And indeed the brocades, lace, fabrics and knitwear that have been a key feature of recent Italian fashion date back to these periods, and to the Renaissance in particular. A significant degree of consolidation took place, however, in the late nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth, which saw the founding of some of the most important companies still successfully operating on the market today. There was a shift away from what just a short time previously had been small, family-run tailors and dressmakers towards highly organised and structured industrial concerns. These rapidly acquired an international reach, making themselves known throughout the world by taking part in trade fairs and events, entering into agreements with local partners and, in particular, opening branches and offices in the countries where they sold their goods.
The fashion market in Italy today
Before looking at how digital technologies are changing the way the fashion sector works in Italy, we should see how much it is worth for the national economy as a whole. A study carried out by the Study and Research Department of Intesa Sanpaolo in 2018, using data published by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), showed that the Italian fashion system exceeded €24 billion of added value in 2017, equivalent to 10% of the added value in manufacturing. It employed about 500,000 people (15.5% of the total in manufacturing), ranking fourth overall after iron and steel, mechanical engineering, and food and beverages / tobacco. According to another study, by R&S Mediobanca, the total turnover of the Italian fashion sector exceeded €60 billion in 2017.
From needle to CAD-CAM
The arrival of digital technologies in a sector with such deep roots in Italian culture has been a gradual and not always linear process, even though a number of recent developments have been changing, and sometimes even revolutionising, the fashion industry’s way of working. The most mundane example is that of design technologies, which are now based on computer-aided design (CAD) software and incorporated in value chains that also include computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems, especially in the ready-to-wear sector. This means that the models are increasingly designed on computers, which are also used for all the tests on the materials, colours, and combinations, as well as the most suitable production methods. One of the most significant examples (and also one of the first in Italy) was the one adopted by Missoni for manufacturing its knitwear (www.missoni.com), based on patterns designed using CAD, which made it possible to reduce the time to create the first samples from two months to … 24 hours.
In actual fact, the use of CAD-CAM technologies is most widely and successfully used when, as in the case of Missoni knitwear, the production and sales volumes are fairly high. This is because they use the distribution channels, such as department stores, that are closest to traditional consumers. This naturally does not exclude the fact that the traditional ‘artisanal’, handmade approach to design and production has expanded for higher-end customers and for more luxury garments.
Virtual fitting rooms
Methods have now been created to allow fashion and accessory retailers to give their customers the opportunity to try out garments and choose colours in virtual reality, using a screen installed, for example, inside a fitting room, which makes it possible to ‘wear’ the garments virtually, seeing them on the screen.
A practical example of this solution is the one made by VEM Sistemi, a system integrator in Emilia Romagna, in the central part of Italy. The system involves the use of what is termed a ‘magic mirror’ – a screen on which the client can see and try on garments virtually, choosing the colours or accessories. These can then be sent directly to the fitting room by the staff, who receive instructions in real time from a computer on smartwatches hooked up via Wi-Fi.
Managing the most flexible channel
Another system solves one of the problems normally encountered by retail chains when opening new stores, especially in cities far from the company headquarters. It reduces time and costs, as well as technical difficulties, by making the store efficient and immediately productive.
The solution is based on Cisco Meraki technology and has been implemented across the international chain (over 120 stores) of Gruppo La Perla (https://www.laperla.com/). A renowned producer of lingerie, men’s and women’s underwear, corsetry, swimwear, perfumery and other products, La Perla was founded by Ada Masotti in Bologna in 1954 and now operates around the world, with its own stores in France, Spain, Germany and the United States. The system now in use makes it possible to link up and configure new stores in a very short time. In particular, expert technical staff are no longer needed on-site, since the implementation of the system is carried out in the cloud, in a very simple and intuitive way.
Leather goods follow a beaten track
Also in the Italian fashion sector, but this time in leather goods and footwear, we find two examples of optimisation in manufacturing.
On the one hand, there is Del Brenta (https://www.delbrenta.com/), a company in Veneto that designs and makes heels for women’s shoes for some of the top fashion brands. It has optimised collaboration in production with a series of systems that automate meetings in the company and with customers, as well as the design stages of new models. On the other hand, we have Piquadro (https://www.piquadro.com/), a multinational leather-goods company based in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, which uses IT to optimise the flow of digital information between the various departments involved in designing and manufacturing its various articles.
Everything is in place for an authentic digital revolution in the fashion sector in Italy, even though many companies – often small or medium-sized – do not always have the financial resources needed to get long-term investment programmes off the ground. Even so, the advent of cloud computing and web technologies, coupled with the commoditisation of ICT – in other words, the spread of increasingly cheap systems that are user-friendly and customisable – make future prospects look very enticing.
The headway made by technologies in the fashion sector will certainly have an impact on some professionals, and particularly on manual workers, but creative professionals and production find, and will continue to find, huge advantages in digital systems. Fashion store chains will be increasingly managed using new technologies: increasingly powerful video walls, virtual reality and multimedia systems will facilitate the jobs of sales staff, who will take on a more advisory role. From the creation of new garments and fabrics through to production and sales, information and communication technology will certainly open up interesting scenarios for the fashion market. Especially in Italy, where it accounts for a significant part of national GDP.