As a fash­ion house from an an­ti­quated town­ship turned into an em­pire, it should have had to grow up and leave home. This is why MaxMara didn’t, and couldn’t. By Alice Bir­rell.


The story of Ital­ian fash­ion house MaxMara and the an­cient town it still calls home.

Their names are Roberta, Paola, and San­dra. They are here not in per­son, but in wardrobe form – tai­lored sleeves, sharp shoul­ders, patent shoes, a belt – in the ar­chive ware­house of Ital­ian la­bel MaxMara on the cusp of city Reg­gio Emilia’s his­tor­i­cal cen­tre in north­ern Italy. “When she passed away she do­nated to me two coats,” says Laura Lusuardi, MaxMara’s fash­ion di­rec­tor, ges­tur­ing at a col­lec­tion of cream tai­lor­ing and mixed prints, from Chanel to Zan­dra Rhodes and Ossie Clark. “This is her per­sonal wardrobe; she only bought MaxMara,” she con­tin­ues about an­other. “She auc­tioned her cloth­ing in Mi­lan, but it was too quick. I couldn’t keep up so I didn’t buy any­thing, but I had fun,” she re­mem­bers as she moves be­tween the racks, draw­ing back black cur­tains that pro­tect the clothes.

Since join­ing the la­bel as a teenager in 1964, Lusuardi has in ef­fect be­come the house’s ar­chiv­ist and DNA cus­to­dian, and has built a 24,000-piece col­lec­tion in part from women who have given her their wardrobes. “We saved her wardrobe, ac­tu­ally, oth­er­wise it would have been given away,” she says be­fore she moves to Au­drey, Coco and then Carine … Hep­burn, Chanel and Roit­feld, that is. This par­tic­u­lar way of or­der­ing the three-story ar­chive, in­clud­ing the col­lec­tions of MaxMara, she ex­plains, pre­serves cloth­ing as it ex­isted in women’s liv­ing wardrobes. “We have the names of the per­son be­cause this is ob­vi­ously her style,” she says as she nods to the text clipped to the front of each sec­tion. “We keep the clothes to­gether.”

The build­ing is one of the spokes in a wheel that fans out from the town cen­tre and in­cludes MaxMara’s head­quar­ters, fac­tory, its art in­sti­tu­tion hous­ing founder Achille Maramotti’s art col­lec­tion, and the ar­chive. “If you end up com­ing here you’re usu­ally will­ing to give me some­thing … I’m al­ways avail­able,” she says with a sly smile.

They’d be eas­ily wooed. The cob­bled streets of the sec­ond-cen­tury BC town just south of Mi­lan are lined with pas­tic­cerie, and salumerie sell­ing hefty slabs of parmi­giano reg­giano and dainty de­canters of Mo­dena bal­samic. Restau­rants serve cap­pel­letti reg­giani, or stuffed pasta in clear broth. Look again and the vin­tage bou­tiques are filled with MaxMara’s and Anne Marie Beretta’s de­signs, the woman re­spon­si­ble for the la­bel’s iconic 101801 camel coat, while a healthy por­tion of the restau­rants, one of which the house owns, have Miche­lin star plaques just un­der their daily spe­cials sign.

They are as em­bed­ded in the town, the birth­place of Maramotti, as can be. “The whole idea of fast fash­ion – a lot of peo­ple who are en­gaged in it are ac­tu­ally scared of it,” cre­ative di­rec­tor Ian Grif­fiths later says at the ex­pan­sive glass and steel head­quar­ters. “Ev­ery­one’s look­ing for some­thing that has more mean­ing. They’re more par­tic­u­lar about whether they visit a new city, about where they’ll stay, the car they’re driv­ing, how it’s af­fect­ing the world they live.” It is part of the rea­son MaxMara is happy telling the story of a tiny re­gion that gave rise to a global busi­ness with stores in 105 coun­tries, and hasn’t moved from the town since its found­ing by Maramotti in 1951.

The flip side though, to telling his­tory’s tale, is let­ting it weigh too heav­ily on your pre­sent. Grif­fiths, who writes the la­bel’s four sea­sonal chap­ters, knows this and says he finds mod­ern rel­e­vance in Maramotti’s prin­ci­ples. “When he launched the com­pany, he wasn’t in­ter­ested in countesses and princesses, be­cause they’re all slen­der and beau­ti­ful and got all their clothes for free; he was in­ter­ested in pro­vid­ing clothes for real women,” he says. “Reg­gio Emilia is very much a real town. It’s one of the few towns in Italy that doesn’t have a noble fam­ily.”

He points out that Maramotti, raised watch­ing his mother run a dress­mak­ing school preach­ing clothes to fit the woman, not the other way around, had both nearand far-sight­ed­ness, the for­mer for so­cial trends that Maramotti par­layed into clothes. “He knew women were start­ing to drive cars, start­ing to work in­de­pen­dently, he fore­saw the rise of ready-to-wear in Paris, the demise of cou­ture,” says Grif­fiths of the post-war pe­riod. As a re­sult he did away with a misura, made-to-mea­sure, bring­ing in time-ef­fi­cient ready-to-wear.

