Milan Fashion Week: 4 books to understand how Made In Italy can win through sustainability

Milan Fashion Week is in full swing. Not for the first time though, a veil has been cast over the glitz and glamour by the protests of activist groups demanding a fashion that’s fairer: to the environment and for the production workers. Now, I’m not an activist, but I agree with the principle: fashion needs to clean up its act. And nowhere, it seems, more than in Italy, where some of the world’s best fashion comes from. A country with a reputation that’s been formed through decades of expert craftsmanship, and that risks to be tarnished by a sorry state of affairs, brought about by big brands forgetting about the very origins of the maisons, and obeying to the financial codes of the big conglomerates. Nowhere, I feel, it’s more important that fashion recognises its roots and heritage of fine manufacture, and preserves these very qualities before they are lost to a greedy system. And the thing is: to step off the mill of fast fashion and embrace a more Slow approach actually makes sense, and precisely from a business point of view. Yes, it seems that the answer to a Made In italy renaissance really lies in embracing sustainability.

This is the encouraging theory being exposed through a number of books recently published by Italian academy and industry experts. Bar one, these publications are all in Italian only, but I hope to be able to convey a good summary of their contents here, and to whet your appetite for more detail – these authors are part of international circles, and there are numerous web resources available in English, should you want to know more.

Well, the first book isn’t actually so encouraging. It is, in fact, disheartening. But it does cast a light on truths which must be known, inconvenient though they may be. It also serves us as a background note, to understand why we are a breaking point, and we must consider the business case for more sustainable practices that the next titles will introduce. Giò Rosi wrote Made In Italy, Il Lato Oscuro Della Moda (The Dark Side Of Fashion) not as an author or an academic. He is a Production Manager – that is, a real insider, who saw things during his career that made him understand there is something rotten behind the facade of luxury brands. Rosi actually isn’t his real name – he had to use a pseudonym because what he recounts is not only real, but still rife and current. The book is a harrowing tale of what he witnessed while working for some of the best fashion houses, supervising production not in Italy, but in Eastern Europe. It is here that a lot of Italian brands manufacture, relying on cheap labour and diminishing the know-how of Italian artisans. In factories where conditions may not be as bad as Bangladesh, but where wages are insulting and workers’ rights are trampled on on an everyday basis nonetheless. It’s a sad and eye-opening read, showing that unfortunately these things happen much closer to home than we like to think. [Made In Italy, Il Lato Oscuro Della Moda, Anteprima Edizioni – also on kindle]

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Il Bello e il Buono: le Ragioni della Moda Sostenibile (The Beautiful and the Good: Reasons for Sustainable Fashion) is curated by Maria Luisa Frisa and Marco Ricchetti, co-founder of Sustainability Lab. Chapters are contributed by the most eminent figures of Italian fashion academia, ranging from marketing to textile technology to consumer engagement. Published in 2011, it was the first book not only to acknowledge the need for more sustainable practices, but to offer fashion professionals a global insight into why, and how to bring about a shift that will ultimately prove to be a competitive advantage. The analysis touches every step of the supply chain: risk management, stakeholder engagement, challenges and opportunities in manufacturing, and some very insightful essays on consumers profiling, concluding with a set of tools to actually enable decision-makers to steer their business practices towards an economically viable, better model. And lastly, a beautifully curated visual section, profiling some of the most innovative brands from the ‘conscious fashion’ sector. In the words of the authors: a book for industry professionals as well as fashion students, the trend-setters of tomorrow. [Il Bello e il Buono: le Ragioni della Moda Sostenibile, Marsilio EditoriEnglish version]

L’Impresa Moda Responsabile (The Responsible Fashion Industry) is “an exploratory journey into the links between fashion and corporate responsibility” – based on an assumption that success for the industry is only achievable by integrating the short-term financial targets with a more long-term vision, that takes into consideration variables like environmental justice, the respect for manufacturing traditions and cultural patrimony, and a necessary improvement in ethical standards. With a foreword by Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, the book introduces the new paradigms of a shift from a profit-centric to a value-centric model beyond CSR. It then explores the connection between fashion, the environment, and society, bringing to the fore case studies of globally-renowned brands such as Nike and Timberland, which now integrate sustainable practices throughout the entire supply chain. It then goes on to observe the relationship between fashion, media, arts, culture and institutions, before offering tools to work towards the main goal of “integrating ethics with aesthetic”. The book is authored by Francesca Romana Rinaldi e Salvo Testa, faculty members of the Fashion, Experience & Design Management Masters of SDA Bocconi School of Management, Italy’s most prestigious business school, and features extensive field and industry research, which makes it not only perfectly current, but a real guide for students and industry insiders alike. [L’Impresa Moda Responsabile, Egea – also on kindle]

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Francesca Rinaldi and Salvo Testa are also part of the scientific committee of the Fashion In Process series, a collection of publications aiming at rejoining creative fashion design to product manufacturing and techniques developed from traditional artisanal skills. It is from this project that I have chosen my next book: Design sul Filo della Tradizione (in a vague attempt to transpose the pun, I would translate as: Design Spun from the Thread of Tradition), by Federica Vacca. In this small journey through books that devise a plan of action for a reinvigorated Made In Italy, we’ve gone from the bad state of the industry, to business solutions; and this title closes the circle on a positive note, by going back to the very roots of the Sistema Moda Italia: artisanal production. At a critical stage where globalisation and production delocalisation are threatening the very essence of Made In Italy, its regional diversity and artisanal know-how, the discipline of design can serve as a link between devising and manufacturing, by nurturing and abridging competences from both ends of the spectrum. Before this is elaborated in the last chapter, Vacca first takes us to a fascinating journey through a few examples of the richness of Italian artisanal traditions, including some from my beloved homeland Sardinia. An excellent read not just for design professionals, but for anyone interested in a dose of cultural richness. [Design sul Filo della Tradizione, Pitagora Editrice]

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