“Made in Italy” has long been one of the most respected and desired labels in the fashion world. Renowned for its luxury designs, exceptional tailoring, and high-quality craftsmanship since the 11th century, Italy’s economy is largely built on fashion. Naturally, Italy recognizes that its economy is rooted in familial culture. Family-owned apparel and shoe factories are the cornerstone of Italy’s fashion legacy, and their manufacturing traditions, passed down from generation to generation, set them apart from other manufacturing countries. “Their labor isn’t something that can be replicated,” says Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s former Prime Minister. And as a result, even prominent fashion brands like Prada and Versace depend on family-owned Italian factories because they commit to producing collections with the finest textile craftsmanship. Matteo Pasca, the director of Arsutoria School, a Milan-based institute for design and technical training, elaborates on the importance of high-quality clothing production in Italy. “To be able to have these high-quality products, you need to have high-quality people making them because this job is really labor-intensive,” explains Pasca. “You cannot substitute the workers with the machines. If you lose the people, you lose the value in the products.”
With Italy’s deep pride in high-quality craftsmanship and multi-generational manufacturing traditions, different regions have developed specializations for certain fashion materials. Here are three regions from which to source Italy’s finest fabrics for your fashion brand.
Como, Lombardia: The European Capital of Silk
Silk production began in Italy during the Crusades and grew significantly during the 16th century, as Italy expanded its silk trading system. Italy experienced even more silk expansion as the country entered the Industrial Revolution, and new weaving technologies such as the Jacquard loom increased production efficiency. However, in the 20th century Italy lost its foothold on silk to China and Japan because of a silkworm disease epidemic that caused significant production decreases. But Italy regained its traction in silk production as the country focused on raising silkworms, and now Italy stands as a prominent silk producer, particularly in the Como province.
Located in the northernmost province in the Lombardia region, Como is a popular tourist destination with exquisite scenery. But the province’s scenery isn’t just for looks: the alpine lakes and streams supply fresh water crucial to silk production. In addition, the fresh water sustains the area’s strong presence of mulberry trees, the main habitat and preferred food of silkworms.
As the self-proclaimed “European Capital of Silk,” Como houses nearly 1,000 companies in the silk industry and employs more than 20,000 workers. The province boasts of its strong silk industry--Como even features museums such as the Antonio Ratti Foundation and the Lake Como Silk Museum to showcase the region’s extraordinary universe of silk production. With all of Como’s silk fame, prominent fashion brands such as Versace, Valentino, and Gucci source their silk from the Lombardia region. Their specialty silk shops and factory stores offer both fashion brands and silk connoisseurs some of the world’s finest silk.
Prato: Italy’s Wool-Recycling Hub
Italy’s textile industry has called Prato, located in the Province of Prato, home since the 12th century. As Tuscany’s second largest city (right after Florence), Prato produces nearly 12 million garments each year. Famous for its textile district, the city represents an astonishing 3% of European textile production. Within textile production, Prato is particularly known for its longstanding wool-recycling system, which began in the mid-19th century. In wartime, entrepreneurs created the wool-recycling system in response to wool’s high prices. As a result, the wool-recycling system, which still thrives today, significantly reduces production costs because the recycling system re-introduces wool to the production cycle without the dyeing process.
To recycle wool, manufacturers first begin by compressing woolen rags into bales. Then, they will use the woolen bales to create what the industry calls “regenerated carded wool” or “mechanical wool” -- this term is used to explain the process of returning used sweaters and clothing to their fiber status. After making mechanical wool, manufacturers will separate the fibers based on their color to avoid dyeing the textiles. This allows manufacturers to avoid the environmental damages caused by dyeing and cut manufacturing costs.
In Prato about 7,000 small textile businesses specialize in one stage of the textile manufacturing process. Indeed, certain manufacturers are specifically recognized for their spinning, warping, weaving, dyeing, finishing, or printing techniques. From these textile specializations emerge an abundance of yarn. Every six months, Prato’s textile businesses produce 2,000 new yarns, 60,000 new textile designs, and hundreds of new fabric collections. In 2017 alone, Prato’s textile industry converted 142 million kilograms of materials into fibers. Because of its robust textile industry, large fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, Banana Republic, and Armani have all partnered with Prato textile producers to include recycled fabrics into their collections.
Puglia: Italy’s Cotton Center
Located in Italy’s southern-eastern region, Puglia (or Apulia) is known for its temperate climate. The region’s long, dry summers and warmer winters create the perfect environment to grow crops. Puglia is particularly known for growing two important crops--olives (producing more than 40% of Italy’s olive oil and 12% of the world’s) and cotton.
Cotton production in Puglia started in the 12th century. Unlike the silk and wool industries--which developed for elite consumption-- cotton was designed for the masses. As a result, the cotton industry expanded economic markets and increased consumer demand for more affordable fabrics. Additionally, cotton’s mass production required more cost-effective solutions to process and transport large quantities of cotton fiber. As Puglia’s cotton industry proliferated, it modeled its sourcing and production after the Islamic world because of its expanded agronomic knowledge. Since that time, Puglia has become Italy’s cotton capital and attracts both fashion brands and consumers alike who are committed to high-quality, natural fibers.
Puglia stands out from other cotton-producing centers like India or Egypt because of its commitment to tradition and quality. Many small textile businesses in Puglia, for example, still use artisanal approaches for their cotton textiles, including mitered corners, hand embroidery, and hand-dyeing. Additionally, most of Puglia’s cotton mills receive certifications that guarantee quality and ensure that no harmful additives or chemicals are used in cotton production. Because of Puglia’s high production standards, fashion brands strategically partner with Apulian cotton mills.
For example, one prominent fashion brand in the Puglia region is ILLUAH. The brand’s creative directors, who formerly worked for YSL in Paris and Vogue Italia, built ILLUAH on sustainability. As a sustainable fashion brand, ILLUAH focuses on “creating and collaborating with artisans who appreciate and work within the guidelines of sustainability and quality.” Thus, they exclusively collaborate with an Apulian family-run company to create their knitwear collection. Like ILLUAH, many fashion brands flock to Puglia to access the same cotton artisans because of the region’s longstanding commitment to quality and sustainability.
Finding Fabrics that Fit Your Fashion Business
To find the right textile artisan for your fashion business, it’s important to keep Italy’s unique manufacturing traditions in mind. Because many factories in Italy are still family-owned, they’re still small, so locating the right factory for your brand will be challenging. Since family-owned factories in Italy are rooted in tradition, they won’t bother publishing their information on a website. Rather than maintain an up-to-date website (if they even have one), Italian factories devote their labor instead to their artisanal craft. Additionally, these family-owned factories don’t partner with just any fashion brand--they require vetting from a trusted industry confidant, usually an industry expert tied to the local manufacturing scene. Furthermore, communicating with these family-owned factories requires Italian fluency to establish and ensure contract compliance. Finding a third-party resource, like a manufacturers’ broker or a paid verified suppliers directory, will help you gain an understanding of each region’s manufacturing scene and get started on contacting the right textiles and materials manufacturers for your fashion line.