stevemedcroft.com
1Jan/190

Why Made In Italy matters

Or, Does Made in Italy matter?

I am a partner in a small business with an Italian cycling clothing manufacturer called Santini. My company acts as the U.S distributor, meaning I import product from the factory in Bergamo, Italy and sell and ship it to consumers and wholesale accounts in the United States.

Santini is a proud and successful family business. Started in 1967 and well established globally as a leader in clothing for cyclists, Santini is run today by the founder's daughters. Santini makes almost everything bearing its label in its own factory and has about 120 employees, many who have been with the business for years, even decades. Santini has built long-term partnerships with the world's top professional teams, several of the world's most prominent cycling events, and the Olympic organizing body for the sport of cycling. They are masters at what they do and every year put out world-class iterations of padded shorts, tight-fitting and colorful jerseys, and all the other specialty clothes people who ride and race bicycles wear.

Americans seem to love all things Italian. Italian brands carry a certain cache. They are respected and sought after, even if they are Italian in name and not necessarily origin (an Italian company who makes product somewhere else to save cost). Italian products have such a good desirability factor that even completely non-Italian companies operating out of cheap-to-produce regions like China and South America adopt Italian-sounding names. But why? Why is Italian cycling clothing held in so much regard? Is it actually better? Is there something to the idea that it is somehow better than clothing made in other places?

I've been working with Santini for seven years now. Early in our partnership, at a U.S. trade show, Monica Santini asked me if Made in Italy truly matters to the U.S. customer. There were a lot of Italian brands at the show and the audience seemed to really like and admire the products. What was the audience reacting to? The fact that these products were authentically made in Italy? Or something else about them that could come from anywhere?

Ask anyone if Made in America matters and the answers come freely; to support your own country because we have labor laws so you know the people were treated fairly, to keep your hard-earned dollars in the U.S., because you believe Americans are industrious and smart and skilled so therefore their products will be superior. But Made in Italy?
My friends and acquaintances admit a certain lust for Italian products, but most are not able to articulate a real, tangible reason why it matters if it was actually Made In Italy. Because it's cool or because it's beautiful are the top answers.

I appreciate, and benefit from, the lust for all things Italian. But it's not enough for someone to want our products just because they're cool (or because some magazine or piece of marketing tells you they're cool). I would rather people made a more conscious decision. You have options. If you're going to choose Italian-made, know why. Make a conscious choice.

A formula for excellence

In my opinion, there are five main reasons why Italian products are special. I know some of the insights below are generalizations (they don't apply to every Italian company and could easily apply to products from other places). But for this exercise, these are my observations of what makes Made in Itlay mean something from time spent with Italian companies.

History: Even though many first-world nations have moved on from a manufacturing economy, Italy is still very much a country that makes things. Maybe because Italy is also a family-driven culture, meaning there are a lot of businesses in operation that makes things and are the legacies that previous generations are handing down to their offspring. This is true for Santini. They are a prime example of an Italian multi-generation family manufacturing business. For fifty-one consecutive years, a Santini family member has led the business. They have guided the development and design of the products, established the partnerships, managed the global distribution, and overseen and improved the manufacturing process. The standards that were set by the founder, that allowed his products to stand out in the early market for cycling-specific clothing, have been baked into the business. It is this fifty-one-year history that sets the framework for the everyday operation that leads to the quality standard the products enjoy. There are thousands of similar family manufacturing businesses in Italy, which creates a product culture tied closely to family pride and obligation.

Experience: Italian labor law favors long-term and stable employment. When you hire into an Italian business, you are making a long-term decision, and the company is making a semi-permanent commitment to you. Employees become like family and rarely leave. The experience they bring and the experience they gain while employed stays within the company. Santini is being run by the adult daughter of the founder. She grew up, literally, in the factory (the family had an apartment on the factory grounds when she was in her early teens). The business benefits from everything she's ever learned. There are seamstresses working on the factory floor who've been with Santini for over thirty years. In fact, across the business, there are hundreds and hundreds of accumulated years of experience at work making the products the company sells. That collective, institutional experience leads to better and more innovative products.

Passion for the product: If you ask an American company how their business is going, chances are you'll hear about their financial results. They'll tell you if they grew, if they hit their goals, how much profit did they make. It is normal for us in the U.S. to define ourselves financially because our culture tells us that the sole purpose and motivation for any business endeavor is profit. In Italy, if you ask an owner how their business is doing, they are much more likely to show you the products they are making and ask what you think of them. Could you see the detail that went into making it? Could you see the technological innovations that make it superior? This has happened to me repeatedly in Italy. I know that most people who make things have pride in it, but the way Italians put pride of product above all other measures of success is unique, and I think leads to better products.

A beauty culture: Some of the most stunning luxury products come from Italy. In automobiles (Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati), Fashion (Prada, Gucci) and in pretty much every other product category there is, the most aspirational brands are Italian. Italians (again, I'm generalizing, but this is an observation) take national pride in the global status of their iconic brands and the sense of flair and style they represent. This pride in Italian style and status impacts Italy at every level. It is as if you are representing Italy when you sell your products outside the country, and that you have a responsibility to all Italians to hold yourself to the bar set by brands like those above. There is pride in product in other places in the world as well, but only in Italy do I see that pride of product expressed as the responsibility of Italian companies to put out products that fit the Italian sense of place in the world as leader of style and fashion.

Technological mastery: Because there are so many companies still actually making things in Italy, and many of them are proud, family (or closely held private) companies, the Italian home market is extremely competitive. Small footprint manufacturers like Santini are always looking to innovate as a way to stay ahead. Santini has invested in high-end machinery in the factory to make their processes fast and repeatable and they work with like-minded suppliers to source raw materials that put their products on the cutting edge. In a world that says you should make things as cheaply as possible to maximize profit, Santini, like many Italian companies, focuses on investments that raise the level of their products and ensure what they make is the pinnacle of what can be done in their space.

So there you have it. The real reasons Made in Italy matters. It matters because not many non-Italian cycling clothing companies have over fifty years of history and experience perfecting clothing for cycling enthusiasts and racers. Not many outside companies have direct access to the technical innovation available in the Italian textiles market. Not many non-Italian clothing manufacturers invest in the equipment, processes, and people it takes to create durable, highly-technical clothing in a dependable, repeatable way. And it matters because Italian national pride is tied very closely to their position as the maker of the world's most coveted and beautiful things.

What do you think?