Never though, Grif­fiths thinks, was he stuck in­side the im­me­di­ate sphere of his ex­is­tence. “Any­thing he de­cided to en­gage with he did with full knowl­edge and re­search,” he re­flects. “He be­came very in­flu­en­tial within the world of Ital­ian art. He con­trib­uted to the de­vel­op­ment of the 1970s move­ment Arte Povera. He wanted to be­come in­volved with agriculture so he be­came a re­ally in­formed per­son on the cul­ti­va­tion of parme­san cheese; it was his un­der­stand­ing of the world.”

Part of that was col­lab­o­ra­tion – now a hall­mark of the in­ter­net age – which be­came a way for Maramotti to plug into the world at large. He in­vited, anony­mously, ex­ter­nal con­sul­tants to work on col­lec­tions; not many clien­tal might know that their coat, their trousers, had been con­ceived of by Karl Lager­feld, Jean-Charles Castel­ba­jac, Nar­ciso Rodriguez or the Proenza Schouler de­sign­ers.

That spirit of in­no­va­tion is ap­plied to things like the la­bel’s newer Whit­ney bag, the sur­face leather ca­joled into three precise ver­ti­cal lines. “We had to com­bine Tus­can leather tech­niques with laser tech­niques; lasers mark out the precise point on the leather skin and crafts­men, where the laser has weak­ened the leather, raise it into a pleat and stitch it by hand,” says Grif­fiths.

The same blend of old and new is poured most di­rectly into MaxMara’s tent-pole pieces: coats. At a third-wheel spoke, Man­i­fat­tura di San Mau­r­izio, fac­tory di­rec­tor Giuseppe Bacci ap­proaches qual­ity in a philo­soph­i­cal man­ner. About 20 dif­fer­ent coat styles are be­ing made at the time of vis­it­ing, each re­quir­ing roughly 100 steps each to com­plete and each un­der­go­ing six qual­ity checks. He stands over a ‘mat­tress’, or lay­ers of dove-grey fab­ric, ready to be cut by laser. Each piece then gets a se­rial num­ber used to track it from start to fin­ish, with one coat com­ing from the same piece of cloth. “One layer, one coat – this is it,” he says of en­sur­ing ut­most con­sis­tency of colour and tex­ture. “We don’t mix the pieces: we re­com­pose the jig­saw.”

In the next room, ded­i­cated seam­stresses hand-fin­ish but­tons, pock­ets and lin­ing, though 20 per cent of the work­ing staff are trained across dif­fer­ent sta­tions to bring flex­i­bil­ity to the pro­duc­tion line, should some­one fall ill. “She is very good at this,” he says as a seam­stress folds plump wool to cre­ate a but­ton­hole. Else­where a young ap­pren­tice is be­ing tu­tored on belt stitch­ing, while liq­uid gold lin­ings are hot pressed by sur­pris­ingly young women nearby. Three and a half per cent of prod­ucts fail qual­ity checks and so get sent back, via the se­rial numbers, to the er­ror point.

New staff mem­bers at MaxMara in­vari­ably do ‘coats ed­u­ca­tion’ with Lusuardi to fa­mil­iarise them­selves with all this. “Even if the new mem­ber is in charge as an ac­coun­tant, or not deal­ing with fash­ion it­self, it’s im­por­tant,” she ex­plains. “It’s not a ques­tion of a de­sign team com­ing in with a new cre­ative di­rec­tor who wants to rev­o­lu­tionise and run the risk of throw­ing away all that his­tory, be­cause of the fact that MaxMara re­lies on staff,” echoes Grif­fiths.

Time is spent fos­ter­ing young tal­ent much like Maramotti. “Younger peo­ple have changed MaxMara,” Lusuardi says cit­ing the way they wear the 101801 over ev­ery­thing. “They pay more at­ten­tion to qual­ity.” The de­sign ethos of the la­bel – based on func­tion and qual­ity to slot into real life – Grif­fiths posits, has been mal­leable enough to move with the times. “I think that’s one of the rea­sons that makes the brand ap­peal to younger women,” he says. “At a time where there’s just so much stuff, it sim­ply doesn’t sig­nify any­thing. MaxMara does sig­nify some­thing.”

Back in the ar­chives, we have moved to the ground floor, where MaxMara coats in khaki, navy and but­tery camel hug one an­other in neat rows. Lusuardi pulls one out, util­i­tar­ian pock­ets on the front, the shape of which hasn’t dated. “This is from the 80s,” she says, “but you could wear it now.” She ad­dresses a full rack of 101801: “This coat is re­ally per­fect; it works if you are tall or pe­tite. If the sleeves are a bit long you can fold them up so. Ev­ery woman should have a time­less coat.” And per­haps it one day might end up right here, in the ar­chives in the small town of Reg­gio Emilia, un­der a yet-to-be-known woman’s name.


Two fac­tory work­ers in­spect a fin­ished coat.

His­toric marvels in Reg­gio Emilia, a sec­ond-cen­tury BC town two hours out of Mi­lan. MaxMara has been a con­stant in the lives of lo­cals since 1951.

In Reg­gio Emilia, a re­gion famed for its pro­duce, MaxMara owns a dairy pro­duc­ing of­fi­cial parmi­giano reg­giano.

At the house’s ar­chives, the la­bel’s fa­mous 10180 coat hangs among vin­tage cou­ture and his­toric cloth­ing col­lected from cul­tures all over the world from the 20th cen­tury to to­day.

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