Industry 4.0 has been a hot topic for Italian Fashion and Made in Italy for quite some time, and it is only gaining momentum. Matteo Renzi spoke passionately about its future to designers and industry leaders in the run-up to Women’s Fashion Week; it was trending at the Forum Internazionalizzazione Made in Italy and the 91st Pitti Uomo – all in the course of the past three months. The discussion is generally heated, surrounded by little specificity, yet surely encompasses vision, change, and, more realistically, challenge.
Some of the concepts of Industry 4.0 remain vague to this day (take, for example, the ambiguity around machine-to-machine communication), but its potential to transform the value chain of fashion is striking. On the upstream, 3D printing, robotics and lasers are helping streamline production and create new fabrics; on the downstream, digitalization is upgrading our shopping experiences, and Big Data is taking customer relations to a new level. Sounds amazing! Now, will this automatically lead to Italy getting ahead in the global competition? Very unlikely. Industry 4.0 has at its core globalization and ubiquity: unlike trade secrets and know-how, the fourth industrial revolution, just as its three predecessors, will reach any part of the world with enough funds and desire to invest in it. Hence, rather than an advantage in itself, Industry 4.0 becomes a powerful tool, and it is up to the minds behind it to apply it in such a way that would leverage on existing strengths in a hopeful attempt to create a sustainable competitive advantage. And this might well be the most important task facing Made in Italy today: the challenge is real.
Up to now the Italian fashion success has been attributed to exquisite craftsmanship and highly skilled manual labor. As Francesco Visone, the creative mind behind his renowned Naples-born accessory brand, explains: ‘Made in Italy is a process. If you want to create something, you have to look at the way these bags or shoes were made 100 years ago. You have to respect the artisan’. The question is, how do we strike a balance between tradition and innovation in the 4.0 world, where technology is king and where human involvement is slowly made redundant?
A big part of the solution is to recognize the key role of the designer in this context. As Mr Visone lays it out, ‘It is not about the product, it is the people behind it that make all the difference. Their feelings, their vision.’ Daniela Fiorilli, another renowned Italian designer, points at the same logic: ‘What is saving us is the knowledge. We have to always try to find something new, but new with a meaning, otherwise… Nobody needs clothes just for the clothes, but [the customers] are happy to find ideas, to get emotions’. Evidently, quality alone is no longer enough. And the designer becomes the driving force that is able to build on the traditional artisanal crafts, adding an innovative twist to keep Made in Italy relevant and competitive.
Coincidentally, the duty to oversee the journey of each product from the drawing board to the counter puts designers in the best position to seamlessly fuse Industry 4.0 into the Made in Italy canvas. And this is exactly what Ms Fiorilli is doing – her brand Guen, founded in Florence in 2011, owns an impressive portfolio of collaborations with local manufacturers whose production expertise, fuelled by Daniela’s ideas, has resulted in the invention of state-of-the-art fabrics. Seamless cuts, laser on wool, 3D printing transform into iconic pieces – all remarkable manifestations of a Designer 4.0 in action.
Daniela advocates joining forces across the industry for the bigger purpose: ‘Italy has always been about the collaboration between the creatives and the production field. It changed for a while with the crisis, but I feel that a lot of companies understand that this is crucial. It gives breadth to us, the designers, but also to the companies, and I receive many requests for collaboration with this spirit. I give you something, you give me something, together we grow and realize what’s next’. Amen. The future of Made in Italy seems to be in good hands, and who knows, maybe in the dull world of robotics it will remain one of the few brands out there that is human at heart.