Natty Neapolitans spread their fashion secrets to Asia
The cultural kudos of "Made in Italy" has long been a badge of honour in the Italian apparel and accessories industry, which is one of the country's most lucrative export sectors.
So it's no surprise that the Italian Trade Commission has launched an initiative that targets buyers in the growing markets of the Middle East, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea for their "Campania's Finest Menswear" programme, and the first edition of A Fashion Journey to Southern Italy.
The initiative is part of a year-long South Export Project initiative targeting the Campania, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily regions. The kick-off event took place in Naples last month, when international buyers were flown in to meet and greet more than 30 companies from the southern Italian region.
"This is the first initiative of this kind. We believe there is a huge potential in our traditional fashion and style industry in the south of Italy," says Naples-born Riccardo Maria Monti, president of the Italian Trade Agency, the governmental body supporting the globalisation of Italian firms.
"It's a part of the country with an amazingly long history and tradition of handicraft and creativity," he says.
Italian fashion is skewed to the north of the country, with Milan the star performer, holding an important fashion week and the headquarters for big-name brands.
Florence is the historical headquarters of many artisanal crafts, and a cherished place for brands like Gucci and Ferragamo.
Southern Italy has been often overlooked. Its reputation of being less organised than its northern counterpart has not helped matters.
But with brands like legendary tie maker E. Marinella and famed men's tailoring brands Rubinacci and Kiton, the Campania region is hoping to reclaim some of its former limelight, especially in the field of menswear. Hong Kong, which is the seventh most valuable importer of Italian clothing, just behind Russia and Britain, has become a key focus for Italian fashion. Monti admits that promoting some southern Italian labels is a challenge, but says the Rubinacci, Marinella and Kiton brands have recognition.
"Think of Isaia," says Monti, citing the Neapolitan menswear brand founded in 1920, and sold through Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. "Some of these brands are well known around the world. Whenever I meet heads of state, or tycoons, and I tell them I'm from Naples, the chances are that some of them will mention these brands."
Italian men's fashion has a storied legacy, and traditional family run businesses, whether leather goods, shoes, shirting or tailoring, remain at the forefront of top quality products.
But with fashion's current obsession with the new, fashion shows, and seasonal "trends", these more traditional houses have found it difficult to engage press and global retailers.
"If you think of Naples and men's elegance - this is a real legacy," says Monti. "Neapolitan tailors are considered to be the best in the world. It was the capital and court of the country for over 1,000 years, and an ecosystem for crafts and fashion to serve kings and nobles evolved. It's something we have to nurture."
Rubinacci was founded in the early 19th century, and is still family owned; it's now under the guiding hand of Mariano Rubinacci. The label already has boutiques in London and Tokyo. Its dandyish, classic Neapolitan bespoke suiting tradition dates back generations, and it's a coveted brand for fashion-forward men, who can often be spotted wearing Rubinacci's colourful scarves, or the three-fold or seven-fold ties that are still hand rolled at the tips. Chinese buyers at the fair included Water Stone boutique in Beijing - an avant-garde fashion forum that takes risks on bringing in new, undiscovered brands to the country.
International buyers were shown shoemaking at the Francesco Benigno factory, from making the lasts to hand painting the finished leathers. The factory distributes under its own label, as well as making shoes for several other brands.
Tramontano, founded in 1865, a leather bags and goods maker which has made bags for Woody Allen and Hillary Clinton, was also hoping for more international exposure.
The Tramontano owners hosted tours around their factory in the city, and gave behind-the-scenes access to the artisans to show the workings of the brand.
With its high quality products, good brand narrative, some clean, albeit traditional designs and its affordable luxury price point, the brand has potential overseas.
The Diplomatica briefcase line, sleek document holders, Bamboo traveller trunks, arrotolata travel totes, all have global, modern appeal. With sophisticated male consumers in Asia looking more towards boutique brands, the likes of Tramontano could do well.
The problem isn't just distribution or international recognition, as E. Marinella's third-generation owner Maurizio Marinella notes.
It has become a challenge to find young talent in Italy. The textile and clothing sector workforce dropped from 446,900 in 2011 to 412,300 in 2013, with a 2 per cent shrinkage in gross turnover in the sector in that period.
"We wanted to hire 10 more young people this year to expand our business, but we just couldn't find them," says Marinella, who runs the globally renowned Neapolitan tie-maker, which opened a permanent Hong Kong boutique, its first in China, at the Landmark this year.
"Many young people would rather work in a call centre than a factory or atelier," Marinella says. "I do believe that it's very important to promote handiwork as a noble activity," says Monti. "I think the situation is improving, as we've invested in the industry. The programme we have in Naples specifically educates young people about handicrafts."
Monti is quick to remind that Italy remains a global centre for manufacturing and crafts in fashion and accessories, and it's where high fashion labels go to produce their top-tier goods.
"The Italian fashion industry has a much larger value than the German auto industry," Monti says, "so it's really valuable. It's a huge export. Fashion and textiles [and not accessories or jewellery] accounted for €25 billion (HK$241 billion) of export value this year, and it's growing."
"This 'Finest Menswear in Campania' programme was really focused for promoting our brands and crafts in countries and markets where we are less well known. If you go to London, Paris and Berlin, brands like E. Marinella are already household names. But that's less so in other places, so we believe we need to invest in these areas."
There is plenty of possibility, as the tours around the Naples factories showed. According to Monti, fashion pulls in roughly half a billion euros in exports a year in the region.
"This half a billion could easily become three or four billion in a few years if we do a good job," he says.
Developing newer markets is a key way of addressing the imbalance of the fashion and apparel trade in the south.
The appetite for southern Italian menswear of good repute is global, and Campania's brands offer a competitive advantage over many other European labels.
European Union funds have been allocated to the campaign.
"We believe that this is one of the best ways to create sustainable development," Monti says. "The south of Italy has 30 per cent of the population but only 10 per cent of exports. This imbalance is unacceptable, so we need to invest more here."