pro­duc­tion sites in Italy, com­mis­sioned Guido Canali to de­sign three of its big­gest fac­to­ries – the most re­cent of which was al­most 20 years in the mak­ing and cost a re­ported €75 mil­lion ($112m).

Fac­to­ries, once out of sight and out of mind for the lux­ury in­dus­try, have be­come a key pil­lar in main­tain­ing a brand’s mys­tique. Like most lux­ury brands Prada is de­fined by its qual­ity, crafts­man­ship and de­sign, but by in­vest­ing sig­nif­i­cantly in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process the com­pany is re­mind­ing cus­tomers of its other trea­sured char­ac­ter­is­tic: its prod­ucts are proudly Made in Italy. Prada chief ex­ec­u­tive Pa­trizio Bertelli told the trade news­pa­per Women’s Wear Daily last year that in­vest­ing in the com­pany’s pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties was a way of em­pha­sis­ing the rel­e­vance of Made in Italy to to­day’s con­sumers.

“We started think­ing of giv­ing an iden­tity to our pro­duc­tion sites in the 90s be­cause we’ve al­ways been con­vinced that our em­ploy­ees work­ing in the plants must know that they con­trib­ute to the qual­ity of the prod­ucts,” he said. “If our tech­ni­cians work in a pleas­ing at­mos­phere they par­tic­i­pate more, they ex­press their skills more. This par­tic­i­pa­tion is an im­por­tant el­e­ment for our prod­ucts.” Prada refers to the three fac­to­ries Canali has de­signed for them as “gar­den fac­to­ries”. They fea­ture large glass walls that flood the work­shops with nat­u­ral light, are full of green­ery and have plenty of out­door space for work­ers to use on their breaks. At one of its fa­cil­i­ties, a shoe fac­tory in Mon­te­varchi in Tus­cany, a green­house screens the fac­tory from views of the non­de­script high­way out­side. The aim, ac­cord­ing to the man­ager of the pro­duc­tion site, is “to soothe the gaze of the worker look­ing for re­lief be­tween one pro­duc­tion batch and the next”, as he told WISH on a re­cent tour. Francesco Lon­ganesi Cat­tani, ex­ter­nal re­la­tions di­rec­tor of the Prada Group, puts it more suc­cinctly: “Our fac­to­ries are de­signed to make work­ers feel bet­ter – hap­pier work­ers make bet­ter prod­ucts.”

To­day Prada has 18 fac­to­ries in Europe, 15 of them in Italy. There is a tan­nery in France, a leathergoods man­u­fac­turer in Ro­ma­nia and a shoe­maker – Church’s, which Prada ac­quired in 1999 – in Northamp­ton in the UK. Prada op­er­ates in 70 coun­tries with 620 com­pa­ny­owned stores (in ad­di­tion to fran­chised stores, multi­brand bou­tiques and depart­ment stores) and has more than 12,500 em­ploy­ees. And while the com­pany has been some­what slower than other lux­ury brands to em­brace the dig­i­tal economy, it will make up for lost time this year. A new global e-com­merce plat­form for the group is ex­pected to launch in Oc­to­ber with Aus­tralia, New Zealand, China, South Korea and Rus­sia the first coun­tries able to buy all Prada and Miu Miu prod­ucts on­line with other coun­tries to fol­low in 2018.

The story of how Prada grew from a sin­gle store in Mi­lan into a one of the world’s big­gest fash­ion brands is the stuff of folk­lore. In 1913 Mario Prada opened a small store in Mi­lan in the Gal­le­ria Vit­to­rio Emanuele II, a late 19th-cen­tury shop­ping mall with mo­saic tile floors and a domed glass ceil­ing next to the Duomo. The store, known as Fratelli Prada, is still there and still op­er­ated by Prada – it is the only com­pany store that doesn’t have the cor­po­rate logo above the door. Mario Prada had a net­work of man­u­fac­tur­ers and sup­pli­ers around the world to pro­duce ac­ces­sories, travel goods, jew­ellery and other lux­ury items. The door of the bou­tique in the Gal­le­ria still dis­plays the orig­i­nal sign which says Oggetti di Lusso, or Ob­jects of Lux­ury.

The store sur­vived World War I and Mario even­tu­ally opened a sec­ond store in Mi­lan on Via Man­zoni. After World War II Mario con­tin­ued with the busi­ness, al­though he closed the Via Man­zoni store, and the busi­ness con­tin­ued on un­re­mark­ably un­til 1958 when Mario died and his daugh­ter Luisa took over the run­ning of it. The store then limped along and, ac­cord­ing to Dana Thomas in her 2007 book Deluxe, which analy­ses the de­vel­op­ment of the mod­ern lux­ury in­dus­try, it be­came a drain on the Prada fam­ily’s fi­nances. Then, in 1978, Luisa’s daugh­ter Mi­uc­cia, a doc­toral grad­u­ate in po­lit­i­cal science from the Univer­sity of Mi­lan, re­luc­tantly took over the run­ning of the busi­ness.

