Made in Italy | Time for accountability II


MILAN, Italy – A few months back, I published an article about the Made in Italy label, following damaging findings aired in a provocative Italian documentary on the state of luxury manufacturing in Italy.

In the meantime, there has been growing interest in the concept of ethical luxury, but some of the biggest manufacturers continue to flout the rules and standards.

Just yesterday, a new reader of the BoF named Lauren, provided detailed commentary on our previous article Made in Italy | Time for accountablity regarding the egregious behaviour of major Luxury brands which she has observed first hand. Her observations merit further discussion and debate, and so I have included them here.

As for this debate [on Made in Italy production], 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.


Lauren’s comments make us consider whether Made in Italy really means what it used to, and perhaps if Made in China means what it used to, as well.

Just today a well-placed industry contact told me a story of how Armani (like Prada, and many, many other Italian labels) have set up shop in China either by buying up existing Chinese factories or setting up new factories in China, run by Italians — and apparently Armani’shave been more successful than anyone else.

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  1. I think Western consumers have a serious prejudice against Chinese people. In the minds of many, the idea of a Chinese person making their precious handbags is too much to bare. As if high quality items can only be made by Europeans (read: white people). Also, why is it the larger, more reputable brands can’t seem to maintain their standards of quality in their cost cutting? Yet the smaller brands manage to keep their level of manufacturing. I understand the ever-rising costs of advertising and promotion needed to keep the machine and brand going.

  2. I don’t think it has to with whether a product is “white” or “European”. It just has to do with a tradition and a standard of quality that people want in their products that has been retained and improved on since the 19th Century. You have to remember that once upon a time products from Asia (i.e. silks, spices, porcelain, etc) were considered the ultimate in luxury. The industrial and communist revolutions in that continent ended most of that trade at the same time that European luxury started to blossom.

    Aller Farfalle from New York, NY, United States
  3. Justin, I think your comment betrays a simplistic view of what consumers value in a product. It isn’t that Western consumers can’t stand the thought of buying goods made by a Chinese person. Instead, the difference is this: garment and accessory factories in the United States and Europe tend to be small, expensive and thus high-quality. Factories in China and elsewhere are more often huge, employing hundreds or thousands of people, and cheaper. You do get what you pay for. Small brands which produce domestically (within the United States, the UK, France) employ small workforces and can exercise a lot of quality control. If you’re sourcing production to a big factory on the other side of the world which will also be handling jobs from scores of other customers, quality will suffer. So don’t go accusing Western consumers of racism when what you’re really talking about is the loss of attention to detail which comes alongside economies of scale.

    Anjo from Stanford, CA, United States
  4. I doubt consumers will have a long-term issue with the fact items are made in China, provided the quality can be kept on par. I do think, however, where the major labels go wrong is with their lack of transparency in the fabrication process and, in some cases (like LVMH), outrightly lying to the public about where the product was made. In fact, the major brands have an opportunity to educate the world–if they so choose–that the quality can be high AND made in Asia; I refuse to believe the two are mutually exclusive. We only propagate the stereotype that Asian goods are cheaply made with this opacity in the manufacturing process. If we want to empower the Chinese and turn them into the economic superpower/superconsumer that their emerging middle class promises, allow high quality goods with the “Made in China” label to hit the market. And if that causes a drop in the demand for certain products, so be it. Those luxury brands should be forced then to actually do their manufacturing in France and Italy at market cost as their labels indicate. Perhaps LVMH simply isn’t entitled to their ridiculous margins, won at the expense of Asian labor! Perhaps though the world will be pleasantly surprised at the quality of goods coming from Asia. And if it isn’t, at least we can properly course correct and make informed decisions.

  5. Consumers also have a romantic ideal of a brand and what it represents – tradition and quality. The idea of a brand being lovingly made by an artisan who has perfected his or her craft over 30+ years is certainly integral to the idea of what a brand stands for. That is part of what they are paying a premium price for, happily knowing (believing) this artisan is being paid a fair living wage in a first world country. The fact that the goods can be mass produced very cheaply in large factories by an interchangeable and untrained workforce that is paid a very low wage is not what the brand or idea of a luxury item has come to mean. Plus, you associate these brands with the countries they are from. You expect Gucci to be produced in Italy, Prada as well – the history and cultures of the country are also part of the allure of the brand name. Can China produce luxury goods? I’m sure, and they will probably in the future when they develop their own brands that are recognized globally and have a workforce that has perfected its craft for several years. Ports 1961 is perhaps a good example of a Chinese brand that is making inroads globally that is known for its design and quality product. In the meantime though, consumers have the right to full disclosure.

