Made in Italy: Time for accountability

Prato

The Made in Italy label is a source of pride for every Italian. You see, Italians have fashion in their blood and style in their DNA. It’s not surprising that more than 4 million of them tuned in to watch the RAI3 documentary Schiavi del Lusso, or Slaves of Luxury, on Sunday evening which revealed a slimy world of underpaid immigrant labour, huge price mark-ups, and what was portrayed to be undue influence from American heavyweights like Anna Wintour.

Schiavi_del_lusso This is not the first time that the industry has come under attack in recent months. The Dana Thomas book De-Luxe and the WWF Deeper Luxury  report have called into question the ethical and environmental practices of major luxury companies. While the first two have only seemed to generate a discussion within the luxury industry itself, RAI 3′s televised approach seems to have struck a real chord with end consumers. Since the television show was aired on Sunday, many Italians have been up in arms and have stormed the RAI 3 website with comments of indignation and Italian bloggers have been propagating the dicussion.

The most damning of the revelations in the documentary had to do with Italian manufacturing by major brands such as Prada, Ferragamo, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace. Behind these huge names are thousands of people who work as subcontractors in small manufacturing facilities dotted around the country. (In the same way that parts of Italy are known for certain types of food, other parts are also known for specialised cottage industries in various luxury manufacturing disciplines. San Maoro Pascoli, Riviera del Brenta, and Fermo/Macerata are known for shoes, Prato is known for knits, etc.)

With increasing pressure to compete with Asia on cost, some of these independents have been cutting corners, buckling under the pressure of the major brands who want to be able to keep some of their specialised manufacturing at home, but only at the right price. In response, some of the small companies started importing illegal Chinese labour in order to reduce costs.

Most of the named brands refused to respond to RAI 3′s questions, except Prada, which deserves some credit for joining the debate, but which still needs to help solve the problem as opposed to making excuses. Prada’s Tomaso Galli told Rai:

We have two different kinds of inspectors, those who check quality and those who control the working conditions of the suppliers. But we’re not the police and our inspectors do not have an unlimited access to all areas and documents. Regrettably, situations like the one described in the show, which we agree are unacceptable, may occasionally occur notwithstanding our controls, but they are odd and the show did not bother to mention what the overwhelming reality is.

Fair enough. The tele-journalist could have told a more balanced story, but if Prada and others agree that these situations are unacceptable, then they must take responsibility for them and ensure that they don’t happen. If they are going to put their name on the product, they must be able to stand by it.

While some companies like Brunello Cuccinelli have had success with self-imposed ethical codes, others like Prada have clearly failed. The best response instead would be to define clear and enforcable industry standards, to which all the major players sign up and which are transparent to consumers. An external organisation made up of representatives from these companies could then take responsibility for policing the codes and upholding every company and manufacturing facility, large or small, to the same standards. This should be as much a part of saving Made in Italy as many of the other initiatives being undertaken by Italian Institute for Foreign Trade.

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11 comments

  1. If the “Made in Italy” label has been questioned about their ethical practices, would this also apply to “Made in France” labels? But I’m wondering, have companies like Nike and The Gap truly suffered business-wise when they were guilty of using poor sweatshops? How has the news affected luxury companies like Prada in revenue? Or how can this affect luxury companies as a whole if the public knew about their unethical practices?

  2. I read something in the Times earlier this year about Italian factories which are owned and staffed by Chinese immigrants, which lends a new meaning to the term “Made in Italy”: with Chinese labor practices and standards. One of the biggest issues for China as it attempts to makes its exports desirable in more ways than price is how to change percpetions of the quality of what it produces. It’s funny that, with globalization and immigration, one can buy an Italian product made by Chinese, so country of origin is no longer a sure indicator of quality. About the quality of French luxury exports: has anyone ever looked at one of those generic-looking Louis Vuitton bags? Care to place bets on what impoverished developing country they come from?

