Tie maker keeps eye on quality as it dips a toe into China via Hong Kong

Princes and presidents are fans, and now Maurizio Marinella wants Chinese to wear luxury E. Marinella ties with pride after HK store opens

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 11:53am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2014, 2:06am

What do Bill Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy and the Prince of Wales have in common? For one thing, they are all fans of Italian luxury tie maker E. Marinella.

The family-owned brand from Naples has for the better part of a century been linked to some of the most powerful men in the world. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi would order hundreds of them each month to hand out to heads of state on official visits.

The company, famous for its handcrafted ties with up to nine folds, has never done advertising and marketing but prefers a more intimate approach.

In fact, third-generation owner Maurizio Marinella will not hesitate to personally tie a four-in-hand snugly on his customers and offer them espresso and sfogliatelle in stores.

The brand has, however, gradually expanded its footprint outside Italy. It opened its first Hong Kong shop as a temporary kiosk on the third floor of the IFC mall and will follow it up in June with a permanent boutique at Landmark.

As the company celebrates the brand’s 100th anniversary, Marinella tells the Post how he is expanding this very traditional Italian brand abroad, what a crackdown on visible luxury for China’s politicians means for the company’s outlook in the region and how it navigates the rise of the famously casually attired and non-tie-wearing tech crowd up the ranks of the business elite.

How did the company become famous for its ties?

The first E. Marinella store was opened in Naples in 1914 by my grandfather Eugenio Marinella, who was selling English gentlemen’s goods like Aquascutum trench coats or umbrellas by Swaine and Adeney Brigg or fragrances by Penhaligon and Floris.

You know, at that time, men drew inspiration from English tailors and clothing, and women, from French-tailored clothing. So from 1914 to 1950, we were selling goods coming from England, but after 1950, this was forbidden by an Italian law that prohibited imported goods.

So my grandfather created two laboratories – one for the production of ties and the other for shirts. At that time, Naples was very famous for custom-made shirts and ties, and E. Marinella was one of the brands that started this tradition.

At E. Marinella, everything is handmade, and this is one of the aspects that is much appreciated by our customers, including celebrities and heads of state. For example, Francesco Cossiga, when he was president of the Italian Republic, would gift other heads of state a box of five Marinella ties.

This tradition was followed by Silvio Berlusconi when he became prime minister. He would order 400 ties every month to give to heads of state. We have letters thanking us from the likes of George Bush, Bill Clinton, Charles of England, Gerhard Schroder and Nicolas Sarkozy.

What is so unique about E. Marinella ties? Where and how are they made?

I would say our excellent quality, the handicraft tradition, along with our Neapolitan taste in choosing colours and patterns. Our colours, floral patterns and geometrical drawings are famous around the world.

All our products are created in our laboratory in Riviera di Chiaia. Near it, there is the small boutique, only 20 square metres, and upstairs is a showroom.

It is in our laboratory where every 10 days we receive new collections of silk squares from England. Every three months I go there to choose them.

As you can imagine, the creation of a tie is a complex procedure, but it is important to know that from each square of silk, we can only make a maximum of four ties. We produce five-, seven- or nine-fold ties – which means we need to double the silk, so in that case, from the same square of silk, we would only create one to three ties.

I like the intimate relationship with the customer when it is face to face … we don’t do e-commerce

Why did you wait until now to expand to China, and what is your strategy to compete in such a crowded market?

Ten years ago, I started to expand E. Marinella abroad. We have been very careful and prudent with our expansion.

Regarding China, to be honest, I have always been a little bit worried. It’s so big, and we don’t mass produce – I don’t want growth if it’s a detriment to quality.

When we met our partner for Hong Kong, we felt this was a good first entrance into the market, to test and learn from the consumers here and use this as a potential stepping stone into Greater China.

I think that with the quality of our products and the appreciation of Italian culture, we can induce potential customers to choose E. Marinella instead of other brands. Furthermore, there is no existing brand in this market that specialises in ties and accessories.

We would be differentiated by our product varieties, such as nine-fold ties, and our made-to-measure personalised service. I hope and I am sure Chinese people will appreciate the brand.

How many countries are you present in?

We have stores in Italy – in Naples and Milan – in London, Lugano (Switzerland), Tokyo, Baku (Azerbaijan) and now Hong Kong. We also have shops in Paris at Hotel Four Seasons George V, in Barcelona at Santa Eulalia, and at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.

What are your largest and fastest-growing markets?

Of course, Italy. E. Marinella is also well appreciated in Japan, where there is a loyal customer base. Then, I would say, England and France. Overall, Italy accounts for 70 per cent, Japan 15 per cent, and the rest of the world for the remainder.

Much of your brand’s fame is tied up with politicians and royals. However, President Xi Jinping has cracked down on ostentation, and top officials are avoiding luxury brands. Are you worried this will affect your business?

I am not. As I said before, E. Marinella has never done marketing. It is not a commercial and visible luxury brand but more of a niche brand.

Our customers are people who love high quality, class and, of course, elegance. The most important aim for us is to maintain this philosophy and to convey Italian and Neapolitan tradition and handicraft around the world, especially in new markets like China.

Politicians are not our only customers. Giving or wearing a tie goes across generations and cultures. It is a timeless gesture of appreciation and fashion.

When do you plan to expand onto the mainland ? Will it be by direct stores, department stores or e-commerce?

We have just opened in Hong Kong, which I consider an amazing city that can offer you a lot of possibilities in terms of business, fashion and luxury. I consider Hong Kong the first step to enter China. From here we can observe the customers and business and see how best to enter and expand.

Of course, when we decide to expand the business in China, we need to study strategies and channels to make Chinese people aware of the brand, but I don’t think we will adopt modern or common ways … I mean I would like to maintain and follow the tradition. For example, I like the intimate relationship with the customer when it is face to face, not e-mails.

That’s why we don’t do e-commerce. We prefer to follow the customer very closely and want him to live the experience of E. Marinella’s quality. Finding the right partner who knows our brand and understands our philosophy is very important.

Young people are not wearing suits as much as they used to. If you look at the most recent Forbes billionaires list, many of them are part of the tech crowd, like [Facebook founders] Dustin Moskovitch and Mark Zuckerberg, and in China, too, it’s dominated by tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. These are not companies where you wear ties. What does this mean for your business?

I don’t think it’s necessary to wear a tie every day, but I think it’s important to wear it for the right occasion as a sign of respect, for example when meeting clients or special occasions.

My grandfather used to say that accessories for men are very important. You can wear the same grey suit all your life, but if you change the accessories and the ties, the same suit will appear different. Fashion is continuously changing, but a tie will remain a tie and has done for all these years as a critical accessory for a man. We remain focused on what has brought us to where we are today.

Do you have plans to expand your focus to other product categories?

All these years, E. Marinella has been known mainly for ties, but I would like to underline that we have other products, for both men and women. For example, leather accessories such as elegant clutches, iPad cases, handcrafted umbrellas, scarves and foulards for women. We enjoy coming up with new ideas, but always with a focus on the customer.