    Alexandra from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  6. I think we need to teach consumers more about what “good” quality means and brands that pride themselves on high quality and craftsmanship should be specific about what exactly makes it like that. There is still that Made in China stigma (my mom recently made a comment that our tea was made in China, which made me ask her, “so what does that mean?”), and I don’t think it will fade any time soon. Another thing is that production has been taking place in China for a while and “we” have been teaching them how to make things and go about their business, so there are those in China that are well equipped with all this knowledge and can create high quality goods, not necessarily in the best working conditions though. If companies want to change the thinking they should give more information to make their made in _______ more credible, and that goes for any kind of product, food, clothes, electronics, etc.

  7. Read Deluxe (How Luxury Lost It’s Luster)- you will learn more about these practices and the state of the ‘luxury’ industry. The book is by Dana Thomas and is a fantastic read; I highly recommend it.

    LA from United States
  8. china can make quality goods. they already do. as a recent university grad, i know many chinese friends that needed suits for their first jobs and went back to buy custom suits that are as good as any in italy for a fraction of the price. they are as nice as anything that’s made in italy etc. I have bought beautifully created bags in china the last time I was in the country. It was cheaper than buying a similar bag that was made in italy but it wasn’t cheap. And that’s precisely my point… the problem is that when companies (luxury or not) take production to china, they expect drastic deals. for example, a company produces something that costs $100 to make in italy (which retails for $500 to $1000 but that’s another story lol) and moves production to china. Instead of picking the factory that can make it for $50, they pick the factory that makes it for $10. Instead of asking what is the difference between the two, they often pick the cheaper one and then blame the poor quality on the fact it was made in china not on their poor choice. This is my opinion based on what I really wouldn’t be surprised if that was what happened with Prada. If people in china can make a $500 45nm computer chip (which is far more complex) I’m sure there are some who can make handbag hardware.

    ni from Toronto, ON, Canada
  9. Regarding the quality of goods produced in China: Thus far, I have seen few examples (in luxury leather- meaning shoes and handbags) of China-produced goods that even come close to the quality of those produced in Italy. The issues with the quality of Chinese production have nothing to do with the ethnicity of the people doing the work. Rather, the quality does not (yet) equal that of Italy because: 1. The Chinese workforce is relatively young and inexperienced. In the matter of hand worked leather, experience counts, and the passing down of the art of leather work via apprenticeships and schools is still happening in Italy, albeit at a greatly reduced rate than it used to. (The dearth of young Italians willing to learn a skilled trade is a cultural shift that has no doubt impacted the luxury industry as well.) 2. In China, there is no such tradition of (and I would venture to say there is even a patent disregard for) the nuances of craftsmanship that make a product truly luxurious. One has only to look at the culturally acceptable business practice of knock offs to see that first hand. Whether they are manufacturing cut rate golf clubs or “Gucci” handbags, some Chinese businesses are growing their market share by cutting corners on everything from leather to labor. 3. The Chinese factories often lack the necessary equipment that makes a truly luxurious product. For these reasons, many of my colleagues believe that it will be at least another decade (perhaps more) before China really DOES emerge as a viable place to manufacture luxury leather goods. Still, more Italian factories are dying by the day, and some luxury brands see no problem with their shady labeling/production setups that are contributing to the end of an era.

  10. Anjo, I think you’re making generalist and misleading statements and accusations by stating, “LVMH outrightly lying to the public about where the product was made”. Maybe you’re not aware that LVMH is not a “label” but a luxury conglomerate with more than sixty brands in its portfolio (many of them leaders in their categories) so when you make such statements please be specific about the brand and the occassion and avoid giving the impression of prejudice. By the way, I think China will keep evolving both in production and consumption just as Japan did.

    Chloé from Courbevoie, Île-de-France, France