"Made in Italy" no longer means what it used to, thanks to an increasing number of Chinese-run clothing factories opening up in a Tuscan town.
Italy's textile industry has always been the best of the best, seemingly immune to fast fashion's cheap manufacturing. But a new article by the BBC sheds a light on why that's no longer the case.
The Florence-adjacent city of Prato has long been home to a small industry of Italian-owned textile units where clothes were made cheaply, but with Italian fabrics--often with the help of Chinese workers.
However, the Chinese have "beaten the Italians at their own game," as BBC puts it, by setting up their own factories and using cheaper fabrics imported from China. Now, there are 4,000 Chinese-run clothing factories in Prato producing garments for retailers including Primark, H&M, and Topshop.
"There are now more Chinese garment manufacturers than there are Italian textile producers," according to Marco Landi, president of the Tuscany branch of trade body CNA.
And even though their products are neither made by Italians, nor with Italian fabrics, the tags still read "Made in Italy."
As long as this continues to go on unregulated, the question is: Can the Italians compete?
To do so, Italy, like every other country/industry facing threatening Chinese competition, would have to capitalize on its other strengths--namely, design skill. "Italian companies can't compete on price, their strength lies in the area of aesthetics," said Landi.
"Italian textile companies have long outsourced the early stages of tissue production. But they have the traditional skills needed for the unique finishes and state-of-the art features that come at the end of the fabric production chain. The same is true of clothes."
So far, the Chinese have yet to be able to compete with the Europeans in terms of design; but they're apparently trying. According to Lu Chen, a 24 year-old Chinese model living in Italy, other young Chinese are studying at Italian fashion schools.
What's more, Miuccia Prada recently lamented the burgeoning trend of Italian luxury labels selling to entities in other countries like France. “With the sale of our luxury labels to foreigners, our entire system risks falling into second league,” Prada said, “Because if our brands cross our borders, the credit, glamour, fame, and decision-making is in the hands of others, and we are abandoned, downgraded.”
Still, as Italian "couture" designer Ermanno Scervino puts it, "beauty, art and craftsmanship have been treasured since the Renaissance." Can a country that has, comparatively, only recently begun to get into the textile game really compete with that?