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Made on Earth

Why is Italian style so seductive?

By Amanda Ruggeri

Made On Earth

   The story of the world's trading networks
   told through eight everyday products.

The luxury handbag is a symbol of style and craft like no other.

As Italian artisans face competition from emerging markets, the traditional model of design has been thrown into flux.

   Ever since humans have needed to cart around their belongings – particularly tools – they’ve carried bags. Prehistoric rock art in northern Australia, for example, shows a warrior-like figure with a satchel over his arm. The 5,300-year-old mummy of Otzi the Ice Man, carried a backpack – and wore a pouch attached to a leather belt – on his journey through what are now called the Tyrolean Alps. Ancient Roman soldiers carried satchels made from leather or goat’s hide that look almost exactly like the kind of messenger bag you might see in a shop today.

   In some ways, these bags are a far cry from the expensive “it” bags you see being carried today. In other ways, they’re not so different at all – each of those early bags will have been skilfully crafted by hand, an approach that still underpins many modern luxury handbags.

   One of the main threads that runs through the history of handbags – and persists even in today’s industrialised economy – is the power of craftsmanship. This belief in the value of a bag made by experts steeped in experience has held sway ever since handbags became more than a practical necessity. Today, the heart of this artisanal trade in handbags, as it has been for decades, is Italy.

   Looking over the colourful harbour of Palermo, Sicily, Studio Sarta is one of some 4,500 leather businesses in the country. Established in 2017 by siblings Giorgia and Fabio Gaeta, it is also one of the country’s newer handbag companies. Much of the studio’s approach is modern, too. Studio Sarta’s handbags are chic and elegant, featuring clean lines and a contemporary aesthetic. Their business sense is equally up-to-date. Their Instagram account, which features striking shots of their products modelled against moody landscapes and industrial-chic interiors, is one main aspect of their marketing strategy.

   But the foundation of that Sarta style is traditional Italian craftsmanship. Their creations use Vienna straw, a traditional material used in Sicilian bag-making, handwoven by local artisans in Palermo, as well as leather sourced from Tuscan tanneries.

   “Studio Sarta was born from the idea of developing contemporary design objects both for the person and the house – not just bags – that use the know-how of our local artisans,” says Giorgia. “The Italian tradition of tailoring and craftsmanship is one of the fundamental elements.”

   In fact, every step of the process – from design to prototype to production – is done by hand. At the Tuscan tannery, workers clean the raw hides, then tumble them in a giant tanning barrel with vegetable-based dyes – a process that can be as much as five times more time-consuming than industrial tanning, but which cuts out many chemicals and toxins.

   “It is hand-dried and buffed entirely by hand to obtain the characteristic aged effect,” Giorgia says. “The ‘vegetable tanning’, which has origins in prehistory and in Tuscany is at its maximum splendour, is a traditional and widely recognised technique.”

   When the leather arrives at Studio Sarta, it is cut and sewn together with Vienna straw, according to Giorgia’s designs.

   This blend of craftsmanship and contemporary style has resonated with buyers. In the company’s first year, Studio Sarta sold 200 bags. Now, they sell 1,000 a year. Most of their clients are in Italy, France and the UK. In the next few years, they hope to expand to China.

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Made In Italy

   Across Italy, the tradition of leather-making has such deep roots that even many of the country’s major fashion houses got their start with leather, despite being known for a plethora of different products today.

   Prada began as a leather goods store in Milan in 1913; Gucci, a leather goods store in Florence in 1921; Ferragamo, a leather shoe store in Florence in 1927; Bottega Veneta, a leather goods store in Vicenza in 1966. In the 1970s, even Roberto Cavalli, best known today for his sand-blasted jeans and vibrant, wild prints, first made a name for himself by inventing and patenting a procedure for printing on leather.

   “You think about the story of the handbag, and you think about Gucci 100 years ago,” says Riccardo Braccialini, chief executive of the international bags and leather goods fair Mipel. “We have a tradition.”

   “But,” he adds, “the real movement came after the Second World War.”

   Before that, handbags were manufactured in several areas: around Frankfurt, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; Paris, France; and parts of England. But after the war, as fashion became industrialised, there was a need to make products at scale. And to do that, it was best to have all of the necessary components – from fabric manufacturers to designers to distributors – in one place. Italy was that place.

   By the 1960s, benefiting from their booming economy and from the fact that their goods were cheaper than those made in other parts of Europe, Italians had become “the most powerful force in the market”, says New York Times European style correspondent Elizabeth Paton.

   That was boosted by the Italian tradition of artisanship – one that continues today.

   “‘Made in Italy’ is one of the most powerful brand names in the world. It has a global cachet,” Paton says. “That reputation for high-quality craftsmanship and design has made Italy, until now, the beating heart of luxury manufacturing.”

   But in today’s industrialised world, can that tradition continue?

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Industrialisation

   “It is certainly not easy, but we like to think that it is possible to make the artisan tradition coexist [with industrial manufacturing] in the global market,” says Giorgia of Studio Sarta. In fact, she notes, e-commerce and social networks mean it’s possible for artisans to sell straight to consumers, reducing the distribution and resale costs of traditional retail via high-street shops.

   The internet also means a brand can communicate directly to its consumers – and in as little as a single Instagram post, can tell a story about “what only artisan products can offer: the humanity that there is behind the entire production chain, from the procurement of raw materials, to the realisation of the product”, says Giorgia.

   On a larger scale, research collected for Assopellettieri, Italy’s national leather-goods association, paints a complex picture of the Italian industry. Italy is far and away the biggest exporter of leather goods in Europe, selling €6.8 billion (£6bn) of them in the first 10 months of 2018 alone. France, which exported €5.7bn (£5bn) of leather goods over the same period, is the only other EU country that comes close. Italy’s industry also is growing: from 2017 to 2018, Italy’s leather exports increased by 10.3%. And the majority are handbags, which make up more than 60% of Italy’s leather exports by value.

