The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the Italian landscape; the toll on human life has been devastating, and the trauma cannot simply go away. Italy is home to countless fashion brands; it also has a history—of time and again rising from the ruins. The lockdown there has not been lifted yet, and the number of casualties is still not on a decline. Yet, the fashion industry is determined to bounce back stronger. The facts as they are in black and white.
The Second World War left Italy’s film industry in ruins. But a generation of filmmakers innovated—with whatever little they had in hand; both the content and form of cinema changed, and a new style emerged. Their cinematic essays were typically characterised by down-to-earth stories set among the poor and the working classes, shot on location because studios either had been destroyed by Allied bombing or were just unaffordable given the paltry budgets at their disposal, and mostly used non-professional actors. Yet, Italian Neorealist cinema was not a structured movement—it was a trend. It was an answer.
But it is not that Italian filmmakers suddenly realised after the War was over that a new form and style would have to be invented—the thought process had long been set even as the War was on. The first neorealist film Ossessione by Luchino Visconti had already been made before World War II ended and Benito Mussolini’s government fell—in 1943, a good two years earlier. After the War, filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and others took filmmaking to a different level.
The Neorealist Cinema was to gradually decline as the Italian economy boomed (particularly between 1958 and 1963), and the idiom changed. And then came in 1960 a film from Federico Fellini, himself a product of that very style of filmmaking—La Dolce Vita (Italian for “the sweet life” or “the good life”). The film, which followed over seven days a journalist writing for gossip magazines, broke records. It also defined glamour—shots of Anita Ekberg frolicking through the Trevi fountain in the heart of Rome.
In Italy, cinema and fashion are inter-twined. But that is not the story here— the story is that of resurrection, a process that starts even as devastation is being wrought upon, even as despair rules.
The Pandemic Devastation
On the face of it, the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on Italy may seem nothing like the physical, crushing blow that World War II unapologetically wreaked on it. Comparisons are unfair.
Nevertheless, the toll on human life is untold. It has possibly been best recounted by Luisa Cortesi, an environmental anthropologist at Cornell University. Cortesi, on March 17, wrote to the mayor of Bergamo in north Italy (later reproduced in an article on the Sapiens website):
Our elders are dying one by one, oak trees struck down by an acceleration of greed and skepticism. The generation that was raised in the angst of World War II is gone.
Coffins, too many to bury. Lined up at the Monumental Cemetery, in churches, in convoys in the streets around Borgo Palazzo—our elders, waiting to be turned back to ashes.
The crematorium fire never ceases burning, smoldering 24 hours a day. Crackling, it consumes bones, lace collars, mustaches, and memories.
What will we be without our elders? A meadow exposed to every strong wind that blows, a mountain with an amputated peak where the snow cannot settle. How will we put the depth of the field back together? How will we build perspective again?
New bushes and shrubs, we have a shallow memory: Our bones don’t hold as yet the winter fog of the plains; we leave the crumbs on the tablecloth, certain of abundance, yet retain what is worth being forgotten; we do not recite the enchanted riddles of the tombola nor feel the need to know them. We have looser moorings, historically and ecologically, yet aren’t more supple in mind and spirit.
One cannot even begin to fathom. But Cortesi’s heart-wrenching words also tell of the widespread despair and trauma—the human cost—on which the Italian fashion industry would have to revive itself.
The industry, needless to say, has been severely hit. The findings of a study conducted by consulting firm Ernst & Young for Confimprese, the Italian national association of retailers, was released on April 30—it said that local consumption had dropped by 26 per cent in the first quarter of the year. The fashion and clothing sector had been hit the most with sales in March reported to have plummeted an astonishing 82.3 per cent compared to the same period last year. Stores meanwhile are shut and gloom is all-pervading.
It’s too early to quantify the losses. Gianfranco Di Natale, general director of Sistema Moda Italia (SMI), the industry trade group representing Italy’s textiles and apparel firms, reacts, “The only certain evaluation we can do is on exports. We believe that there may be a reduction of about 20 per cent, with our industry being one of the most export-oriented sectors in the Italian manufacturing system. We estimate a loss of between $8 billion and $10 billion in turnover ($56 billion turnover in 2019).”
