This is the first of series of reflections that will appear in Fashionology on the Made in Italy. In these, New York will act as an observation point of a complex and dynamic concept that has been so crucial to Italian identity as both a material and immaterial asset.
In the last few years, in the discourse on Italy one of the buzz words most often heard has been Made in Italy. Lately, the discourse around the Made in Italy has taken the form of a lament caused by the fact that several Italian brands, including prestigious luxury brands, have been bought by non-Italian companies, such as the French-owned Louis Vuitton. Yet, rather than “Frenchifying” their newly acquired Italian brands, these French firms aim to preserve their Italianness as it represents for them a precious immaterial asset.
The Made in Italy, especially for foreigners, has often been associated with a series of different meanings that have met the desire for refined taste and authenticity, and confirmed the idea deeply rooted in foreigners’ minds of Italy as the land of beauty, art, refined craftmanship, etc. But the Made in Italy has also, recently, come to signify a spectre of a glorious past that has now gone and has been wasted. In this way, the Made in Italy comes to be seen as the quintessential symbol of the decadence and failure of a nation with a dark history of unstable governments, deep economic crisis and corruption and that has been through rollercoaster rides of political, economic and social ups and downs.
But a question arises: In the age of neoliberal global capitalism and outsourcing, is the label Made in Italy obsolete? In New York, one of the global players on the international markets, one finds labels like Made in New York; Made in Brooklyn that testify to how labels still carry a sense of local geography, of the creative economy, and still, in other words, have a currency. The Made in Italy, despite crises and acquisitions by non-Italian companies, still enjoys that currency. It tends now, though, to produce nostalgia for a time that once was. But these are desires and phantasies that differ according to different people, class and age group, as well as cultures and countries. Indeed, for the majority of people who come from abroad, visit Italy and have a decent disposable income, Italy is still the land of warmth, good taste and beauty. Italy has maintained a high level of currency among visitors from all over the world. A virtual Italy of spectacular cities and stunning art and architecture are reproduced in the fantasyland and shopping Meccas of places like Las Vegas where Venice and Piazza San Marco are reconstructed along with Rome’s Caesar’s Palace. Italian cities are also the backdrop of a world of fantasy and a sort of high culture Disneyworld even in China. In 2011, the first Fiorenza Village was opened in TianJin near Beijing, followed by another one in the new Pudong district of Shanghai where a miniature version of Italy has been reconstructed to house a European shopping experience with prestigious brands like Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta etc. In this way the new Chinese middle classes and tourists can have a little taste of Italy strolling near the Coliseum or Donatello’s David. Italy, its architecture, its food, its cultural icons, and its fashion have been transformed into a fantasyland of a Made in Italy story that is lived as an experience.
Interestingly the year 2011 was also the year when the multinational megabrand Prada launched a new project with collections called Made in…, featuring clothes made all over the world. Note the dots after in . This project featured items from dresses to handbags that were made in different countries with the highest skill in craftmanship such as the dresses in the Made in India collection that featured “Chikan” an ancient Indian embroidery style or the kilt in the Made in Scotland collection or the Alpaca sweater Made in Peru. The product was labelled with the traditional Prada trademark, but instead of the usual Made in Italy under the Prada Milano tag, we see Made in Scotland, Made in India, etc. below the usual Prada Milano. It is worth exploring this project a bit more. However, to do that it is useful first to underline a few things that have to do with the stories that more than ever populate the world of fashion and beyond.
Miuccia Prada at the time of the launch stated: “Made in Italy? Who cares. It’s not a brand strength if you have to defend your work. […] Mine is a political statement […] you have to embrace the world if you want to live now.” So the story behind her Made in project ….” aims to undermine the fact that an Italian luxury brand, perhaps Italy’s foremost luxury brand, is no longer required to make its products in Italy, but can outsource them. At the same time, Prada is defending globalism, fully embracing the best traditions in world craftmanship for the “spoiled” luxury shoppers, as Suzy Menkes has called them, that is Prada’s clientele.
This is not the end of stories, though. There is one more interesting story: this tells of how Italian luxury brands, including Prada, still support the long history of high skilled Italian technique and craftmanship that are still today identified with local geographies such as the Venetian glass emporia or handmade upholstery velvet in Genoa. One of the pressing questions Miuccia Prada asks is: “How can history survive unless there is a contemporary way to show our history in a way that young people get it?” Does she mean that perhaps fashion, including megabrands like hers, can recount that history so that it is handed down to the new generations? But another question remains: how can the young generations of designers and members of the creative class actively contribute to the making of a new pedagogy /historiography and know how that bridges the gap between tradition and modern technology and scientific research. Is there enough space for these young minds and hands to fully contribute to re-design Italy’s map?
But we need to add another layer to this discourse. This will lead us to glimpse yet another story.
Perhaps the Made in Italy cannot be literally translated; or can only represent one side of a prismatic and long history. The several cultural and economic translations of the term need to be examined in its relations and contingencies both to unravel its past and its implications with nation building, and to gauge its transnational implications. In other words, in this and the articles that that will follow I want to open up the notion of the Made in Italy, pinpoint some of its stories in a global context, and through concrete examples of innovation in design and textile offer a narrative that is an alternative to the dominant one of nostalgia for a glorious but forever lost and impossible past.