NEW YORK, United States — The Italian export value to the US was approximately $9 billion in 2019, making America the largest non-EU destination market for Italian exports, with a rough market share of 9 percent, according to statistics shared by the Italian Trade Agency.
However, as trade shows and fairs, fashion weeks and showrooms continue to experience severe disruptions as Covid-19 containment regulations fluctuate worldwide, the opportunity for Italian brands to connect with global partners has become more challenging—especially for companies lacking the technology to enable international trade.
Seeking to support Italian fashion businesses hampered by the impact of the pandemic, the ITA — the Governmental agency that supports business development of companies abroad, with 79 offices in 65 countries — built a digital platform that allows brands to connect directly with a US audience of buyers, retailers, press and end-consumers.
The platform, EXTRAITASTYLE, launched on September 24 with 80 virtual brand boutiques with individual dedicated brand pages, social media integrations and video streams to present their collections. A B2B forum will also enable brands to interact directly with buyers and retailers, pre-screened by the ITA.
In order to assist SMEs in finding growth, the platform is designed to showcase engaging brand stories, animated, 3D imagery with special effects aiming to engage buyers and retailers through a more interactive experience. The ITA has also opened up the platform to the end consumer, allowing them to browse through the virtual boutique and brand sections.
Now, BoF sits down with Antonino Laspina, the Italian trade commissioner and executive director of ITA in the USA, to hear more about the new platform and the ITA’s long-term strategies to support the Made in Italy market during the disjointed times of the pandemic.
What role does the Italian Trade Agency play in the US?
As a government agency, The Italian Trade Agency supports Italian companies that are typically small and medium-sized companies, blending tradition with innovation. They are also, in some cases, family companies with high quality products but a limited capacity in terms of production.
The ITA has been in the US for many decades and today, the value of US imports of Italian fashion sector products, including shoes, leather goods, textiles, clothes, accessories and jewellery, as well as beauty and cosmetics Italy was approximately $9 billion. We're a leader in this market because small companies trust us.
We help businesses develop strategies so that, in due time, we’re able to bring them to the US market. By working with us, by participating in fairs, exhibitions, these Italian companies are able to build up brand awareness in the US. Under the umbrella of the ITA, we also create a group of companies that participate in Project, Coterie and Collective Chicago.
What challenges do Italian fashion brands face entering the US market?
Sometimes, being small businesses, Italian brands ignore the US market because it is already well-penetrated by other, bigger Italian brands and it can be hard to find a partner. Some of the traditional Italian fairs like Micam and Pitti are often so crowded that is difficult, in such a short space of time for anyone visiting, to make sure that they can get in touch with the right people, the right company.
Now, due to Covid-19, brands will miss the upcoming events in Italy and have missed tradeshows in the US. Before Covid, we already wanted to consolidate the market share and introduce new brands to the US, so we planned to expand our reach with our new platform EXTRAITASTYLE. We decided to accelerate the implementation of the platform to help keep Italian companies in touch with the global market when the crisis hit.
How does the EXTRAITASTYLE platform work?
Each brand that is part of the platform has a dedicated brand page. We use the best assets the brands can provide, then we animate the imagery, utilising high-end technology. These pages tell the story of the brand in a unique yet cohesive style across the platform. We're also offering brands a virtual boutique, through which each label can showcase their own products.
While it operates in a similar way to other platforms coming out now, the difference lies in that the ITA is the coordinator of the platform. Our selected Italian companies are not based on “first come first serve” — we have gone through a long period of selection, with companies filling in applications and providing high-quality materials ready to load onto the platform.
Although the number of Italian companies was limited to 100, we have already surpassed that number, which will force us to expand the number of the companies participating in this platform in the near future. We have then reached out to more than 200 connections in the US that we have identified as interested in doing business with Italian companies. Every connection we make between an American and Italian company proves to us that the platform is functional. We then leave it up to them to forward their business together.
What does the platform offer the US market?
As a buyer, you're also able to reach an exclusive B2B area. We are also aiming to move out of the traditional areas in the US where Italian goods are already well-known and sought after. As a digital platform, it is borderless — it can access people based in other metropolitan areas where smaller Italian companies previously struggled to find a partner to invest in them. So, our aim is to extend our reach outside of Manhattan into other states — we want to show consumers in cities like Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, the excellence of Italian products.
We use local products and materials, a shorter, safer supply chain and increased transparency as the Italian market has an open-door policy.
Buyers and retailers can also communicate with our brands and offer feedback, such as whether they are too focused on this colour or shoe shape for an American audience.
The Italian companies can then respond immediately to any kind of input that comes from the market. Italian SMEs characteristically listen and make additional changes that the market requires. Flexibility is what Italian companies add to this market.
How does the ITA support the Made in Italy culture?
We believe this new platform is a means of education, both for the US market and Italian companies. For the brands using the site, the platform will help them better understand the new world in light of the pandemic, the new global market and means of digital interaction. For the buyers and retailers, Italy is continuously generating brands for the US market to get acquainted with. So, it’s an education in what the Italian market has to offer.
Buyers look to Italy as a source of quality products but another element that strengthens the Italian market is its growing awareness and support of sustainable practices. We use local products and materials, a shorter, safer supply chain and increased transparency as the Italian market has an open-door policy. You can visit factories to see how a beautiful leather bag is made or treated with a certain process that is respectful to nature, and we can communicate all of this through the platform.
We also plan to produce a newsletter for US buyers, to help them better understand the Made in Italy culture and that, when they buy an Italian product, it comes from a certain production area, a certain family, a certain heritage.
Why did you decide to open up the platform to the end consumer?
For the last 40 years, while I’ve been working in this business, the obsession of Italian brands has been to create a distribution channel in a local market — penetration revolved around physical stores and physical goods. But today, the consumer is digital and preoccupied with investigating a brand’s storytelling — but operating in the digital world is difficult and requires a lot of investment.
The American consumer is increasingly concerned about quality, so much so that price is becoming less relevant a consideration for good quality, more sustainable products.
The American consumer more specifically is increasingly concerned about quality, so much so that even price is becoming less relevant a consideration for good quality, more sustainable products. We can connect the consumer with these products more easily. Just as the buyers can learn more about the brands themselves, so too can the end consumer, who can see where the brand is coming from, that it was launched by an artisan a hundred years ago and run by their family still.
What longer-term strategies do you have for the ITA US branch?
We are working on an exit strategy for the future, to have a solution for Italian companies in case Covid continues to affect the January trade exhibitions. We are creating phygital events — combining physical and digital — so that if Italian companies are physically unable to be present, brands and manufacturers can still send samples and have a stand at a fair in New York, for example, and be present at the booth to talk to potential buyers — just through a screen.
The buyer then has the product in their hands, the same product as the factory owner, and they can discuss how many stitches, centimetres, holes in a jacket. The phygital event is going to be not only a short-term but also a longer-term solution, offering small companies the opportunity to connect with the American market without having to travel. So far, the response from Italian companies has been very enthusiastic as many thought they wouldn’t have the opportunity to be a part of such a sophisticated approach.
This is a sponsored feature paid for by ITA as part of a BoF partnership.