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The Evolution of Pitti Uomo, Part II: New Frontiers and Building Brand Pitti

Since its inception, Pitti Uomo has grown into the largest and most influential menswear trade show of its kind. In the second instalment of a two-part series, we examine how Pitti Uomo became a global player.
Attendees of Pitti Uomo 85 in 2014 | Photo: Enrico Labriola for Pitti Uomo
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FLORENCE, Italy — In its first phase of growth, Pitti Immagine Uomo evolved from a trade show hosting 30 brands to a formalwear destination which dominated the Italian menswear industry and played a key role in the emergence of Italian fashion on the global stage. But Pitti Uomo's next chapter would see the breadth of its horizons increase dramatically. In a move which would become the fair's greatest evolutionary leap to date, Pitti Uomo began to welcome, and indeed actively seek out, the best menswear designers and producers, not only from Italy but from around the world.

Uomo United

“It was thanks to Marco Rivetti that we switched from national to international and that we started working strategically with the city of Florence.” Rivetti, the patron of Gruppo Finanziario Tessile (GFT) who pioneered designer and manufacturer branding, was appointed president of Centro Moda in 1987, the organisation which became Pitti Immagine in 1988. “Our view was that we would not just support the Italian manufacturers but also the international menswear industry. We feel Italian but we think globally,” said Napoleone.

“Many people were not positive about the opening of Pitti to other [non-Italian] brands because they said this will effect our business,” Claudio Marenzi, president of Sistema Moda Italia, explained. “In my opinion it was exactly the contrary. Now you can find in the same place the best selection in the world, simplifying the life of the big buyers.”

Tom Kalenderian of Barneys New York concurred, “Pitti Uomo is an emporium, a collection of amazing talent, which is such an incredible luxury in terms of providing to the buyer the ease of walking from booth to booth, without having to drive from city to city. As the show grew, as the show became more international, it became even more valuable because then they were working with people from other countries, other than Italy.”

The diversification, which Rivetti’s focus on internationalisation brought about, has inured Pitti Uomo to the trials and tribulations stemming from Italy’s economic issues, which although comparatively recent, are seemingly long-term. “We have continued to be successful because we started looking to the international market many, many years ago," said Rivetti. "Governments in past years unfortunately didn’t take care of fashion so we had to jump [over] higher and higher obstacles to be successful. What we have lost from a consumption point of view in Italy, and we have lost a lot a lot of shops and the small companies not in the international market, has been balanced by the international market.”

Adrian Joffe, president and chief executive of Comme des Garçons, believes Pitti has been critical to the development of menswear. "They're one of the leaders of menswear fashion and I think more and more they're trying to push it forward and be very progressive. It's an established pillar."

“Today men dress completely without rules,” Napoleone added. “I don’t know if Pitti Uomo caused this change, but we have been very careful of finding out the new themes due to the kind of attendees we have had in the last few years. We look a lot for people with very deep fashion culture and feeling. Years ago, we started this new line of ‘Menswear Immagine’ way of dressing, but we also decided it was the moment to look to the small tailors ready to be more industrialised, but safeguarding the made by hand, the real made to measure, those with huge research in fabrics and shapes, [and] safeguarding the quality.”

To Scout, To Serve

“The mission of Pitti is to develop the best brands and manufacturers, and select for the buyers the best, not only in Italy, but in the world. Today we consider Piiti Immagine Uomo like a magazine. We try to set up new families of brands by travelling all over the world, doing real scouting and finding out what we think are the new tenants of menswear and the new design talents,” Napoleone explained.

Scouting new designers is now recognised by buyers as a core facet of the Pitti Uomo proposition. "They've been good at pushing the boundaries forward and inviting various designers to come on board and do guest show spots," said Joffe. Indeed, Pitti Uomo has hosted some of fashion's biggest talents. Yohji Yamamoto, whose first monographic show also incidentally took place at the festival, Raf Simons and Rick Owens were all guests at the festival in just 18 months. "Their eyes are all over the place," Joffe added.

The Pitti Immagine board takes a strong position in maintaining the qualitative content of the fair. "We are independent. The reason why we are so successful is because compared to the other trade shows or promoters we are not the son or daughter of a national association. Pitti belongs to Centro di Firenze per la Moda Italiana and we pay them a license fee, 2.5 percent of our turnover," said Raffaello Napoleone. "But, we are not conditioned or constrained from the association. If there is a member of the Centro di Firenze per la Moda Italiana who has an awful collection, we don't give him one square metre. We really choose. It is a meritocracy, we are the directors of our movie, and if the actor is not a good one for that kind of part of the movie, we do not write any contract with him. The fair is invitation only," Napoleone continued.

“The selection that they are making of the brands is very sophisticated and very advanced. Sometimes it gives direction to fashion. The Japanese market, which is in my opinion the most sophisticated for menswear, looks a lot to the Pitti selection of brands,” said Marenzi.

