The Manufacturing Renaissance
Totems. Fetish objects. Status symbols. Accessories make an enormous portion of fashion brands’ revenue, accounting for almost 30 percent of the total global luxury market. Meanwhile, after recovering from logomania and becoming fed up with “it bags”, fashion and luxury customers are more interested in quality product rather than a brand’s name, and are increasingly …
Totems. Fetish objects. Status symbols. Accessories make an enormous portion of fashion brands’ revenue, accounting for almost 30 percent of the total global luxury market. Meanwhile, after recovering from logomania and becoming fed up with “it bags”, fashion and luxury customers are more interested in quality product rather than a brand’s name, and are increasingly conscious about the role of craftsmanship in the production process.
Here stems the returned interest in Tuscany and Florence in particular, which has preserved a centuries-long heritage of craftsmanship and continues to be the world’s most relevant space for the production of leather goods. It’s not by chance that Florence is home to the prominent Italian fashion houses Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, who have made their names with luxury shoes and bags. Today, fashion and luxury brands from all over the world including Prada, Christian Dior, Chanel, Céline, Montblanc and Alexander McQueen, have their production headquarters in the region. This way they’re able to closely control every step of the creation process and maintain high quality in every step of the supply chain, from the raw material to the final product.
Tuscany: the Luxury District
The secret of the iconic Made in Italy quality is rooted in the unique, local manufacturing system characterised by several distinct features; the first of which is the dominance of small and medium-size companies. Since the employees rarely exceed no more than twenty people in these companies, this small scale allows for close and personal contact between an artisan and a product, thus ensuring a level of quality control unknown to factories with hundreds of employees.
The second feature is that the majority of Italian manufacturing companies are family-owned, where production secrets and techniques are passed on from generation to generation. In this way, traditions of Italian manufacturing are preserved.
The third fundamental characteristic is a high level of specialisation, which means that for every stage of the product development, there is a corresponding, dedicated manufacturer. Then, companies specialised in the linked stages of production form an Industrial District, which is a unique nucleus preserving local know-how, rare technical skills and an Italian entrepreneurial culture of making high quality products.
In Tuscany alone, the Prato district, for example, represents the biggest concentration of textile producers in Europe. Likewise Arezzo is an important district for the production of metal goods; supplying for companies that produce jewellery and metal pieces for bags, shoes and apparel. Furthermore, the majority of tanneries are located in Santa Croce sull’Arno, the area between Florence and Pisa, and Scandicci is the world’s most important district for sample-making and leather goods manufacturing. All in all, the relatively small space of Tuscany covers the complete production cycle of fashion and luxury goods.
The labour of leather bag manufacturers is paid per minute. To produce one leather bag, big fashion brands on average pay 38 cents per working minute. An artisan normally needs 250 minutes to finalise a leather bag. The average cost of one product sample of a leather bag in Tuscany is € 1500.
Grey Zone: Between a Sketch and a Product
Before an “it bag” hits stores it has to be designed, constructed and produced; a process that takes up to three months. Florentine artisans are notably competent in providing the “middle step”; transforming a designer’s sketch into a product sample. This sophisticated and extremely complex stage requires around five weeks to complete and involves thee major procedures: pattern making, prototyping and sampling.
A bi-dimensional template, or a pattern, is first made in paper or cardboard, which is eventually traced onto the final fabric and cut out. These cut-out pieces are then assembled into a three-dimensional product prototype, usually in felt. It’s at this moment that the designer examines the prototype and asks an artisan to make technical adjustments if necessary, for example to rescale dimensions or the length of the handle. In order to carry out the adjustments, an artisan must effectively start from the beginning to ensure all the
pieces of the puzzle fit together.
After the prototype is adjusted and approved by the designer, the artisan moves on to create the final sample, exactly how the finished product should be. Every item from the collection requires the creation of a sample, which goes on to imply that if a line of bags has five models, there must be five samples made. Once these samples are ready, manufacturers use them for large-scale production, where to make around one hundred thousand pieces, for example, it will take another two months.
Fashion production is not about glamour. Turning a concept into a tangible and sellable product is constrained by the laws of chemistry, physics and engineering, and thus requires knowledge, skills as well as the ability to find unconventional solutions to problems, and sometimes, to simply execute the impossible. It is about the noble art of handwork and the craft of transformation.
The Dilemma of Luxury: Quality vs Quantity
Powerful luxury fashion houses produce millions of leather goods per year, and while they base their production in Tuscany, they must work with dozens of different producers at the same time to achieve these kinds of quantities. This implies the necessity to standardise costs, timing and quality of execution throughout the supply chain.
To this end, some brands opt to vertically integrate their production chain by assuming control over suppliers and manufacturers. Other fashion houses in the region, however, prefer to rely on the established expertise of independent suppliers and work with entrepreneurial networks; groups of small companies that work collectively to fulfil big production orders. This second approach requires brands to closely supervise and have masterful human management; dealing with dozens of suppliers that often compete amongst themselves requires building a certain confidence and understanding with the owners and workers though the peculiarities of local culture, tradition and mindsets.
With the growing demand for true quality, fashion brands are desperately looking for skilled workers in the production sector. This is deeply felt in Florence where professionals such as fashion technologists, design constructors, quality controllers, product developers and production managers, are highly sought-after. Tuscany has all the resources to be the driving force behind the manufacturing renaissance in fashion, which of course comes down to the incredibly advanced technology of the region; skilled human hands.