Why can’t we have August-long vacations like Italians?

A look at U.S. vacation habits compared to those enjoyed by our counterparts in other countries with important fashion capitals can prompt cubicle disgruntlement and serious crises about our work-life balance around this time of year.

The European summer shutdown

The great summer shutdown that sweeps across Europe somewhere between Bastille Day and Labor Day is something of an alien concept to us in the U.S., viewed as anything from quirky to enviable to slacking off. But this sacrosanct tradition is long-standing in Madrid, Paris, or Milan––where it dates back to 18 BC when Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the decision to link up various holidays during the month of August––and even across the English Channel when during the Industrial Revolution all the workers of a factory in the North of England might set off together for an Italian beach resort because one missing worker meant the whole assembly line ceased to function.

La bella Vita

Italy’s shutdown is perhaps the one most linked to the fashion industry, formed around Ferragosto, a public holiday celebrated on 15 August which also honors the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary. With the sun at its hottest and the coastline beckoning, manufacturers from the hills of Tuscany to landlocked Milan down tools for the entire month. Overseas clients awaiting delivery of samples must manage their expectations during this month (similarly to how those working with Chinese production must factor Chinese New Year into 2 weeks straddling January and February), and American designers must simply apply blind faith that their collections will arrive in time for New York Fashion Week’s September runway.

Why can’t we have August-long vacations like Italians?

Italian vacation habits, just like their leather craftsmanship or cashmere production, are ingrained in global fashion culture, built into the bedrock of the industry, with names like Armani, Prada, Gucci, and Versace forming its pillars. These global tastemakers of the late twentieth century efficiently acquired factories of their own so that while Signor Armani sunbathed on the island of Pantelleria his workers could set off for their chosen tanning spots and everyone’s schedules aligned.

So if Italy can have a month-long summer vacation, why can’t we in the U.S.? We worked equally hard to establish and promote American style around the world. Where are we going wrong?

An integrated system

Stefano Tonchi, editor of W and curator of this year’s exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Reale “Italiana: Italy Through the Lens of Fashion” told the New York Times that unlike French or American fashion, “From its beginnings, Italian fashion benefited from a very integrated system, starting with the fabrics and continuing to the designers and manufacturers.” Niche artisanal workshops functioned on an industrial scale, with designers from all over the world descending on small out-of-the-way hillside workshops to realize their visions. Italy’s pride and national identity came to be defined by the success of its fashion and manufacturing. “Italians are industrially nimble,” Tonchi continued, “they’re intuitive and good at finding solutions. Say a designer says, ‘I want to put a ton of Swarovski crystals on a see-through shirt.’ In the United States, manufacturers would just say, ‘What?’ In Italy, they would never say, ‘No, this is crazy!’ There is a maybe. There is never a no.”

Productivity over tradition

A glance at the 2017 data from industry analysis firm Expert Market which lists every country’s productivity reveals facts worth considering before you approach your boss with a request for an extended vacation. According to its criteria, the most productive country, Luxembourg, asks its citizens to only work a 29-hour week, but it’s perhaps more notable that Norway, which comes in second on Expert Market’s list with a 27-hour work week tops the ranks of another list altogether: the World Happiness Report. Switzerland, Denmark and Iceland also rank as more productive than the U.S. which comes in at #6 with the American workforce putting in on average a 47-hour week. Italy, however, ranks #20.

End of Italy’s Roman holiday?

Italy’s fashion manufacturing started to diminish in the late 90s with the emergence of overseas lower-cost production facilities and supply chains in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Asia. China’s focus on creating its own infrastructure and education made it a manufacturing competitor, and stories of Chinese setting up factories in the luxury textiles and manufacturing hub of Prato, outside Florence, running sweatshops, and stitching the Made in Italy label on their goods made international headlines in the early aughts. Italy’s business model, established after the second world war and elevated in the latter decades of the twentieth century, was in peril. In April, the New Yorker reported some 6000 Prato businesses were registered to Chinese citizens, and the area is now known as much for pronto moda (fast fashion) as it is for luxury.

Why can’t we have August-long vacations like Italians?

Made in Italy

As the nation’s industry suffered, laws were passed which allowed the Made in Italy label to be displayed on goods if only 2 of the 4 stages of production occurred within the country, a development which would have been an outrage to past generations. Between 2007-12 Italy’s production of leather and clothing segments together dropped by 35 percent, according to the country’s leading business federation Confindustria. In the foothills of the Alps, the town of Biella, once an artisan’s haven for wool and cashmere experienced hundreds of its businesses closing. Small leather tannery G Tosi which supplied Gucci and Prada went bankrupt in 2012 while larger factories like Ittierre Spa, which produced collections for Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, and John Galliano, had suffered the same fate in 2009. However the latter’s 2016 relaunch under the new name Le Fabbriche Riunite aided by outside investment, and with a portfolio of emerging designers, is perhaps a symbol of an Italian industry ready to rise from the ashes amid reports of an uptick in production and encouraging talks of government initiatives in collaboration with Confindustria.

Challenging the traditions

Questions remain around how long Italy’s extended vacation ritual will withstand the ongoing forces of globalism which have shaken one of its core industries. Perhaps the growing “slow fashion” movement will applaud the nation’s defiant resistance to profit over play, and even encourage other nations to emulate it as a model for moderation. Or will Sewbots, initially considered a threat to emerging economies, conspire to be a modern threat to Italy’s re-emerging one?

One thing is certain, here in the States, most employers would balk at the prospect of setting their workers free for an entire month. Despite all evidence showing the positive effects of time off on both personal well-being and professional performance, data from Project: Time Off, examining the state of the American vacation 2018, reveals that the American workforce gave up 705 million vacation days last year alone. The biggest reason those interviewed gave for this behavior? Fear that they would seem replaceable in the eyes of their employers.

So, maybe before we submit that month-long vacation request, we might consider petitioning instead for a version of France’s 2017 "Right to Disconnect” law which protects employees from having to respond to work emails in their own time. That might be just enough to make those Summer Fridays seem like a staycation.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, Su Giudeu, Chia, Sardinia, Italy, 25 May 2011, Emmaquadro61; Roman Holiday movie poster 1953 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046250/mediaviewer/rm3628859648; Cropped screenshot of Audrey Hepburn from the trailer for the film Roman Holiday.

 

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