The State of Made-In-Italy: How Milan’s Footwear Industry Is Reinventing Itself for 2021

As Milan Fashion Week kicks off its own strange, virtual-only experiment for the fall ’21 season, its crown jewel — footwear — still stands strong, even amidst the tectonic changes it is encountering.

No country has a bigger footwear legacy than Italy. The shoe mecca has been the pinnacle of craftsmanship for as long as modern fashion has existed — and it’s still the place where every notable luxury brand goes to create its shoes and accessories. Like jewelry and watchmaking, creating designer and luxury footwear requires a certain savoir-faire, one that is often passed down in families from one generation to the next.

Still, as it is in every other industry, footwear is in flux, the pandemic upending processes that have long been established, questioning what traditions will stay and what traditions must go. It is especially true for Italian footwear, whose artisanal generational divide could be viewed as representative of the country’s aging population and demographic recession.

As MFW marches on digitally this week, a closer look at how Italy’s footwear is finding a new footing, from shifting fashion calendars and new production opportunities, to the next generation of designers with a whole new agenda.

New Ways of Doing Business

A quick glance at the calendar from the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (Milan Fashion Week’s guiding organization) reveals a few telling shifts in both footwear and ready-to-wear. Both Versace and Gucci are off the runway this week. Gone are brands such as Jimmy Choo (a longtime MFW participant that shifted its strategy after showing its last presentation for fall ’20, just before global lockdowns). Heritage brand Casadei is also off the calendar, opting to show independently to partners and press virtually, through one-on-one appointments. Gianvito Rossi is still on the calendar, but today showed a see-now, buy-now spring ’21 collection, full of colorful PVC heeled sandals and slides in lieu of a fall preview.

PVC heels from Gianvito Rossi spring '21.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Gianvito Rossi

The week is still chock-full of shoe presentations, from the likes of stalwarts like Giuseppe Zanotti, René Caovilla and Sergio Rossi. But without a fully unifying digital platform (a flawed medium, even for its ready-to-wear counterparts) the experience is even more fragmented, relying heavily on previous relationships to carry on with business. New partnerships have been forged, however, not just through Instagram DMs but also through new platforms such as Clubhouse, where Nicky Hilton and Tina Leung joins Zanotti today as he talks about his fall ’21 collection and the future of fashion.

“The past few months gave us an opportunity to connect even more frequently and with more calm with our retail partners,” said Giorgia Bonini of family-owned showroom Massimo Bonini, which set up its own virtual showroom back in April. “I think this time is giving everybody a chance to reassess the strategies and put the basis for what will be the future.”

Production Woes Lead to Innovation — And Possible Investment

When Italy bore the brunt of the pandemic’s devastation last spring, its lockdown forced complete closure of footwear manufacturers among everything else. While the country was able to open most businesses by early summer, localized outbreaks through the rest of 2020 to present have created a stop-start effect that has touched every facet of the production chain, from factory to marketing.

“Made in Italy is not made just of fashion brands but of many important artisans that contribute to the perfection of our creations,” said Cesare Casadei, designer of Casadei and a third-generation family member of the brand. “We must protect them, the impact of the economic situation is terrible on them. We must help them to survive, otherwise the whole system will collapse.”

Brands with their own factories fared better, as they were able to react faster to local challenges, thus reopening faster and resuming their supply chain with minimal impact. Such has been the experience of Sergio Rossi, whose updated San Mauro Pascoli manufacture provided both the physical space and technological organization to react quickly.

Sergio Rossi fall '21.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sergio Rossi

“The factory is becoming more and more important,” said Sergio Rossi CEO Riccardo Sciutto, who noted that the brand plans to keep its production hub open every day from the beginning of January through August and has hired more workers. “Thanks to the factory, we can be more flexible to the market, more reactive, we can move merchandise between countries. The factory is crucial and it was already part of our plan.”

The pandemic may have exposed cracks in Italy’s footwear production system, highlighting the challenges of independent, family-owned factories that often have aging owners and operators. But the crisis could also result in a consolidation and modernization of the system. After all, the current acquisition interest in Sergio Rossi has much to do with its factory update, which has resulted in new production partnerships with Bottega Veneta and Amina Muaddi in the past year. Coupled with a recent shift away from production in China, Italy’s manufacturers might even be able to take on more affordable luxury brands, if investment interest remains.