    Anjo from Stanford, CA, United States
  3. Thank you for drawing attention to the seedier side of luxury manufacturing. While most consumers are aware of the questionable labour practices involved in the manufacturing of counterfeit luxury products in China thanks to periodic campaigns by fashion publications such as US Harper’s Bazaar and France’s Comite Colbert, few are aware that Italian manufacturers have been quietly staffing their factories with illegal, underpaid immigrants to cut production costs. I would be very interested to know whether France’s factories have succombed to similar pressures as the “Made in France” label entails very similar production constraints. The same question applies to “Made in Switzerland”/”Swiss Made” labels. Helene The Luxe Chronicles

  4. @All: You are all raising some interesting questions and we’ll have a look into them and see if we can surface some answers. I think the question about France in particular is an interesting one. My hypothesis would be that there are fewer of these small laboratories which could fall off the radar screen of police and government authorities, and therefore go unnoticed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the average size of a facility in France is significantly larger than these labs. And, since many factories in France are directly owned by the luxury houses or have longstanding relationships with the brands (Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel, etc.) the brands themselves are more closely involved in managing these operations. @Dahlia: I think it might be a reasonable assumption that Luxury consumers may be even more sensitive to the ethics of production than mass consumers. Even the Gap’s mass customer base has been up in arms of late (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2204881,00.html) And therefore, there is even more reason to sort this out. That said, I also believe this is a matter of principle and values. Regardless of the impact on the financials, it’s unseemly for any company to be allowing these practices to continue for the manufacture of goods under their (very valuable) name. Beyond exclusivity, design and craftsmanship, the Luxury of the future may also entail strong ethics. (Incidentally there is also significant follow-on risk of having even just one branded product tainted by these kinds of accusations — it coudl affect a company’s entire brand). @Anjo: Just because something is made by a Chinese person, doesn’t mean of it’s of poor quality. Those Chinese working in Italy may be using the highest quality of materials in age-old manufacturing techniques. Even in China itself, designers tell me that while not the general rule, there are some factories that can deliver exceedingly high levels of quality.

  5. I can attest that some of those Chinese knock offs can be incredibly well made. A lady I used to work with had a Louis Vuitton key holder (looks like a small wallet) made out of soft leather and had a beautiful lining, I thought it was real until she told me she only paid $5 for it, and the snap on buttons were engraved with a chinese name (while a real one would have the LV name on them). Otherwise it was perfect. So I wouldn’t underestimate the craftsmanship of the Chinese, they’re smarter than you think.

  6. @Business of Fashon: Of course quality of work doesn’t correspond to ethnicity, but what do consumers associate with Chinese-made goods? Most recently, poisoned pet food. But thank you for mentioning the higher-quality factories in China, that is a welcome development.

    Anjo from Stanford, CA, United States
  7. Oh, great that you brought this up, and the question of ethical luxury (or guilt-free luxury: if there is a hint of guilt, on all levels, you’ve gotta deal with it, and not cover it up by mere stylish awareness, like eco, or restraint-design). It was all over the newspapers in my country. Aynway, I’ve seen a documentary on Zara a few months ago, and I distinctly remember that they too have people who control all of their suppliers and manufacturers. I think that’s a good idea. Also, I remember what a successful businessman in my country said once: you basically have to be the concierge of your own hotel. You’ve gotta be acquainted with every aspect, and every supplier and manufacturer. See it yourself, talk with people yourself. What is troublesome also is the fact that magazines have so much power (show schedules should not be made to please magazine editors). And the deals they make (*cough*Wintour*cough*). Just the fact that designers think of editors is a bad sign, as the Report on Rai 3 showed. Plus, editors forming these tight nepotistic groups, and doing brand consulting on the side. I’m not saying that that is immediately corruption, but it smells like it (favors, etc.). And even if it’s not, just the fact that it can come across as shady, is a good enough reason for NOT doing it. Sozzani made a mistake if she indeed worked as a consultant, involving her son and partner. Too many interests clash here.

