We are delighted to publish Alain Elkann’s interview which appeared in his weekly column in La Stampa on Sunday 15th April.
Mr Elkann and Mr Barberis Canonico are both friends and supporters of Anderson & Sheppard and of bespoke tailoring in Italy and the United Kingdom.
There has been a Barberis Canonico fabric mill in the village of Pratrivero, in the province of Biella in Piedmont, since 1663. How did the Vitale Barberis Canonico business stay in the family for 16 generations?
I can only speak about my generation. We have a very strong sense of family, we believe in what we do, and we live in a small community. Many of the workers are from the village, so I work with workers whose fathers my father was working with, and my grandfather was working with their grandfathers. This sense of belonging is very important.
How many people do you employ?
Approximately 450 people in a village of about 700.
But from 1663 so many things have changed?
Obviously things have changed a lot. Our still being here is due to one factor, and that is the water, which is very important for finishing the fabric and dyeing the yarns, also to power the machines. Electricity did not arrive until around 1920.
The mill in the 1940s (above) and a state of the art soundproofing cabinet on a loom (below)
Why are there so many wool and textile companies in Biella?
This is linked to the earlier answer; it is due to the huge availability of good water. Many mills are next to a river. In Biella we specialised in textiles and textile machinery; there is hardly any tourism or agriculture here.
What is special about your product?
For twenty years I was a salesman and travelled a lot. It helped me to understand that we sell the product all over the world because we make modern fabrics but in a very old fashioned way. Our fabric is constructed in a proper way to work with the tailor’s canvas, and tailors recognise this and like us very much.
What is your job now?
I am the creative director of Vitale Barberis Canonico, with a team of 7 designers, and all year round we work to design new fabrics. I am also in charge of marketing and image. We are now designing Autumn-Winter 2019-2020, so we are one year and a half ahead of what you see in the stores or tailors. This is why they sometimes call us the designer behind the designer. We go to the designers, and when they see the fabrics they sometimes get inspiration from us.
What kind of fabrics do you make?
We specialise in pure wool men’s suiting, which is our forte and about 80% of what we do. Then we do some blends like wool and mohair, for the summer we do silk wool and linen, we do wool and cashmere, and wool and silk. Anyone who is looking for classic men’s suiting can find us, pretty much all over the world.
Do you only make fabric for men?
Women is a completely different business. When a man buys my fabric and takes it to a good tailor, a well-made suit will last him well over 20 years, because the fabric is designed to last this long. A man buying a good dinner jacket or a versatile blazer wants it to last all his life.
Where do you buy your wool?
We only make the best cloth and so we buy the best wool. 80% of our wool comes from Australia, and we have farms of 11,000 acres with about 25,000 sheep. The rest is from New Zealand, and a little from Argentina. We buy the mohair from South Africa.
Sheep running free in Australia
Who are your clients?
Most of our clients are Italian, because the Italians make fully canvassed suits. We make the fabric, we don’t produce the garments. Italian companies then re-export our fabric as suits to international clients.
Where are your major markets?
Italy, which is the first; China is going really well; the US, South America and even Africa; Japan and Hong Kong are also very important. We sell to all the famous names that make medium to high level suits. People are not aware of us, but we are present in almost everybody’s wardrobe.
What are your most popular cloths?
The most popular is the Super 110 fabric called Perennial. It’s a good weight, and you can wear it all year round. Nowadays people want a lighter weight with some natural stretch that is comfortable when travelling for two or three days, and we are working on a fabric that is more crease resistant. We make two collections a year of over 2,500 different designs and colours, so every year we do 5,000 different fabrics.
How do you know what is coming in the future?
We follow and anticipate trends. Our designers travel, to New York, to London, to Tokyo, to pick up inspiration. We have to be up to date. We have 50 or 60 colour cards and over half of the collection changes, design-wise and colour-wise, every year.
What is the most popular colour nowadays?
Blue. Blue is more versatile than grey, and people can wear it as a blazer with jeans. We are selling more Prince of Wales and over-checks, less chalk-stripes or pin-stripes. People don’t want to look like bankers.
How much do you produce?
We make 10 million metres of fabric a year; we use about 3 million kilos of wool; and we are the biggest buyer of wool in the world of the type of wool that we use.
Who are your other family members that work here?
My cousin Alessandro Barberis Canonico is the Managing Director and is more on the technical side. Another cousin called Lucia works in sales, and she is doing the CRM. We invest a big amount of what we earn every year in new machinery and technology that comes from all over the world, from Italy, from Germany, from Japan. The very modern factory gives us the edge over our competitors.
Francesco Barberis Canonico, Alessandro Barberis Canonico and Lucia Bianchi Maiocchi
Who are your competitors?
Other Italian mills, and there are some mills in England, but they have not invested so much over the years and have lost a lot of market share. There are no more mills in America. In China there are many mills, but for a world class product you have to come to Italy or the UK. There are none in France or Spain. It’s a very specialised sector. I love the fantastic tweeds that are a niche and made by the Scottish.
