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The Little “Made in Italy” Label That Could

By Jackie Mallon

Jul 24, 2017

Fashion |INTERVIEW

“I am fighting every day,” says Antonella Arpaia, co-founder of Manto, a luxury men’s outerwear brand made in Italy, into its fourth season. She is in town taking sales appointments for her Spring collection. “I have to be competitive or I’m nobody. It is a very critical moment,” she says, but her face brightens. “The major Manhattan luxury department store just almost tripled their last Fall order.” The U.S. is Arpaia’s biggest market followed by Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and the U.K. She sells both private label to select department stores and eponymously in specialized boutiques. I sit down with her at her midtown showroom to discuss the challenges and rewards of bringing a new Italian label to the accessible luxury market at a time when fashion’s race to identify new far-off hubs able to manufacture at rocket bottom prices has been crushing even long-established Italian brands.

Against all odds

Made in Italy is expensive,” she says. “I use Loro Piana fabrics, Olmetex, but at a better price. I use mills that can work with small minimums although, on low orders, I must pay a surcharge for the production. Being a small company I am at the back of the line behind the bigger companies. My factories in Bergamo, Puglia, Pisa, my leather one in Milan, make for Fendi, Paul Smith, Prima Linea, but I must make my mark-up reasonable. On some production I earn zero. But even if I only sold three units, I will produce those three units. There are no cancellations. My distributor here in the U.S. is always asking me to raise my mark-up so that we both make more money. But I won’t.”

It’s not the typical modern business model we are used to, but Arpaia’s commitment is unshakeable. She enthusiastically draws my attention to the characteristics of a goatskin bomber, a cashmere reversible jacket with microfiber interior, a water repellent wool silk overcoat, the genius of a “storm system” bib-front blazer, which, chimes in Keith the showroom model, “does double duty. Like this if you are going to work and it’s raining and you don’t want to ruin your expensive tie, then you get to the office you zip the panel off, store it in your desk drawer, and it’s a classic blazer.” He proudly unzips and reattaches the bib. “Everything is super soft and lightweight and perfect for traveling,” adds Arpaia.

Why Made In Italy?

The craftsmanship is exquisite, but I ask her why anyone should care about Made in Italy today. “We believe in Made in Italy and we should stick to our origin, it’s what we know how to do and I’m happy to give work to people at home. Quality is everything. I only see imperfections so won’t sell anything if it’s not how we conceived it. There is a value in Made In Italy, and it still gets a reaction. You are buying something that is not made by children’s hands. I know my factories. I drive to them––in fact my husband is there today––there is a flexibility in being nearby to check everything.”

To illustrate the benefit of location, she recounts a story of receiving a request from one of her most important stores in Boston to create a cashmere coat for a valued client who struggled with traditional menswear sizing. “We are able to create made-to-measure when many companies couldn’t because we are right there, checking patterns, approving modifications. We sent a toile for fitting and tweaked it. The gentleman was excited about his cashmere coat and we were happy to accommodate him.”

Certified 100 Percent transparency

She regularly finds herself in the role of educating people given the nature of today’s fast and fickle industry. “People think that because I don’t own my own factories, that it contributes to the price of my pieces. But this is simply not true. On the contrary we don’t have the factory operations to figure into our mark-up that larger companies do.” If clients cite other brands as giving a better price, Arpaia is happy to point out that, “unfortunately now, the Made in Italy label does not always mean that. I’m fighting that too. Against competitors who are claiming their product is 100 percent made in Italy when I know it’s not true.” She directs my attention to the official framed certificate on her desk which proves the authenticity of her production will never be in dispute.

Small but organically formed

In the Italian tradition, Manto is a family business. Arpaia, and her husband and business partner, Luca, who deals with supplies and mills, met while working at Versace in the early 00s. The third member of the team, Eliza who, as we speak, is meeting clients in their Milan showroom, Arpaia met while working for the century-old Italian outerwear brand Valstar. After she makes a quick call to Luca, a short Skype with Eliza, I sense the trio’s well-oiled easy professionalism, and no doubt, their combined logged experience has prepared them for the ups and downs they face.

A New Dolce Vita

John McCoy who manages Manto’s U.S. distribution and showroom, Components, drops by to reminisce briefly about his early days in Milan living “la dolce vita, staying at he Principe di Savoia, driving fancy cars,” which inspired him to begin his successful career bringing Italian brands to the U.S. during the surge of Giorgio Armani and Versace. “It was a time of artists and makers; a great era. But that time has come again. Italy doesn’t produce commodity; it produces luxury.”

I conclude by asking Arpaia if she is optimistic for the future of her young brand. She says, “I am, but I’m also fearful because bigger brands can advertise more, invest more. We’re not conglomerate-owned and it’s intimate. However I’m reasonable. I like to do things honestly. Maybe my customer will be more loyal to me. I will never be rich but it’s okay. As far as we can live and produce something nice out of this effort we grew, I can be optimistic.”

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos provided by Manto and author’s own.