As the undisputed global leader of design, Italy’s creative cultural tradition has evolved into a new all-encompassing concept of style, called italianità
Anyone would be forgiven for envying Italy’s legacy. Europe’s fourth largest economy has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country and an artistic heritage which spoils the eyes and senses.
A glorious, humanity-shaping history has played a key role in making Italy the world’s highest expression of ancient beauty. But there is something beyond this imposing legacy. Something that has survived throughout the centuries and still applies to all fields of life: taste.
Centuries have worked exquisitely on marble and stone, but have also sharpened Italian creative minds. This is reflected in its fashion and design industry, which has made Italy a byword for sophistication.
Italians are well aware of how their country’s industry is universally associated with style and class. This reputation has been and still is a huge competitive advantage for a fashion and design sector that has thrived for decades on the ‘Made in Italy’ seal.
Giovanni Anzani, CEO of Poliform, an Italian furniture design company that has recently increased its U.S. sales by 78%, speaks about his country’s talents in a way that is hard to dispute: “Italians are surrounded by such beauty, that it is simply unthinkable for us to create ugly things”.
‘Made in Italy’ automatically endows companies with what Mr. Anzani defines as “the excellence factor”, opening the doors to both traditional and emerging markets. “The strong image of ‘Made in Italy’ has aided our expansion in China, where we currently have eight showrooms,” he explains.
“‘Made in Italy’ is an old concept. It represents the 80s and puts the focus on the production, but we do far more than that. A better definition would be ‘created, crafted and conceived in Italy’. ‘Made in Italy’ does not represent all the amazing intangible assets and know-how that shape our ideas and products”
Founder, Italia Independent
There are many possible ways to refer to this “excellence factor” that lies at the heart of Italy’s distinctive fashion and design industry. Luisa Delgado, CEO of Safilo, a pioneer of the Italian eyewear industry, prefers to call it the “X Factor”, but the concept stands for virtually the same defining values.
Irrespective of how you wish to call its quintessential feature, ‘Made in Italy’ “is related to history and heritage, to how the brand itself makes the difference regarding the quality of the details, the dedicated craftsmanship, the materials applied to develop your product,” Ms. Delgado says.
She knows very well what she is talking about, as Safilo has immensely benefited from its Italian identity and become an international leader which owns two iconic American brands: Smith Optics and Polaroid. “We are committed to this country and are also very conscious of what the real competitive advantages of being a multinational rooted in Italy are,” Ms. Delgado says.
Many countries would just be thankful for being gifted with a door-opening passport such as ‘Made in Italy’ for its companies’ adventures abroad. Italians, however, know that staying permanently at the vanguard requires constant soul-searching and adaptation. The solid reputations of today may no longer work tomorrow, and this is why ‘Made in Italy’, strong as it has been for decades, is in need of an overhaul.
The Italian authorities and the private sector have recently come up with a message that is capable of transcending ‘Made in Italy’. One that, starting from the same traditional values of excellence that characterized ‘Made in Italy’, is able to incorporate a further dimension. The country is rebranding itself to maintain its reputation as a beacon of taste and style for generations to come.
Ms. Delgado has already given us a hint of what this rebranding is all about: passion. While ‘Made in Italy’ successfully suggests impeccable final products, it somehow ignores the process, the human touch that has made such perfection possible.
The Italians want to bring this hidden dimension to light by emphasizing the ‘Live Italian’ style: the story behind the factory and the product, the inner genius of a designer or an entrepreneur, the innovative mindset that permeates the whole Italian industry. The latter is not just a cold system that regurgitates predictably classy products as part of a standardized routine. It is an industry that has actual names and surnames, personal stories that need to be told and that are inseparable from the vast array of cultural attitudes that define Italy.
There is no possible translation for the word that defines this new concept. Only a word can grasp its full meaning: ‘italianità’. It is an all-encompassing concept that goes way beyond ‘Made in Italy’ as it cuts across industrial sectors and puts them together into a unique Italian experience.
As Giulia Chimento, Partner and Event Manager of Venini – the world’s most renowned Murano glass designer and producer – puts it: “I travel all over the world, 200 days per year, to the U.S., Asia, China, India and Europe. ‘Made in Italy’ for customers is not just a brand, it’s a way of life. They love the way Italian people live, the way they behave, the way they dress, the way that they refurbish their houses. It’s a way of life.”
Lapo Elkann, founder of Italia Independent, a design company famous for its sunglasses made of carbon fiber, is extremely vocal in defending the shift to italianità: “I don’t like the expression ‘Made in Italy’ at all. It is an old concept. It represents the 80s and puts the focus on the production, but we do far more than that. A better definition would be ‘created, crafted and conceived in Italy’. ‘Made in Italy’ does not represent all the amazing intangible assets and know-how that shape our ideas and products”.