    Marko from Radovljica, Bohinj, Slovenia
  8. @Marko I can clearly see what you mean, but what I was thinking of is that it must be a real professionalism for someone not to mix up their jobs. I guess one can perfectly be an editor and make something apart and these world don’t necessarily collide. Of course there is a room for some kind of indulgence and pressure of public relations at its’ best but I do believe this only happens when a. designer/brand is really worth it (which is good) and b. the editor is not that professional he/she should be (which is bad, but really happens). But at the same time it’s clear that person who had made his/her impact on the clothes (brand vision) would find them rather good-interesting-spectacular-you-name-it to use in the editorials or feature stories and I believe they will be used in proper way taking the creative side of the project to its best. I can imagine Lucinda Chambers putting Marni stuff on the pages of the british Vogue, just as Carine Roitfeld’s and Emmanuelle Alt’s visualizing their love for Gucci in Paris Vogue. What IS important is how much personal taste and artistic process overweight personal ambitions and (maybe) vanity. Who can tell, right? Just yesterday I was reading winter07-08 issue of 10 Magazine and was rather impressed by the story featuring Roland Mouret. As one can guess 10′s Editor in Chief, Sophia Neophitou consults Mouret for ages (sort ot). Anyway, does that mean Mouret got this story becuase of their collaboration or should we pray his very talent and insist it ‘s just a matter of ‘what’s hot now’? Fashion is all about hope and belief in the best.

  9. Increasingly, we will see that consumers care about that goods are ”Made by Prada (or other brand of their preference)” and not by the “made in Italy”. The brand alone will be representative of quality not the origin. Most important is to judge the goods and not where they are made. I, too, see increasingly high quality coming out of China and achieved – surprise surprise – by fair means, workers start 8-9am, 1-hour lunch break, and all clock out 6pm, in fact, they work less hours than UK – my working day rarely ends at 6pm.

    Camilla from Havant, Hampshire, United Kingdom
  10. First, to Imran: You have a stellar website and thoughtful opinions. I have just discovered it today and will be returning more and more. As for this debate, I am late in the discussion, but after having worked in production in Italy I have seen firsthand some very interesting things. 1. Chinese workers eating in 15 minute shifts in a Chinese restaurant in the factory town of Scandicci. They literally don’t speak and just shovel food into their mouths, leave the table after 15 minutes only to be replaced by the next shift. This happened three times while I was having dinner at one of the more authentic Chinese eateries around Florence. Shocking? Yes! Makes me wonder what their living conditions are like… 2. Prada decamped to China for the production of the hardware on their accessories, only to return with their tails between their legs because the quality was shoddy enough to be noticeable to the end user. Consequently, they are back with a phenomenal factory in Florence (Scandicci) that just spent millions on environmentally friendly practices, uses amazing technology and employs Italians at wages that honor their level of craftsmanship. Somehow this company has managed to retain a market niche (quality, innovation and reasonably competitive price points) and as a result they serve the best brands. 3. The rules for labeling something “made in Italy” are lax enough that shoe uppers, half-completed handbags, and many other parts can be shipped in from India, China, Romania to Italy where they are finally assembled and stamped with the coveted mark of Italian luxury. Bottom line? Just because it SAYS made in Italy doesn’t mean it is. FYI: Lambertson Truex, Rickard Shah, Jimmy Choo. Those guys are paying true Italian craftsman to do their work. As for the other biggie brands? I wouldn’t bet on it.

  11. Just a Note…yes it is seedy. Yes the label no longer demarcates where the product is made(info from an inside source) but where its finished… DESPITE all this, making Luxury goods is not easy nor something a up n coming designer can afford(sequins made ethically in paris cost about 24-48euros(some even 200euros) vs china made 8-10dollars per hank) What I guess I trying to say is…chill. Yes some aspects are not as ethical etc…but then comes the question of people complaining, asking critizing the prices…look to get the best you gotta sometime pay out the nose for it..I know. I think as a independent designer, I make about 20cent-2dollars(on a good day) per item I do for private clients. Why because materials cost about 60% then service charges(shipping, gas) finally time…which can take days or wks. Finally why the foreign labor…easy no one under 30 heck even 25, wants to work an unglamorous, stressful business. So yes where do you go to get labor? the 3rd world.

    ET from Bréhand, Brittany, France