It’s not for nothing that the “Made in Italy” label carries a gravitas that’s unrivaled (though oft poorly copied) by any number of low-cost fabric manufacturers anywhere else in the world. Time has bolstered the country’s reputation for top-notch textiles but quality can come at a price, and years of slumping sales owed to cheap competition from the likes of China—as well as a strong euro—took a toll on a once-buzzing business.
Now Italy is shifting its attention from storied European luxury labels to the U.S., where exports totaled 5.2 billion euros ($5.6 billion) in 2014, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to data from the Italian Trade Agency. Coinciding with the first-ever U.S. edition of Milano Unica at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, Italy’s vice president of economic development, Carlo Calenda, last week unveiled a 20 million euro ($21.6 million) year-long, multi-tiered strategy to promote its textile, fashion and leather goods in the U.S. market.
Djordje Stefanovic, who works closely with the Milano Unica team, noted that the recent resurgence of American-made clothing made for the perfect opportunity to introduce Italy’s top-tier fabrics to stateside designers, retailers and brands. “A picture doesn’t express what a well-made suit or shirt is,” he quipped.
To that end, here are three age-old mills making high-quality cloth for sharp suits.
Cerruti has been churning out woolen suit fabrics from its factory in the heart of Biella for nearly 135 years. Specializing in wool and wool blends of cashmere, mohair, linen and silk, the fully vertical mill employs 430 people and produces three in-house collections: menswear, comprising classic and fashion; women’s; and sportswear. For men’s alone, seven designers develop between 7,000 and 8,000 different options every season.
Known for its array of lightweight, high-twist textiles spanning Super 120s to 210s—not to mention, an extensive archive—Cerruti is rigorous in its research and development, and supplies its fabrics to customers throughout Europe, the U.S. and Japan. And while the business has gone through a few rough patches over the years, CEO and managing director Daniele Sanzeni is confident the strong dollar will spark a return to Italian-made textiles after years of manufacturers favoring more inexpensive options from Asian mills. “We can note that people were really waiting for an opportunity to come back to Italy to buy,” he said.
Vitale Barberis Canonico
You would be hard pressed to find a textile mill that’s been around as long as Vitale Barberis Canonico. Formed in 1663 and based in Biella, the family-owned business has been handing down tradition for 15 generations. It’s so prodigious, in fact, that it’s part of the elite Les Henokiens, a business club that requires its members to have been in operation for at least 200 years and still run by a direct descendant of the founder.
Producing woolen suit fabrics for nearly 1,400 customers in 90 countries, ranging from mass-produced ready-to-wear to the Savile Rows of the world, the centuries-old institution makes 8.2 million meters of worsted cloth each year and its annual turnover is 117 million euros, or about $129 million. While the company is increasingly producing more non-traditional fabrics (last season, for instance, it introduced a line of technical textiles called “Earth, Wind & Fire”), its Super 150 range is a perennial bestseller, especially in the American market. Another Vitale characteristic: the warp and weft is double twisted, resulting in a cloth that’s strong, drapes well and has good recovery.
In the business since 1836, the family-owned Marzotto Group made headlines in February when it bought a direct 7 percent stake in Hugo Boss—its biggest customer—nearly eight years after it sold the German fashion label, along with Valentino Fashion Group, to London-based private-equity firm Permira.
Headquartered in Valdagno, the company’s textile divisions include: Marzotto Wool Manufacturing, which produces 20 million meters of fabric for men’s and women’s suits on a yearly basis through its brands Fratelli Tallia di Delfino, Guabello and Marlane; Ratti for silk fabrics and accessories; and Marzotto Lab for linen, velvet and stretch fabrics.
With 11 production facilities in Italy and more than 4,000 employees worldwide, Marzotto is one of the biggest textile companies in Europe, raking in 450 million euros (about $497 million) last year. “We export 85 percent of our production, mostly to European countries but also to the U.S. and Japan,” noted CEO Sergio Tamborino, adding that most of the company’s production is based in Italy.
Among its best known products, however, are its high-end woolen weaves, made from raw materials sourced through Australia’s auction system before being combed, dyed, spun, woven and finished at one of the company’s several facilities located across Italy.