At first sight, italianità is a sophisticated notion that can be difficult to understand. But there is a trick to quickly get to the core of this concept: just imagine what it’s like to literally fall in love with Italy. Imagine visiting the country, being seduced by its art and history, indulging in its cuisine… And then think of the next step: would you not fancy bringing a piece of Italy with you back home? What about a suit, or a pair of sunglasses, or an exquisite piece of furniture, or whatever that can remind you of the unique Italian design and tradition for the rest of your life?
This is the kind of feeling that italianità wants to instill in people’s minds: a perfect Italian experience that is driven by feelings: it is no longer about the excellent inherent qualities of a given product, but about the way the Italians consume it and symbiotically live with it.
Left: “We know how to invest our money and we benefit from our strategies. All the technological innovations that we use were designed and created within the company. The secret is to avoid imitating others” Claudio Alfonsi, CEO of Fedrigoni Group
Center: “Italians are surrounded by such beauty, that it is simply unthinkable for us to create ugly things (...) The strong image of ‘Made in Italy’ has aided our expansion in China, where we currently have eight showrooms” Giovanni Anzani, CEO, Poliform
Right: “We are committed to this country and are also very conscious of what the real competitive advantages of being a multinational rooted in Italy are” Luisa Delgado, CEO, Safilo
Indeed, Italy’s excellence is primarily the result of dedication and passion. The words of Claudio Luti, CEO of the Italian furniture design company Kartell, are a testament to it: “Italy’s ecosystem is very peculiar because our SMEs strive everyday to create something new and innovative. I haven’t found such a strong willingness to develop innovative products anywhere else in the world”.
A feelings-based approach like the one espoused by italianità is also a way to highlight the strengths of a local fashion and design industry that relies on artistry, not on low production costs. It does not thrive on imitation and standardization, but on human creativity.
In other words, italianità speaks about an industry that is a far cry from China’s mass production, where designs are often copied, serialized and distributed across the globe at unbeatably low prices. Mr. Luti puts it candidly: “I can’t go to China, because we work in a risk-prone and innovative environment”.
Certainly, ‘Made in Italy’ and italianità are not about emphasizing low prices as a competitive advantage. On the contrary, they speak of companies that boast of using the best human and material ingredients and reject relocating to cheaper production bases outside the country.
Ferruccio Ferragamo, chairman of the internationally renowned luxury goods company Salvatore Ferragamo, knows how important it is for the company to stick to its national roots: “We have received suggestions to move our production outside. But we are what we are because of Italy. The ingredients that define ‘Made in Italy’ are fundamental for us and we will never compromise on them.”
High quality requires investment, cutting-edge ideas require talent, and inspirational marketing strategies will fail to make any impact if they are not backed by a reality that matches its message. The elements that characterize Italy’s industry cannot be cheap.
Claudio Alfonsi, CEO of Fedrigoni Group, a leading manufacturer of high-quality paper with a turnover of €977 million ($1.1 billion) in 2015, prefers to focus on innovation and originality rather than numbers: “Our leadership is not only about our figures. We know how to invest our money and we benefit from our strategies. All the technological innovations that we use were designed and created within the company. The secret is to avoid imitating others”.
Fedrigoni Group has a strong presence in the U.S., where it is the owner of Illinois-based Gummed Papers of America (GPA). The company has also become a world leader in the luxury packaging and label business. “The secret of our success is that we are able to do things that our competitors are not able to deliver,” Mr. Alfonsi says.
Armed with a better-polished marketing strategy, the Italian fashion and design industry is ready to continue conquering the world, and a big part of its charm offensive will focus on the U.S. Riccardo Monti, former chairman of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), says that this year ITA is investing in the U.S. more than it spent last year globally: “Americans say ‘put your money where your mouth is’. We are doing exactly that”, he says.
Major players in the private sector are following suit. Mr. Anzani of Poliform affirms that “the American market is of strategic importance. Increasing our presence in the American market is certainly one of our major goals” and announces “in September we will open our Madison showroom with a 1,200-meter space. Madison Avenue is quickly becoming a design district.”
Marketing efforts should concentrate on upholding the very elements that make Italy unique: its quality, passion and lifestyle, its italianità.
Mr. Anzani explains it eloquently: “Italy tends to tell two different stories, namely one belonging to the public and the other to the private sector. We have truly a fantastic country which has been mismanaged for decades”.
Now that things have started to change at the public level, it is up to the Italian industry to find a way to thrive on the back of its country’s improved reputation.