Reworking the Fashion Calendar

Spring lockdowns brought forth an industry-wide call for reimagining the fashion calendar, with many designers and brands putting support behind efforts such as Rewiring Fashion. The aim was threefold: To stop the frenetic pace of producing too many collections a year, a system that was burning out designers and creative teams; to shift deliveries so that product would arrive in stores and points of sale when consumers were actually looking for them; and to avoid the cycle of markdowns.

For many brands, production delays forced a necessary shift in their delivery calendars for the fall ’20, spring ’21 and adjacent seasons, as orders backed up, were canceled or edited.

But as production begins to stabilize again, there is still no consensus on what the new calendar should look like.

“Generally, our retail partners have stuck with the traditional fashion calendar but there’s definitely a bit more flexibility and openness towards brands that are working on different timing both in terms of showings and deliveries,” said Bonini, who noted that this season’s sales campaign will stretch from now until late March to accommodate both shifting delivery schedules and a missed December market season. “We hope that a real change will happen, but I think it will take a couple of years and it must be a unanimous strategy that is endorsed and actually put into action by all the major brands and players. The independent brands and boutiques alone will have a hard time changing this system.”

Giannico's new sneakers for fall '21.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Giannico

Despite any retail pressure that may exist, many designers are moving forward with their own path. Florence-based brand Les Petits Joueurs has moved to showing only two collections a year, while Nicolò Beretta, creative director of both his own line Giannico and L’Autre Chose, is waiting until April to release his spring ’21 collection for each brand. “Everything becomes old very quickly,” said Beretta. “To have a product available at the right time is important. Why would you buy a pair a of sparkly sandals right now?”

Where to Sell?

For a brand, shifting its preview and delivery calendars has become inextricably linked to its retail portfolio — and if they are relying on wholesale and multi-brand partners at all.

After riding the wave of caché and exclusivity that Barneys New York afforded Giannico — and then watching it come crashing down — Beretta set about ramping up his digital and e-commerce imprint, shifting to focus more heavily on direct-to-consumer digital sales. The designer is continuing that strategy, keeping key retail partners while relaunching Giannico’s website later this spring.

Many independent designers were already following the path of direct-to-consumer prior to the pandemic, hoping to capitalize on the momentum that social media — specifically Instagram — has given to sales for small and emerging brands. But emerging brands still acknowledge the prestige, validation and instant buzz that comes with securing a high-profile retail partner. “We have a strong message and strong branding, which is fundamental,” said Pamela Costantini, who co-founded MFW newcomer Iindaco with Domitilla Rapisardi. “And actually that leads us to the retailers because we gain credibility.”

Others still are trying to think of dueling distribution and sales strategies more holistically.

“The word ‘wholesale’ is an old word,” said Sciutto, who has been developing software for Sergio Rossi that aims to analyze distribution across all of the brand’s sales channels. Set to roll out for the spring ’22 season, the system will streamline logistics to focus on the ultimate end-goal of getting product to the consumer, regardless of what the point of sale is.

“The good part of being a family business is that you can be very fast in reacting and flexible,” said Casadei, who noted that the brand’s e-commerce has fully supplemented store closures due to lockdowns over the past year. “I am glad to have my daughter Arianna on my side. She is part of the digital generation, managing kick-off of our e-commerce years ago and she immediately reacted to the lockdown, implementing the omni-channel in order to have one main stock available to support the growing online requests. That helped a lot.”

A New Generation

The younger Casadei is part of a new crop of footwear powerhouses that are ultimately pushing made-in-Italy into its next chapter, the pandemic serving as the catalyst for modernization.

“It’s a very traditional industry. Most of the factories and most of the people who work in the industry belong to a different generation,” said Beretta, who noted he will focus on recycled materials, inclusion messaging and charity projects for the next season . “This industry needs to become more modern and contemporary, and I don’t know exactly how that will happen. At the same time I think that the traditionally aspects of the footwear industry are what makes it so fascinating.”

“Understanding what’s next, how our habits and lifestyle will react once ‘the new normal’ begins (is the challenge),” said Mariasole Cecchi of Les Petits Joueurs. “Fashion and design will have to evolve accordingly and we must be ready.” 

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