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