As a glitzy Milan fashion week wrapped up on Tuesday, Italy’s hard-hit textile artisans said they were looking to foreign buyers to kickstart growth in a domestic sector gripped by the economic crisis.
Demand for high-end materials in recession-hit Italy has withered, but the country’s family-run textile firms are banding together to attract clients from further afield — helped by renewed popularity for “Made in Italy” products.
The figures are certainly bleak: One in four companies in the sector risks closure, according to Valeria Fedeli from the textile, energy and manufacture federation Filctem Cgil, due in part to Italy’s high energy prices.
The country’s 90 percent reliance on imported natural gas means companies pay among the highest electricity bills in Europe — up to 40 percent more than competitors — and the sector has repeatedly called on the government for help.
“It’s a massive problem, we’re heavily penalized by unsustainable energy costs. We’re all trying to beat the crisis, but it’s tough to compete,” said Rodolfo Botto from the Biella textile processing center in northern Italy.
Revenue for the fashion sector is forecast to drop 5.6 percent this year as domestic demand drops away, and textile exports were down 5 percent in the first quarter, according to the national textile and clothing federation.
However, Italy remains the world’s biggest exporter of wool and the second-biggest exporter of linens and silks, and workshops across the country are hoping to attract buyers among the fashion-hungry consumers outside Europe.
From China to Russia, Brazil and South Africa, growing sophistication among fashion shoppers has led to a greater demand for Italy’s artisan quality.
While China used to be seen as a huge threat to the industry — producing garments quickly and cheaply — it is now opting increasingly to import wool, loden, silks and linens produced by specialist Italian spinners and weavers.
Demand for Italy’s teased cotton and wool fabric was up 3.7 percent in the first quarter — with China and Hong Kong among the top four buyers — and exports of combed cotton and wool yarn were only slightly down by 0.2 percent.
“Textiles are suffering, but wool in general has held up quite well. China used to spell disaster, now it may offer a way out of the crisis,” Botto said.
Wool producers from the Biella region are set to take part in a fair in Shanghai next month, and there was a big increase in visitors to Italy’s textiles salon from China and Hong Kong during the run up to fashion week.
The increase in demand for wools such as merino, cashmere and mohair is boosted by the staple fabric’s comeback on the catwalk: Among others, Prada, Gucci and Armani all featured wool in their autumn/winter collections this year.
While some companies hope to establish themselves as key suppliers abroad, many small or family businesses do not have the resources to do so.
The response for some has been to club together. The Wool Combing Center in Verrone has upped its made in Italy stakes by pulling in the Loro Piana, Marzotto and Zegna companies — experts in cashmere and made-to-measure suits.
Michela Loberto, an up-and-coming designer presenting her work on the sidelines of fashion week, said she had used merino wool to line the coats in her collection, praising it as a more environmentally friendly fabric.