   But that growth wasn’t evenly spread – while sales grew, the number of businesses fell. Italy saw 45 leather goods companies become inactive, a 1% drop in overall business numbers from the previous year. Meanwhile, the most growth has not been in traditional leather-made bags, but those made from alternative materials like plastic, cloth or straw. While leather handbag exports rose 6.2% in value compared with 2017, exports of bags made from substitute materials rose by 19.4%.

   Italy’s workforce also is ageing. “The next generation in Italy are just not proving that interested in learning a lot of the craft of their parents and grandparents,” Paton says. “So, a big task for luxury brands and artisans is, how do we convince the youth that there’s something worthwhile about maintaining this reputation for the country and learning these skills, when so many want to move to cities and work on computers?”

   Underlying all of these challenges, of course, is the economic reality of artisanship: making bags by hand is far more laborious and expensive than it would be in a factory.

   Even Braccialini admits that some of these pressures are taking a toll.

   “It’s becoming more industrialised and less artisanal,” Braccialini says of Italy’s handbag industry. “In one way, it’s what globalisation is: the smaller disappear and the bigger take over.”

   But, he points out, “That is not an Italian story – that is a world story.”

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Demand

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   Even so, artisanship isn’t likely to disappear from Italy’s handbag industry anytime soon.

   Some of that is thanks to Italy’s big brands themselves, many of whom depend on handbags and accessories to keep their profit margins high: one report by Deloitte found that handbags and accessories were the fastest-growing part of the luxury market aside from perfumes and makeup. It’s no surprise that these same brands have popularised the concept of the “it” bag.

   In the 1950s, major fashion houses like Chanel began to make what are now iconic bespoke handbags. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, though, that the trend exploded. In the 1980s, Hermès introduced the Birkin bag and Prada its nylon backpack; in the 1990s came the Fendi Baguette, Christian Dior’s Lady Dior, Balenciaga’s The City, and a relaunch of Gucci’s Jackie bag. And compared with other trends, the values of some of these “it” bags have endured: in 2017, an Hermès Birkin bag sold at auction for HKD2.9 million (£284,000).

   But many labels recognise that it isn’t just the branding that is important to consumers, but the craftsmanship too. In fact, in some cases, people want something more than an “it” bag. “The truly wealthy, the real millionaires, they will not want to buy LV Louis Vuitton or Gucci because they are too commonplace,” Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group, told CNBC back in 2012. “Rich people are getting richer and they want exclusiveness and more self-indulgence.”

   And few products are more exclusive, of course, than something hand-crafted or bespoke.

   As a result, some major fashion houses are investing in manufacturing schools in Italy to help train new generations to craft bags by hand. This is also a necessity so that they can keep up with growing demand. By value, the biggest importers of Italian leather goods are Switzerland (an international hub that then ships many products out to other countries), France and the US – followed by Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.

   China is ninth. But its demand for Italian leather goods is growing fastest of all. The country’s market for these products has increased in value by 21.3% and in quantity by 18.8% year-on-year. Already, the country is the world’s second-biggest market for luxury goods worldwide.

   But there’s an irony at the centre of Asia’s demand: despite its appetite for Italian handbags, it produces an extraordinary number of its own. The difference? Asia’s tend to be mass-produced… and far more affordable.

   In fact, there are so many Asian handbags, at such seductive prices, that even Italians buy them – lots of them. From January to October 2018, 123 million kg of leather goods entered Italy from abroad. Almost 60% were from China.

   In terms of value, these goods paled in comparison to what Italy was sending out. The average price of the imports was €21.42 (£18.74) per kg; Italy’s outgoing goods cost €134.19 (£117.37) per kg. Still, the convenience and cost of these imports are yet another challenge for Italy’s handbag makers.

   “Globalisation has really put pressure on the traditional Italian market, particularly that boom in cheap foreign labour from close by, like eastern Europe, to further afield – India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam. That’s lured many companies, including luxury brands, into moving abroad,” Paton says. “Luxury is still a really big deal for Italy – it’s 5% of GDP and employs half a million people – but these changes have really put a lot of pressure on the country.”

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   Still, it seems unlikely that the power of the luxury handbag is going away anytime soon. Part of its pull is how it combines function with status. “Obviously, a handbag has a utility. It has a purpose. We all need to carry phones and wallets from A to B. But it’s also value for money,” Paton says. “A thousand pounds is a huge amount to spend on a bag. But if it goes with everything, and you wear it for the next 10 years – you feel like you own a piece of that heritage or brand or culture.”

   Unlike some clothing patterns, a handbag is also something that can appeal to people of all shapes, sizes and ages. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what size you are or what shape you are. Any woman can hold a handbag,” says Paton. “Much like jewellery, a luxury handbag for lots of people is associated with a moment in their lives – an anniversary, or a work cheque. That’s what makes it so powerful.”

   Even as the price gap between hand-crafted bags and their mass-produced counterparts grows ever larger, people are increasingly seeing value in owning a unique product not quite like any other.

   As long as we continue to see a handbag as an investment worth making – and while the most high-end brands, and customers, continue to see artisanship as the heart and soul of a luxury product – we will, much like our ancestors, be carrying our belongings in artisanal, hand-made bags for some time to come.

   Image credits: Lion TV

   Graphics sources: Assopellettieri, Observatory of Economic Complexity

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   The world’s trading routes have been crafted over centuries and yet remain in a constant state of flux. Made on Earth looks at eight everyday products – from bicycles to whisky, spices to semiconductors – and explores the people, countries and intricate global networks that go into making and bringing these goods to market.

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