Attendees at Pitti Uomo 85 | Photo: Enrico Labriola for Pitti Uomo

Rivetti, the architect of Pitti Uomo’s internationalisation, initiated another key strategy integral to Pitti Uomo’s success. “In 1989 we wanted to improve the show in terms of what was being shown, but also the experience. So, from the beginning of Pitti Immagine we built a relationship with Florence, to use the city, which is a treasury of masterpieces and a showcase of a good way of living, to benefit Pitti Uomo. Giovanni Battista Giorgini started it, really. Right at the beginning in the Sala Bianca, at the Palazzo Pitti, there were balls and parties, all beautiful. It remains true today. You cannot be successful in our business by only focusing on scouting designers; the environment the buyers are passing through really matters.”

The environment, the brand selection, the defence of its independence and its early implementation of a global outlook all fundamentally relate to Pitti Uomo’s overarching concern: the satisfaction of the 21,000 attendee buyers, which also played a role in motivating Pitti Uomo to become an early adopter of digital technology.

Digital Frontiers

“Digital has been another of our winning selling propositions compared to the other trade shows. We started with M.I.T in 2003, 2004. We went to Boston to find out the way to use the new technologies to improve our impact to the market, to our community. Initially, it was a disaster, but fortunately we didn’t promote this. Finally we understood what the technology should be used for, so we started e-Pitti. Now we have millions of pageviews through our mailing list,” Napoleone shared.

“We began the e-Pitti project in July 2010, tested it in January 2011 with just 65 exhibitors, and then launched the full platform in June 2011,” said Francesco Bottigilero, chief executive of Fiera Digitale, an independent digital company of which Pitti Immagini owns 75 percent of its shares, with the remaining 25 percent belonging to Bottigilero, “We were the first to launch an online fair in our industry,” he continued.

“We have more than 1,000 brands that are showcasing their collections at Pitti Uomo, and in essence a buyer can see only a little share of the exhibitors’ collections, so we said, why don’t we give to them an online tool, an online platform, where they can go back to their offices, sit down comfortably and have the ability to search the enormous quantity of the fair? They can discover new collections and new trends, increasing business development,” Bottigilero explained.

The platform is equally focused on those exhibiting at the fair. “For 1,000 exhibitors, many of whom are overwhelmed by visits during the fair, where you can hardly enter their booths, or the exhibitors that people did not have time to reach, it works also. They can see who the buyers were that visited them online, they can profile them and start some kind of connection through the platform. The major aim of the platform is to multiply opportunities for business development, with the fairest offering to our users, both the exhibitors and the buyers.”

“It should be best companion that we can realise and implement to help the physical fair to be more efficient in terms of business development. Our competitors have a Yellow Pages approach, a directory of contact information; at Pitti Uomo we take 60,000 photos to represent the richness of our fair and the collections,” Bottigilero added.

“Then we said, why don’t we help them in collecting orders? So we built a tool for buyers and exhibitors to negotiate and close orders. The first idea was an e-commerce platform, a B2B market place, but we closed this in 2013, as it was not financially viable,” he continued.

E-Pitti is a closed platform, only open to exhibitors and buyers, but the fair’s presence in the digital sphere is vast thanks to digital media and the street style phenomenon. A flood of aspirational photographs depicting the glamorous men of Pitti Uomo has given the fair both visibility and traction in the consumer market, furthering the Pitti brand.

Brand Pitti

Surprisingly, Pitti Uomo’s current incarnation as a fashion festival attractive to both industry insiders and fashion savvy spectators did not, as many may believe, begin with the street style phenomenon in 2008. Although street style has had a huge impact in increasing awareness of Pitti Uomo, the fair as a festival was conceived of well before its emergence. “Back in 1989 Marco Valleti had the view that Milan was not the place to organise a big event like Pitti Immagine Uomo, the idea was not to organise a trade show. The idea was to organise a festival about menswear,” said Napoleone.

“We feel and we know that the Pitti label is a real label today, but can we give what we have been doing with Isetan Mitsukoshi. Isetan Men’s opens each season with a co-branding with Pitti, where you can shop all eight floors, with 190 suppliers, just from Pitti. They are doubling their turnover in menswear thanks to the Pitti collaboration. This means something, especially in Japan, Pitti is not anymore just a show or a trade show; it is a label, it is a brand,” he continued.

The existence, reach and importance of Brand Pitti has not gone unnoticed by the Italian authorities. Today it is being utilised as a key aspect of rebranded Italy. “Pitti Uomo is a destination point for buyers, media. It is there that we can reinforce and show them the heritage of Italy and the business together – Italian brand equity and the business opportunities, the real flavour of Made in Italy, which is not only linked with the image, but also linked with the craftsmanship, the technical capabilities and the renaissance tradition – which is all Pitti and Florence,” Carlo Calenda, Italy’s vice minister for economic development, stressed.

“The main success of Pitti now is as a meeting where everybody is. It is not like Milan, London or Paris. Everybody is together in one place, and you can find everything in that place. You can talk with the big buyers, the big journalists, the editors. If you really think, it is a menswear convention,” Marenzi concluded.

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