If you’re a semi-keen follower of the fashion and retail trade press, you might know about the turmoil the industry has been thrown into with various announcements by big luxury brands that they’re about to rethink, overhaul (and, of course, “disrupt”) the way they sell clothes and the way consumers buy them.
Amid all the fuss about the trend to “show now and buy now” — as opposed to showing your collection, letting the retailers make their selection, and then seeing garments hit the rails six months later — industry analysts have been questioning whether it will work, while investors have been arguing that it’s the only way forward for the industry. The more cautious have been suggesting that they’ll stick to the old system, as all of this is a reaction to ill-conceived strategies that are attempting to respond to a culture of “likes”, “followers” and narcissistic postings by people who don’t actually spend money on expensive clothes.
This storm surrounding the fashion industry was somewhat removed from the buzz surrounding the furniture fair in Milan this week. On Wednesday afternoon I enjoyed a few glasses of Ruinart with one of the wise men of both brand Italia and the world of luxury goods in general. “It will never work,” he said. “Fashion is going through a difficult time at the moment as expensive garments are not seen as essential, so brands are looking at ways at reducing costs by consolidating their activities. It’s not the same, perhaps, for the furniture industry.”
The gentleman was right. Having spent two days visiting showrooms, sampling new sofas, testing kitchen cupboards, examining elegant lamps spoiled by poor-quality light sources and chatting to salesmen, chief executives and PRs, I could see that the atmosphere was very different from the world of handbags, shoes and skirts.
On the back of what most agree was a successful Expo in 2015, along with excellent weather, Milan was in a sunny and optimistic mood this week. Company owners from the furniture-producing Brianza region seemed happy with recent results, already talking up big contract orders for resort hotels in the US, urgent requests for more deck furniture for large yacht orders, and sale results from established markets.
“We’re seeing double-digit growth from the US and Germany again, and this is great news,” said the chief executive of one of the biggest brands at his showroom on Via Durini. “There’s a confidence in the US, despite the politics, so maybe people are spending what they have now because they have no idea what the elections will bring later in the year.”
The view was echoed elsewhere, with architects, interior designers and clients discussing large-scale projects that were more focused on Europe and the US, as opposed to Russia and China.
“The Russian market has largely disappeared. There are some big clients who will always be there but there’s no question we’ve been hit hard by the state of the Russian economy,” said a salesman from the Brianza manufacturing clan. “I think smart companies knew this was never going to last and ensured they continued to focus on their established and trusted markets. Many others didn’t and now they’re really suffering.”
This pragmatic view was reflected in much of what was on show as well. Sofas have been downsized in width and depth to appeal to consumers who’d rather have fewer square metres and live in the heart of the city than live in a distant suburb with space for a 12-seat sectional sofa. Several companies were digging deep into rich archives to re-release wooden storage units that made their debuts in the early 1960s and now seemed right for today. While I didn’t walk into any one installation or showroom thinking I’d like to have it all in my kitchen or living room, there were a few high points. If you’re reading this and thinking it might be time for a sitting-room refresh, might I suggest:
● Agape’s new wooden linear storage and organisation system for bathrooms. Light on the eye (but perhaps not on the wallet), the system recently developed by the Mantua-based furnishings company makes the bathroom feel warm and human and less like the current vogue for mausoleum-style WCs.
● Molteni’s relaunched chests of drawers are just what you’d want sandwiching your bed to house socks, undies and T-shirts. They’re an exquisite example of Italian modernism at its best.
● If you’re need of a solid all-round table for dining, working and laying out projects, Sam Hecht’s aluminium creation for US company Emeco comes with a matching bench and feels like a lankier, more elegant cousin of a classic picnic table.
Honourable mentions go to B&B Italia for their new sunlounger, which was launched earlier in the year in Cologne, Boffi for their Danish-inspired oak bathroom sink bases, and Society for the best-looking linens for the dining table.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine; email@example.com