Italy is known around the world for its high-quality fashion industry. Italian fashion manufacturers represent more than 40 percent of Europe’s fashion industry as a whole — and produce nearly 100 per cent of luxury fashion industry goods around the world. To put it in even starker terms: As the Italian economy slowed down in the second half of 2018, fashion grew by 3.5 percent, with an average export of around 7 percent. How is this possible?
“Fashion for the Italian people is a part of life. It is something that we have in our blood,” explained Claudio Marenzi, President of the luxury fashion retailer, Herno. “For Italy, fashion is something that belongs to our history, and the future of the fashion industry is to strengthen this message all over the world — because the world needs quality, and needs ‘Made in Italy’.”
It was precisely this determination – to catapult the extroversion and notoriety of Italy’s fashion industry – that saw Marenzi named the first president of Confindustria Moda, the Italian Federation of Textiles, Fashion, and Accessories, that came to life in January 2018. Seen as a ‘super federation’, it represents over 67,000 export-oriented Italian companies. The true weight of Confindustria Moda, however, goes beyond its numbers, and resides in how the creation of the organisation represents a paradigm shift within the sector, uniting 7 associations under one umbrella, to jointly raise the profile of the entire supply chain. Each association took a step back, explained Marenzi, overcoming the individualism that has characterised the industry for a long time.
Nevertheless, being at the forefront of Italy’s fashion industry is something the Marenzi family has been doing since the establishment of Herno. The company’s journey commenced as a raincoat producer in 1948, in Lesa, a small town on the shores of Lake Maggiore, in the Italian region of Piedmont. Known today for its picturesque views, Lesa is also exceptionally humid. Marenzi’s parents, Giuseppe Marenzi and Alessandra Diana, established a factory nearby the Erno River – which inspired the company’s name. Having previously worked for a raincoat company, his father developed a technique to improve the waterproofing of fabrics through the use of castor oil, which was also used as a fuel during the Second World War. While his mother made the raincoats, his father handled their sales, which quickly took off.
Diversification into cashmere coats, and double-sided garments, commenced in the 1960s, and was soon followed by additional garments, ranging from suits for men, to dresses for women. The Herno brand created an identity based on quality and functionality, combined with elegance, and Italian style. And then too began Herno’s export blaze, with sales across Europe, and eventually to Japan, in1971.
Marenzi explained, that by chance, Herno started operating in the Japanese market, after a Japanese businessman discovered their products when visiting the town of Lesa. Herno opened a boutique in the city of Osaka, effectively becoming one of the first Italian companies to venture into the Japanese market. While the experience did not come without its challenges, the learning curve contributed to shaping the quality that is synonymous with the brand today. “The Japanese market is very, very demanding, and very difficult” said Marenzi, however, “they in some way trained us, from that period on, to make really great quality items.”
Entry into the US market came about in the 1980s, and the company has since expanded to Korea, Russia (for their winter items), and all across the European continent. The 1990s marked a turning point for Herno, when it began to produce garments for some of the most renowned luxury fashion companies, including Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton – all drawn to the quality of Herno’s manufacturing.
Claudio Marenzi grew up running between the stream and the garden around his family’s Herno factory, while he played with cotton reels, paper patterns, and fabrics. He joined the company when he was just 20 years old. Marenzi rose through the ranks, from salesman to Director, and eventually took over as President of the company in 2011. However, his true footprint within Herno would commence as early as 2005, when Marenzi took a gamble on focusing exclusively on the development of the Herno brand, ceasing to produce garments for third parties. “I tried to convince the family to change the strategy, because the previous strategy was not working anymore”, he said. This, however, was just the beginning.
Marenzi decided the company needed to go back to its origins, concentrating on the initial elements that had catapulted the brand – quality, innovation, and functionality; yet he brought new elements to the mix: a fresh vision and modernisation.
“The company, at the beginning (…) was a raincoat company. This is something that is related with a function”, explained Marenzi, “so, I said, OK, we have to make only items related with that.” The Lesa factory was converted into a creative building site – massive investments were made – to transform old machinery, and upgrade manufacturing methods. But it was the designing process that experienced an avant-garde transformation.
Marenzi’s team have since redefined the concept of luxury outerwear, by combining contrasting fabrics and innovative techniques, such as heat-bonded taping, and ultrasound stitching – all the while retaining the craftsmanship and heritage that have been developed throughout the company’s 71 years. With that history, “our mantra is not just to make a fashion collection, but something that is always related to function,” said Marenzi.
And so began a new epoch for Herno, under the leadership of Claudio Marenzi, with heightened focus on investment in eco-sustainability — along with R&D and technology. “Something that we are doing very well, is to combine new techniques with tradition,” Marenzi noted. “This is because we hold [on] to tradition (…) If you know the history, you can go forward.”
And forward is definitely the direction in which Marenzi is leading the company as President. He’s centred on extroversion, and increasing revenues, all the while increasing brand awareness. He’s looking to new markets throughout Europe and Asia. And he’s ensuring that the high ‘Made in Italy’ quality, that consumers around the world have come to know and love, remains the biggest selling point.
Deepening the brand’s international footing was logically next on Marenzi’s list. His focus? The US market. “Five years ago, despite the fact that the US was quite a flat market for all Italian fashion businesses, I realised that our US market was one third of the Japanese — where in a normal distribution, it should be to the contrary. So, I focused my attention on the US market. Right now, they are our second [largest] market — they used to be the fourth or fifth — and very close to Japan [which is number one],” Marenzi enthused.
Herno’s New York store opened in 2017, to huge success. At the same time they continued with plans to keep expanding into key cities across Europe. Exports now represent around 70 percent of the company’s total turnover. And Herno has grown from 7 million euros in revenue in 2007, to an expected 105-106 million in 2018.
As economies around the world — including Italy’s — struggle through ups and downs, it seems like Herno’s expansion plan has been nothing but successful. Why? “The most important key of our success is the people, and the heritage of people. Inside our business, in the luxury sportswear, our main strength is the capability to manufacture our own items, not to use an outside supply chain,” explained Marenzi.
So, it’s really the combination of high-quality functionality, with high-quality fashion, that makes Herno very marketable to people from all backgrounds — and what makes the Italian fashion industry writ large enormously appealing around the world.
Another unique selling point of the Herno brand in particular, is that it is closely linked to the environment and outdoors. That’s why in their two new flagship stores — a larger store in Milan, and the first outpost in Paris — a library, a fountain, and a vertical garden, characterise the scenery, while the brand’s collection is displayed on Herno’s iconic steel and leather hooks.
What is the secret behind the success of Italy’s luxury-fashion industry? Marenzi believes the main pillar of Italian success, lies within their craftsmanship and heritage – the fact that products are actually made in Italy. “‘Made in Italy’ is the big value that we have all over the world,” said Marenzi. “All over the world, people who want quality, want ‘Made in Italy’. This is something that is inside our DNA — to make quality.”
However, innovation holds the key to companies’ long-term survival. “So, what we have to understand in Italy, is that we should improve our company in terms of supply chain and IT, but not touch the manufacturing part. This, in my opinion, should be the key to the future success of companies in Italy.”
Heritage, quality, and innovation. Those are the drivers of Italy’s fashion industry, they are what make Italian products unique, and are what ultimately make the concept of ‘Made In Italy’, something that consumers around the world are incapable of shying away from.