Life in lockdown: How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing coronavirus

March 13, 2020, 8:00 AM UTC

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

Italian hatmaker Giuseppe Grevi was hoping for a brief respite from coronavirus headlines when he went off to the Italian Alps on a family skiing holiday in early March. But then, following on a subpar trade fair in Milan last month where few buyers from coronavirus-ravaged Asia were on hand to place orders, the Florence-based milliner found himself again foiled by the virus, forced to return home early with Italy under nationwide lockdown to combat the pandemic.

Grevi is just one of scores of Italian luxury goods makers who are desperately trying to right businesses that have been doubly whipsawed by the coronavirus—first by the plunge in China’s luxury retail market, and then by its brutal arrival in Italy’s fashion heartland. Some have turned to selling and meeting online, while others have doubled down on traditional manufacturing practices that get around coronavirus restrictions.

While Grevi’s 145-year-old label has had a litany of high points—including screen time for the company’s hats when they were worn by Julia Roberts and Cher in Pretty Woman and Tea with Mussolini—he, like almost all other luxury goods makers in Italy, is suffering.

First China

Big global players like Gucci and Louis Vuitton are scaling back orders from Italian-based suppliers, as demand from China has dried up—the country now makes up a third of luxury spending worldwide and an estimated 40% of the customer base for some of the big Italian brands.

China’s customers accounted for 90% of the global luxury market growth in 2019, according to Bain analyst Claudia D’Arpizio, and accounted for 35% of luxury goods in value sold in the world last year.

But even before the coronavirus, that market was starting to wobble. Hit by protests, Hong Kong’s luxury market shrunk by 20% in 2019, to €6 billion, according to Bain. 

The aftershocks from that drop and even more from the coronavirus continue to hit Italian designers like Grevi. At recent fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, the absence of Chinese and South Korean visitors was hard to miss because of the viral outbreak. It’s estimated that from China alone, where Grevi gets about 20% percent of its €2.5 million annual revenues, some 1,000 press and buyers cancelled their European fashion show trips due to the fast spreading virus.

Italian hat designer Giuseppe Grevi's business has been doubly whipsawed by the coronavirus—first by the plunge in China's luxury retail market, and then by its brutal arrival in Italy's fashion heartland.
Italian hat designer Giuseppe Grevi’s (L) business has been doubly whipsawed by the coronavirus—first by the plunge in China’s luxury retail market, and then by its brutal arrival in Italy’s fashion heartland.
Amy Sussman—WireImage/Getty Images

Grevi’s current concern focuses on boxes of two-tone floral cloches and summery broad-brimmed straw hats—destined for department stores and boutiques in mainland China—that have been sitting for weeks in the company’s warehouse on the outskirts of Florence. Grevi has €65,000 euros of goods waiting for payment before they can be shipped to China.

“No one was out shopping in China so clients there asked us not to send merchandise for spring and summer,” he said. “That translates into us not getting paid for orders.” 

And while Grevi has hundreds of retailers in places like the U.S., France and Japan to compensate for a drop in Chinese sales, he knows there will be more fallout as the coronavirus’s footprint grows.

No longer business as usual

While Grevi’s slump in the China market may soon improve as things there begin to return to normal—a key distributor for southern China just paid for a shipment of a 1,000 hats to be delivered—it still doesn’t diminish the fact that Italy faces an unprecedented nationwide lockdown that will require him, and other brands in Italy’s $80 billion fashion and accessories sector, to significantly change the way they do business.

One fashion designer who has quickly shifted gears is Massimo Alba. At his showroom in Milan’s Navigli district, Alba has been manning the phones to organize photo shoots of his entire spring/summer collection. He plans to load them up on his label’s website this month so shoppers, whether quarantined in Italy or living abroad, can purchase his knitwear and deconstructed garments without human contact.

“We typically have 70 pieces online at most each season,” Alba said. “Now we will show all 220 garments so the customer gets the same selection you find in the store.”

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His boutiques in Rome and Milan have always been the preferred sales points—his niche label survives on the word of mouth that has brought in Hollywood types such as Stanley Tucci and John Malkovich. Still, Alba is acutely aware that the coronavirus outbreak requires a new approach.

“It is a waste of time trying to blame a virus,” he said. “It’s a problem, but we have to think positively. We’ve invested online in the past and now we are trying to accelerate our e-commerce platform. We can’t fall victim to panic.”

The homepage of now displays a watercolor sketch of his most talked-about piece, a 3-button tan suit that Daniel Craig wears in the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die—a movie that itself fell prey to the virus when its April release was pushed back to the fall. 

Old ways

For others in the Italian luxury goods sector, old-fashioned ways of doing business create hurdles in times of coronavirus—but also offer some advantages. 

In Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, owners of Petronius, a small-scale producer of elegant neckties, are moving quickly to get the final shipments of next season’s orders out to overseas clients, who range from Atlanta-based menswear retailer Sid Mashburn to Bergdorf Goodman. The problem for Gigliola Wollisch, who together with her brother and sister represent the third generation of the company, is she relies on face-to-face appointments with customers—and still writes orders by hand in a carbon copy book. 

Concerns about flying with the virus swirling saw her skip a flight to Copenhagen, but she risked a day trip to Vienna a few days before the lockdown to see a long-standing client. “It’s hard to replace these one-on-one meetings where clients get a feel for the fabrics and the colors.”

Italy’s recent national quarantine will make such trips impossible, for now. But it won’t shut down the business. For decades, Petronius has relied on a half dozen Italian women, some with 30 years of experience under their belt, who work from home sewing the label’s pure silk neckties, which retail for $195. 

Social distance

Back in Florence, the fourth-generation hatmaker Grevi is trying to address the coronavirus crisis through the lens of history—such as how the company survived the Great Depression, which sparked an enduring trend of fewer men wearing hats to work.

Today, he and his two sisters oversee an annual production of 70,000 hats, performed by a few dozen artisans at the factory who braid, stitch and steam straw hats by hand. Today, their cavernous factory space, cluttered with 1930s-era sewing machines and piles of grosgrain ribbon to embellish hats, is now set up so staff are seated several meters apart to prevent infections. Each employee gets up every thirty minutes to wash their hands. 

With a tightly knit family structure, Grevi believes the firm is nimble enough to navigate the increasingly turbulent waters, just as it did after the 1929 market crash. 

“Our family has been in business since 1875,” Grevi said. “We know how to manage the ups and downs.”

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