Why does your mill have to be very modern?
Many operations have been substituted by robots in order to make the volume of output that we do and relieve the workers from heavy lifting jobs. It is very important to give a better condition of workplace. Looms are very noisy, 110 decibels, and we have the only weaving plant in the world where you hardly hear any noise and can speak freely. Every single loom is covered by silencers.
You say robots help the workers, but aren’t they going to take their jobs?
A lot of people think robots will steal the workers’ jobs, but it’s not true. When we get the wool from Australia there are 200 different processes that we have to do before it becomes fabric. The wool is combed and re-combed eight or nine times, and then made into a yarn. The workers check the machines and the machines check the workers.
What do you mean?
There are certain jobs you cannot do by eye and that you need a microscope for, and there are some other jobs that cannot be done by robots. At the final inspection a worker touches the fabric and tells by hand if the fabric is exactly right. A robot can never touch a fabric like a human and see if it’s OK or too dry or too woolly. Over the past two years we have hired more than 40 people. In Italy you hear about factories shutting, but we are very proud that we are hiring young people, which is quite unusual nowadays.
Is everything you do made in Italy?
We are 100% Made in Italy. The wool arrives from Australia through Genoa and from then on everything is traceable as 100% Made in Italy. We send a letter to all our customers and guarantee this. We are very serious about it. It’s an important message.
Where are the good tailors?
Savile Row in London, and there are still a lot of tailors in Italy, but unfortunately they are getting old and there’s hardly any replacement. There are a couple of good tailors in Paris and in Madrid, and that’s it.
How do young people learn about your product?
Millennials look on the internet for reviews and good value. With over 350 years history we don’t want anyone to think we are old in our approach, so we have Facebook and Instagram accounts to talk to young people, who often come to us for advice on their first suit, for a first communion, a graduation, a wedding, or a bar mitzvah.
Where do you recommend that they buy?
There is always going to be high level, but we also need good value, because young people don’t want to spend more than 2 or 300 euros for a suit. If someone was 23/24 and asked me where they should buy a good suit for a good price, I would point them towards either Suitsupply or Massimo Dutti. Suitsupply have shops in Milan, London, New York and many countries. A lot of it is my fabrics and I often recommend them to someone young who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money. Massimo Dutti is a very good company that is opening one new store every day and offers good value. As you grow older your taste changes, and you move up in quality, price, and style.
Cloth from the Revenge collection – Super 150s
Why does Gary Cooper appear on your website?
He was one of the most elegant men in history. We rotate between many stylish people, like Totò the very famous Italian actor, Fred Astaire, Vittorio De Sicca, Gianni Agnelli – an icon of style – and Cary Grant, who was very elegant in the golden era of Hollywood. Today there are not so many icons of style, which is less formal. People blend more, wearing flannel trousers with a denim shirt from Ralph Lauren, or a blazer with jeans. On top of appearance, people want functionality now.
Is your secret quality and change?
It’s a search for excellence. We always look for what is the best available on the market. We buy the best machinery, we buy the best possible wool, and if we have to buy a yarn of linen we buy it from Japan. Like in a good restaurant, you start with the best quality materials and it costs whatever it costs.
Does wool go up and down in price?
Yes, it is exactly like any other commodity. In the past year and a half it has gone up a lot, about 20%. Wool is very susceptible to climate change, and it varies from year to year. If it is very dry one year in Australia and very wet the next, the wool comes out different, because the sheep eat differently when they roam. We have over 2,000 types of wool that we blend, as we always have to give exactly the same product.
How do you maintain contact with your clients and promote your fabrics?
We go to trade fairs in Italy and China to promote our fabrics, and we visit all our clients. We have about 50 agents all over the world, and we sell to 80 or 85 countries. Our turnover last year was 165 million Euros; it’s a medium to small company.
What are the challenges for the future?
To be competitive in an ever changing world, and to be attractive as people want to know more and more about the quality of a product. There will always be room for a high quality, world class product.
Is there a global trend in taste?
Classic elegance is global, but people are very aware of trends. At the moment the best dressed people are the Japanese, and you find the best men’s stores in the world in Tokyo. They are obsessively careful, they go into the details of things, and their stores are beautiful.
What about the Chinese?
Not so much. Americans have their own preppy style which is more casual. In Europe, Italy and England are the best. Traditional men’s elegance is really London and Italy.
Portrait of Alain Elkann by Joshua Deveaux
Published by Assouline (31 Aug. 2017)
Alain Elkann has mastered the art of the interview. With a background in novels and journalism, and having published over twenty books translated across ten languages, he infuses his interviews with innovation, allowing them to flow freely and organically. Alain Elkann Interviews will provide an unprecedented window into the minds of some of the most well-known and -respected figures of the last twenty-five years.
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