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A Centuries-Old Culture of Embracing Change

An Italian institution founded in 1663, the longevity of the Vitale Barberis Canonico business is a testament to its willingness to embrace new ideas.  BoF sits down with its 13th generation guardian, Francesco Barberis Canonico, to hear more.
Vitale Barberis Canonico has been at the forefront of Biella's rich textile manufacturing history for centuries | Source: Courtesy
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BIELLA, Italy — Situated just north of Turin, in the town of Biella, the headquarters of Vitale Barberis Canonico have nestled in the foothills of the Italian alps since 1663. Run by the same family for thirteen successive generations, the company has sat at the forefront of the town's rich textile manufacturing history for centuries. Today, the mill sells to over 80 countries internationally and employs over 440 people.

Vitale Barberis Canonico is one of largest and oldest mills in Italy. It is also one of the few to be vertically integrated from farm to fibre — that is, it owns sheep, largely in Australia and New Zealand, and undertakes the dyeing, spinning, weaving and finishing processes in house. The business has also acted as something of a pioneer when it comes to the integration of new technology with generations-old processes.

The task of keeping the company's prestigious heritage up to date falls to its current guardian, Francesco Barberis Canonico. While studying economics in London in the '90s, Barberis Canonico fell in love with Savile Row's tailoring and eventually made his way to leading the family business. During his tenure as leader, the executive has focused his attention on attracting new talent and new ideas to the business and integrating digital efficiency while protecting the craftsmanship that distinguishes his company and his family's products.

BoF sits down with Barberis Canonico to explore the strategies he’s taken to ensure seamless integration of the company’s priceless heritage with innovative new technologies.

Vitale Barberis Canonico's guardian Francesco Barberis Canonico | Source: Courtesy Vitale Barberis Canonico's guardian Francesco Barberis Canonico | Source: Courtesy

Vitale Barberis Canonico's guardian Francesco Barberis Canonico | Source: Courtesy

BoF: How would you describe Vitale Barberis Canonico’s company culture?

FBC: My father was the MD, so occasionally he would take me into the office as a child. I’ve always been aware of the passion and very strong bond that my family has with fabrics, because we’ve been making them for 350 years. But beyond the Barberis Canonico family, Vitale Barberis Canonico is different — it doesn’t just feel like a family, the entire company is a family.

In the Biella area, Pratrivero is a small village with less than 1000 people , a third of whom work with us. What’s unique is that we have many workers who are second, third, fourth generation – so I work with some people whose father worked with my father, their grandfather worked with mine, and so on. People who work here feel as though it is their company, and I treat my employees as if they were my family — they are the most important asset we have.

BoF: How is Vitale Barberis Canonico evolving?

FBC: While the company has always had strong DNA, we didn’t have a brand. We were pretty much unknown to people outside the industry. We’ve been working on this for over 20 years now, and while we’re evolving — Vitale Barberis Canonico will never really be a household name, but I think anyone buying a suit or ordering made-to-measure suits today will come across our brand.

We've done this in two ways. First, by pushing the marketing — we opened a showroom in Milan, we do events all over the world, we supply fabric to a lot more labels, and we do joint branding projects with our customers now. Second, from a digital perspective, and this is only in the last 3-4 years. It's crucial if you want to talk to Millennials, you have to go to Instagram and Facebook where your customers are in order to connect. With such a rich brand history, we're also trying to educate these customers; we want them to look to us as an authority. When people buy their first suit, they Google us and we can give them an idea of what should be in their wardrobe. In the past it used to be your father that taught you these things, but now this generation has changed; they prefer to make their own decisions. I think we can play a really interesting role here.

With such a rich brand history, we're also trying to educate these customers; we want them to look to us as an authority.

BoF: What informs your decision making around the Vitale Barberis Canonico brand?

FBC: We have a very clear knowledge of the end consumers of our product, which comes of course from our 350 years of experience, and this helps enormously when developing new materials. I know, for example, that we have two main customer groups. One is the business customer, he wears his suit from Monday-Friday and wants something that looks smart but is also super-easy to look after. We also have a very loyal customer base who actually enjoy wearing a suit, the customer who puts a suit on to wear to dinner for example, and these are the ones we cherish most because they are always very curious about fabrics. They want to know what makes it unique, what it’s made from, what are its special characteristics and how you should wear and care for it. This guides our thinking at a design level, but also for that loyal customer, this specialist knowledge is something we can share via our digital channels, and bring them further into our world.

BoF: How do you maintain your heritage while looking to the future?

FBC: At Vitale Barberis Canonico we have always done this. However, I know that we cannot rest on our laurels; we have to innovate and make new products constantly. For example, we are currently working on better performance fabrics; people travel more and are looking for fabrics that are crease-resistant and rain-resistant; they want to travel light, so they might only take one jacket, and they want it to be able to perform in all circumstances.

The nature of our business inherently means that we have to anticipate the future, because we are always designing our collections so far ahead. We’re working on SS21 right now, so that’s 18 months before anything will hit stores. A lot of what we do in the process ends up influencing the fashion designers themselves; some people call us “the designers behind the designers.” We also work closely with new technology, for example we have been working with a new CAD system which I personally think will be the future of our business. We can take a fabric swatch, and then, using this digital system, immediately see what a suit could look like with this fabric. For customers, they can take their size and skin tone, and add this in, to see exactly how a fabric would look on them.

BoF: What do you look for in potential future employees?

FBC: I can only talk about my area on this, which is creativity. For me it’s enormously important to have a personality and to have a strong passion. If you don’t like this business, if you don’t have a deep love and respect for textiles, then you should look elsewhere, because that passion, that drive, counts for more than 50%.

Related Article:

Embedding Innovation in a 350-Year-Old MillOpens in new window ]

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Vitale Barberis Canonico as part of a BoF Careers partnership. To explore careers at Vitale Barberis Canonico, please click here

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