Italian designers buckle down to face Asian fashion invasion

Sunday, August 7, 2005

MILAN, Italy -- Italian designers, used to living in the lap of luxury with as much bling in their coffers as on their sparkling outfits, are buckling down to face the challenge from an Asian clothing industry bursting at the seams.

But the growth of Asia's business also creates opportunity. While Italian companies are faltering under the onslaught of underpriced Asian products, demand is rising in the East for the luxury end of the industry for which Italy is renowned.

Experts estimate that the Chinese market for luxury goods will rise to about 250 million people in the next decade.

"We have to think positive, and keep our eyes and ears open," said designer Miuccia Prada backstage after her menswear show for summer 2006 presented in Milan last month. The cheerful stars and hearts that decorated her shirts, bags and even shoes spoke of willful optimism.

On another Milan catwalk, perky young male models sported studded jeans worn so low that the flowered boxer shorts they revealed became an instant fashion item.

"We just have to do what we do best, even better," said Stefano Gabbana, co-creator with Dominico Dolce of the new dropped waistline. The Dolce & Gabbana label became hot in the 1990s, making underwear as outerwear its trademark look.

Like many of their Milan colleagues, Dolce and Gabbana have set up shop in China. They have two second-line D&G stores and a flagship store in Hong Kong, and another store in Hangzhou on the mainland.

"For the leaders of Italian fashion, especially ready-to-wear, going to China accesses a new and very promising market," Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Fashion Chamber, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

He added, however, that small Italian companies were feeling the brunt of the fast-growing Asian clothing industry.

Textile and clothing imports from China increased by 14 percent in 2004, according to Sistema Moda Italia, a trade group. For the first two months of 2005, those imports rose a staggering 128 percent.

Italian officials said China's recent decision to revalue its currency may give them breathing room.

The clothing and textile industry is one of Italy's leading assets. It is made up of some 68,000 businesses; most are small and concentrated in the country's north. Sixty percent of revenues within the sector come from exports.

However, the sector has been struggling in recent years, losing more than $6.3 billion in turnover since 2001, according to Sistema Moda Italia. The downturn has led to the closing of some companies and the layoff of some 90,000 workers.

This May brought more bad news for the industry. According to Italy's national statistics office, production of clothing and textiles fell by 7 percent, while shoe production decreased by 10 percent, corroborating recent reports that footwear from China is treading at a rapid rate on what used to be a flagship of Italian style.

Italy's fashion industry also is being hurt by the flood of Chinese products into all of Europe.

European Union figures showed an increase of 187 percent on "made in China" T-shirts in the first four months of this year. On the fabric end, imports of flax yarn increased by 58 percent in that period.

"Italian fashion is strong because its stylists draw on an outstanding offer of textiles," Boselli said, noting that a decrease in homespun fabrics could compromise the whole industry.

European producers gained some respite in June when the European Union and China agreed to stagger increases in Chinese textile exports over the next three years. However all limits are to be lifted in 2008.

While producers are struggling to keep underpriced clothes from flooding the Italian market, designer label brands are waging another battle -- against imitations, or "knockoffs" as they are known in the trade.

Sold on street corners in Italy's major cities, on the beaches of Mediterranean resorts and even in fashion-conscious U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco, these bargain look-alikes are the bane of a designer's existence.

"For me they are a moral theft," said Sylvia Venturini Fendi, whose coveted "baguette" bag is one of the most copied.

Like other Italian fashion families, the Fendis owe much of their success to Italian artisans. In the heyday of Italian fashion in the 1960s, the seamstress who worked from home on the intricate embroidery of a couture gown was pivotal to every fashion house, from Valentino to the Fontana sisters.

"The more intricate the artisan work, the more difficult it is to copy," said Rosita Missoni, matriarch of the famed knitwear family.

However, craft skills are disappearing in Italy, forcing designers to send their wares to such distant lands as India where labor is cheaper and artisans abound.

Echoing requests from fellow designers, Fendi called for government incentives to keep Italian craftsmanship alive.

"This is the only way to guarantee that our product is absolutely 'made in Italy,"' she said.

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