Siro Badon, president of Assocalzaturifici, the national association representing industrial shoemakers in Italy, too says, “The pandemic has had an enormous impact on our supply chain because we’ve been in total lockdown since the beginning of March and are now waiting for the DPCM (Decree of the President of the Italian Council of Ministers) from the government in order to re-open. We hope to be able to get back to work at the beginning of May. At the moment, we can’t quantify the economic impact precisely: we hope to be able to give a clearer picture of the situation in the coming weeks, when we start up gain.”
The impact is deep, and not for just one reason. The general director of the Milano Fashion Institute (MFI), Nicola Guerini, points out: “First, they had to stop production, impacting the manufacturing cycle. Fashion needs to run at a high speed for the time-to-the-market. Even a few weeks’ of stoppage breaks the cycle. But luckily, it (the crisis) is on the wane. A lot of companies could restart production soon; some already have.” The second factor is the impact on retail. From what companies have been telling Guerini, most of them are expecting a drop of 15 per cent in turnover in the first quarter (of which only one month i.e. March was severely impacted). The decrease in the second quarter is expected to be more—to the extent of 20–40 per cent. “That would depend on the business model and positioning of the company.”
The pandemic paralysed the fashion industry across sectors and geographies. Points out Di Natale, “The Italian production system, in particular textiles and clothing, historically rests on industrial districts, which are highly specialized concentrations throughout the Italian territory.” According to him, all these areas would be severely affected and in particular the cities of Biella, Como, Varese, Prato and Bergamo.
The whole footwear supply chain had to shut down, and so the entire country has been affected by the stoppage. “Unlike other companies in the textiles sector who were granted an exemption in order to convert some of their production lines, we have been at a total standstill,” rues Badon.
From the first quarter results it appears that luxury and ready-to-wear (RTW) brands that are designer-driven have been relatively less affected. This, believes Guerini, could be because of two reasons. First, they have a different customer base which itself was probably less affected than the general population. It is also because of the very nature of the product too. “A luxury product is considered to be safer in business terms during a crisis because in a certain way it is uncyclable (as in not following fashion cycles)—meaning people see a luxury product not just as an expense but as a form of investment—as goods that can last into the future. The impact also depends on cycles; the cycles of RTW brands are definitely longer.”
Navigating Thrugh the Ruins
Industry associations have been trying to stem the decline from the beginning. The SMI has been in touch with its member companies as well as the government, “suggesting any possible action that could be of help” to what is the second most important industry in the country. “In an extremely complex panorama, it is difficult to speak of a common issue because the problems have been wide-ranged—financial, organisational and fiscal ones, aggravated by the very strong acceleration in the transition from normality to the crisis in a matter of only 2–3 weeks.”
The Assocalzaturifici has set up a help desk with a dedicated email address to provide members with support and legal assistance. “We are also in constant contact with public institutions and Confindustria [General Confederation of Italian Industry] so as to monitor the situation and provide our member companies with all the latest updates needed to give them concrete support,” says Badon.
The fashion sector could be among the first to be re-opened after the lockdown ends, and it is not going to be an easy task. It would need coordination, and it would need a well laid-out roadmap.
Di Natale underlines, “Being the second most important manufacturing industry in the country and also a sector that represents the image of Italy itself, it is essential to reopen as soon as possible because May is a strategic month for design and production. We have coordinated with other organisations on requests made to the Italian government. We expect it to pay attention to an important and strategic sector from an industrial point of view and representative of the beautiful and wellmade Italian fashion products.”
For Badon, it would be utopian to think “we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps: teamwork is essential, and we have therefore called on the government to provide us with the tools we need to help us achieve a speedy recovery.” He believes that it would be unthinkable that a sector that has such a huge impact on the economy and on employment should be left to its own devices.
