September 19, 2013 2:13 pm

Milan enlists its ‘Team of Rivals’

Hopes are high for a collaboration between Italy’s fashion chiefs
Luxury shoemaker Tod's chief executive Diego Della Valle©Reuters

Diego Della Valle, one of Italy's luxury goods 'ambassadors'

Milan’s Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, organisers of the city’s fashion week, has a new look – one borrowed from Abraham Lincoln. Think of it as fashion’s equivalent of a “Team of Rivals.”

Last June Patrizio Bertelli, co-founder and chief executive of Prada, Diego Della Valle, founder of Tod’s and Hogan, and Gildo Zegna, chief executive of family-owned Ermenegildo Zegna joined together under the aegis of the chamber as “ambassadors” for the Italian luxury goods industry.

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In a city renowned for its fierce rivalries – luxury goods bankers say getting Mr Della Valle and Mr Bertelli is the same room is a feat – the event was considered a landmark, a sign that in the face of increased international competition and a rash of buyout of Italian brands by foreign groups old animosities are being subdued.

But while they present a united front, insiders wonder whether they will be able to sublimate their egos and different approaches to business enough to truly make a difference.

For example, when unveiling the emboldened Camera della Moda, Patrizio Bertelli told reporters: “There are no big problems or challenges in Italian fashion today. Without Italy, the whole fashion system would be in chaos.”

However, not everyone agrees: deputy minister of economic development Carlo Calenda said this week, “The government has fashion as one of its priorities. We want to defend [Italian fashion]. It’s under attack today from abroad.”

The aim of the venture is straightforward: to leverage knowhow and power to compete with the growing prestige of London and New York Fashion Weeks and counter a general sense that Milan is underselling itself in the fashion stakes. For Italian business and political leaders, expanding the country’s fashion, design, art and culture represents a rare opportunity for growth in an economy that is struggling to stem more than a decade of decline.

Fashion insiders fret that the Milan fashion community has lost its dynamism since Giorgio Armaniand Gianni Versace faced off in the 1980s and Prada and Gucci sized up against one another in the 1990s. The lack of young up-and-coming designers has fomented a sense of malaise, and other fashion cities have been quicker to embrace technology and open up to international visitors.

Andrea Illy, scion of the coffee dynasty and new head of Altagamma, Italy’s luxury industry association, admits that country’s feted entrepreneurs have difficulty co-operating. Mr Illy wants to bridge the gap by simply getting more co-operation between the various part of the system – from the Camera della Moda to Pitti in Florence, Altagamma, and the Milan city council.

Mr Illy has drawn up a plan, for example, to have Altagamma work more closely with Milan’s town council at using the city’s best known venues – such the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II or La Scala opera house – to better showcase Milan’s fashion prowess, in the way the French more widely use their own cultural heritage for runway shows.

The government has fashion as one of its priorities. We want to defend [Italian fashion]. It’s under attack today from abroad

- Carlo Calenda, deputy minister of economic development

Nonetheless, industry executives and analysts admit that the innate rivalries in the Italian fashion system mean that collaboration will only go so far. No one is expecting Giorgio Armani and Patrizio Bertelli – who have been known to snipe at each other in the Italian press – to put aside their personal differences and create a rival to LVMH or Gucci owner Kering, a move that would have the greatest economic benefit for the Italian fashion system. Consider the fact that, while Versace is publicly looking for investors, no Italian rival has stepped forward to pick it up.

“There has been a lot of consolidation in the Italian market and we know we are not going to see an Italian group create the same kind of multi-brand conglomerate as the French. There are very obvious reasons why the French groups may well continue picking up small Italian brands,” says Thomas Chauvet, luxury goods analyst at Citi.

Indeed, Mr Bertelli in an interview with the FT shortly before listing Prada in Hong Kong in 2011 attributed his own success to an overwhelming desire to beat the entrepreneur down the road – in his case the Ferragamo family, who were listing at the same time in Milan.

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