A year later she met Pa­trizio Bertelli. Ac­counts vary as to how they came to work to­gether (Thomas claims they met at a trade fair where he was sell­ing rip-offs of her de­signs), but, re­gard­less, their meet­ing would set the com­pany on a path to be­com­ing a ma­jor global brand. They opened a sec­ond store on Via della Spiga in Mi­lan in 1983; in 1985 Prada de­signed a line of black light­weight ny­lon back­packs with leather trim that were an im­me­di­ate suc­cess – ver­sions of the de­sign are still avail­able in Prada stores to­day. “I wanted to do some­thing that was nearly im­pos­si­ble: make ny­lon lux­u­ri­ous,” Mi­uc­cia Prada has said. She mar­ried Bertelli in 1987 and a year later she de­signed her first women’s ready-to-wear col­lec­tion, which she de­scribed at the time as “uni­forms for the slightly dis­en­fran­chised”. A menswear col­lec­tion was added in 1993, as was a new women’s brand, Miu Miu. In 2011 Prada be­came a pub­lic com­pany listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Ac­cord­ing to the Busi­ness of Fash­ion web­site, “Bertelli’s busi­ness acu­men, mer­chan­dis­ing savvy and un­ceas­ing drive is as much a part of Prada’s global suc­cess as Mi­uc­cia Prada’s de­signs.” Bertelli’s great in­no­va­tion was for the com­pany to own all of the stages of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process. Where it can’t, such as in the pro­duc­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als, it works with part­ners to pro­duce fab­rics on an ex­clu­sive ba­sis. The ben­e­fit of a ver­ti­cally in­te­grated struc­ture is greater in­no­va­tion and a tighter con­trol on qual­ity. A high level of crafts­man­ship is one of the hall­marks of any lux­ury brand, but when you have 620 stores around the world to fill with prod­ucts, main­tain­ing the aura of ar­ti­sanal crafts­man­ship while keep­ing up with de­mand and strict qual­ity con­trols can be chal­leng­ing. Prada, for ex­am­ple, pro­duces 1.6 mil­lion pairs of shoes per year – 1 mil­lion of them for women – in a unique hy­brid of ma­chine and cen­turies-old hand-made tech­niques.

At a women’s shoe fac­tory near Arezzo, Lon­ganesi Cat­tani tells WISH: “Our fac­to­ries re­ally com­mu­ni­cate to the world what we stand for.” The large assem­bly room, filled with nat­u­ral light from a dou­ble-height glass wall at one end, cer­tainly sounds like a tra­di­tional fac­tory, even if it doesn’t look like one. The pro­duc­tion line is ar­ranged from left to right. At one end is a pat­tern­cut­ting room where de­signs are trans­formed from a sketch, to a trompe l’oeil ver­sion of the de­sign made from pa­per and fi­nally into a pat­tern for pro­duc­tion in the fin­ished ma­te­rial. There are roughly 80 steps in the pro­duc­tion of a shoe – how long it takes from start to fin­ish de­pends on the com­plex­ity of the de­sign. A pair of knee-high boots that were on the assem­bly line when WISH vis­ited will take eight peo­ple 24 hours to make. Some parts will be per­formed through cut­ting-edge ma­chin­ery and oth­ers will use a ham­mer and nail, the nails held in a worker’s teeth. It takes eight months of train­ing to be able to work on a pro­duc­tion line like this and there are seven qual­ity con­trol steps for each pair of shoes. “It’s a pro­duc­tion line, yes, but it’s also very ar­ti­sanal,” says Lon­ganesi Cat­tani.

A decade ago, many economists and in­dus­tri­al­ists were con­vinced that the brands such as Prada, as well as smaller and medium-sized busi­nesses that make up the back­bone of the coun­try’s economy, were in ter­mi­nal de­cline. The Ital­ians, they feared, could not pos­si­bly com­pete with ri­val man­u­fac­tur­ing bases in Asia: pro­duc­tiv­ity was too low and labour too costly. But, de­spite eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties in Europe, the Ital­ian fash­ion in­dus­try’s rev­enues rose 1.9 per cent last year, beat­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, and are fore­cast to keep grow­ing in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Cam­era Nazionale della Moda Ital­iana. Sales in the fash­ion sec­tor, one of the coun­try’s big­gest, in­creased to €84.1 bil­lion. The fash­ion and footwear in­dus­try is prov­ing that Made in Italy still means some­thing to con­sumers.

“Our fac­to­ries are de­signed to make work­ers feel bet­ter – hap­pier work­ers make bet­ter prod­ucts.”

W

One of two Prada shops in the Gal­le­ria Vit­to­rio Emanuele II in Mi­lan

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