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.
“THIS COAT IS REALLY PERFECT; IT WORKS IF YOU ARE TALL OR PETITE”
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.