“We need access to immediately-usable, non-refundable credit facilities to shore up net working capital and get production started again; and to re-establish ourselves in the markets with the aid of funds set up by the State-controlled lender to compensate for inventory impairment losses as a result of orders failing to be confirmed. Among other important structural measures, we have asked the government to introduce is the assignment of tax credits equal to 60 per cent of the turnover lost in 2020 due to the virus outbreak; a proportional lowering of the tax wedge till July 2021; repayment plans on all new financing to be extended to a 10-year term and guaranteed by the State, as provided under the ‘Cure Italy’ and ‘Restore Liquidity for Companies’ decrees; and access to loans even for companies with pre-existing economic and financial problems. As far as taxation is concerned, we hope that tax and social security contributions payable by companies for April, May and June 2020 will be suspended and that companies will benefit from total tax exemption for expenses incurred in implementing safety measures during the covid-19 emergency.
“On the labour front, extension of the Redundancy Fund to at least six months, without affecting company CIG ceilings (the so-called “counters”); these amounts will be advanced by INPS (Italian National Social Security Institute) and disbursed also through the banking system. It is vital that we make up for the months spent in lockdown while companies in other countries have continued to produce. We have to maximise safety measures, focusing on new and flexible working practices to ensure that the sector remains sustainable and maintains its positive impact on employment. I hope to get started immediately in order to demonstrate the enormous creativity of our companies.”
But, as Guerini indicates, some companies are already at it, and some others would get cracking soon. All manufacturing companies would have to follow the safety protocols outlined by the government. The Spring/Summer 2020 is as good as lost; some companies might carry over a few collections and repurpose them next year. Nonetheless, companies would also have to rethink strategies. The fashion week calendars are still being deliberated. The Milan Fashion Week (MFW) for Men of June has already been deferred and could be held together with the MFW for Women in September.
Companies will need to do a rethink both about the cycles of production as well as the cycles of presentation. But that is not all, for they will also need to rethink about the impact of fashion on the environment in the same measure. Guerini feels the crisis has also brought to the forefront the relationship between brands and the environment. Therefore, “sustainability will become more and more a key driver both for creating value and as well as the growth of companies. That is the reason why we at the MFI designed the first Masters course (on sustainability) worldwide in partnership with the National Chamber of Italian Fashion (Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, CNMI). In product sustainability management, this is unique. It has been driven by major Italian fashion brands like Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Ferragamo, Gucci, Versace and several others who would require new professionals with new competencies (in a post-pandemic era) that must be created by educational institutes.”
In other words, do not keep endlessly discussing about what would or could happen after the covid-19 outbreak has ended; be ready instead to pick up the pieces for a post-pandemic world.
Doing it Differently, Digitally
Towards the end of February, the coronavirus outbreak was spreading at a menacing pace across the Italian terrain. Dozens of towns in that country had already been placed in quarantine, schools were closed, and the Venice Carnival was shut down. The Milan Fashion Week, then, witnessed something unprecedented—Giorgio Armani held his runway show in an empty theatre on February 23.
Armani released a statement that Sunday announcing that the fashion show, due to take place that afternoon in front of an audience, would be instead be livestreamed. “The show will be shown behind closed doors, due to recent developments of coronavirus in Italy, live-streamed in front of an empty Teatro [theatre] on the Armani website, therefore please do not attend the show this afternoon,” the fashion house said. “The decision was taken to safeguard the well-being of all his invited guests by not having them attend crowded spaces.” Armani was himself photographed putting on a face mask as he entered the building. The photograph was tell-tale, and would go on to become a metaphor for the days to come.
The Armani decision was criticised as going overboard by some, for whom the portents of the pandemic were yet to sink in. As the outbreak took a turn for the worse, fashion weeks across the world, as also trade events, either outrightly cancelled or optimistically postponed to later dates. With the next London Fashion Week for June slated for a digital display, the talk everywhere is of fashion going digital all the way.
For now digital fashion weeks make sense, says Guerini, “since there is no other way—you need to be close to your buyers. The London Fashion Week is going to be digitalised. They are doing it to allow buyers to continue doing their jobs. That’s good because it is better than having nothing at all. They will be able to see the products and place orders. That’s also true for the press, in terms of promoting as well as giving visibility. But I believe that after the pandemic has ended we will return to the traditional fashion weeks.”
Di Natale’s understanding of the situation and the pandemic aftermath is similar, as he says:” This crisis will undoubtedly lead us to think different styles and industrial scenarios. Even fashion will have to rethink and create new solutions to present itself to the markets. However, we don’t think it can be completely replaced by digital. Digital will have to be a message amplifier, but it cannot be the only solution.”
Badon, however, has a longer take on this that goes beyond the glitz of the fashion weeks. “We are concentrating on innovation and digitalisation—two of the most important drivers for our companies. As an association we believe in this and have done so for some time; in fact, we have developed two platforms relating to these. The first was presented at the last Micam: Italian Artisan. The whole sector felt the need to encourage foreign brands to come and produce in Italy, where they could take advantage of the quality and age-old know-how of our artisans. This digital platform allows Italian companies to make themselves known while giving foreign brands the opportunity to lower production costs.
“And just a few days ago we launched BDroppy. At a time when the covid-19 emergency has led to the temporary closure of shoes and clothes shops, our partnership with Brandsdistribution which aims to bring Italian footwear brands on to the digital B2B BDroppy platform, represents a real opportunity for member companies that produce high-quality goods, but do not have the necessary resources themselves. Our brands will be able to sell their products directly, maximising their advertising and marketing investments and using a well-established platform with 450,000 retailers and digital vendors as a springboard.
“But we mustn’t disparage the physical importance of trade fairs, which continue to represent not only an important occasion for doing business and seizing market opportunities, but also for getting a look at future trends. In our capacity as a trade association, we are working non-stop to prepare the September edition of Micam, which has been the footwear industry’s leading event. It will be an occasion for relaunching the entire supply chain and provide our companies with an opportunity for recapitalising their restart.”
But digitalisation is not only about organising online events; it goes beyond. Explains Guerini, “Companies will rethink their working methods highlighting the importance of digital skillsets to be able to work effectively through a (new) digital way. In some cases, companies are switching to digital presentations. But in the future, even if methods of work is more and more digitalised, the fashion product—especially Italian fashion product—needs a physical presence. It is not just a question of shapes and colours; it is a cultural industry too in which there are several elements that can’t be fully substituted by the online.”
All said and done, going increasingly digital, taking the sustainability path and mitigating an economic impact are one thing; handling the social / psychological impact would be quite another.
“Clearly, the exceptional situation created by the epidemiological emergency cannot be assimilated straight away. Everyone deals with this suspension of normality and the serious impact it has on family life in their own way. I am convinced that getting back to work is an important way of regaining confidence and gradually returning to the normality of life prior to covid-19. To ensure maximum protection for workers, a ‘Joint Protocol of the Fashion sector’ has been signed, which lays down guidelines for restarting business activity in the fashion, textiles and accessories industries. The protocol, which will be rapidly implemented by companies, was drawn up in compliance with the laws and the most stringent recommendations of national and international health authorities: its aim is to protect the health and safety of workers—which is of prime importance—by providing suitable protection, while at the same time safeguarding Italy’s production structure,” says Badon.
The Milano Fashion Institute had reacted immediately. It went online barely 24 hours after the lockdown was enforced in Milan on February 23. “This was made possible by the commitment and efforts of all of our students who understood that despite the difficult conditions, you can still get some opportunities in terms of improving your skills that may be needed by companies in the future, says Guerini. “We have already organised some digital round tables with human resources (HR) representatives from companies. We are also tracking what is happening in terms of HR management. Of course, all students are extremely concerned. Everywhere. Yet, it is also an opportunity for the designers. It is an opportunity to not lose one year of their lives. That is why everyone is moving towards digital distance learning. That will not only allow them to track their goals, and also be ready for a totally different job market.”
Guerini’s words abridge the story at hand: about being ready for a world that would have changed even as the anguish, encapsulated by Cortesi, gnaws away at Italian society for decades or more. It’s not a land that gives up.
This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of the print magazine.