It was a beautiful day in Tuscany. Lauren and I were driving in circles, lost for about the 28th time in 3 days. We were searching for a factory outside of Lucca and were already over an hour late. Not that it really mattered. We were, after all, meeting Italians, and after being late to nearly every meeting in the past week (always lost) we realized they were never too bothered by it. But having some tightly wound ideas of American timeliness, we were a little stressed.
Until we finally arrived. We were welcomed with open arms by the mother, then the father, and then the son, who happily showed us around the factory and had us trying on samples almost immediately. After suffering through many difficult meetings with potential factories, most of which ended with the phrase “it is not possible,” we were relieved to find people that actually wanted to work with us. The son even said the words “anything is possible”, which was like having us at hello.
This was a true family business. The factory was a small shop just steps from their villa. There was a farm on site. Everyone in the family worked in the factory and they took 2 hour lunches daily to eat mom’s homemade pasta. It was the kind of thing you fantasize about when you decide to work in Italy. But what made this ‘old world’ factory even better was the fact that they actually used technology. They would actually take digital photos and send us emails. They shipped stuff overnight when needed. They even used Skype. We once took these things for granted as former high-tech workers, but after experiencing Italian factories that refused to even use voice mail, the idea of digital photography and email communications was mind blowing. All seemed right with the world.
Until it wasn’t. Just a few months into working together, the cracks started to show. Sometimes they just didn’t feel like making something, and so they wouldn’t. Or they made changes (without asking) to our designs because the original design was “too hard” and we would only discover this after receiving samples that looked quite different than the original spec. It became clear after just a few months of working together that they were over-promising and under-delivering. Their desire to compete with China had them taking on too many jobs, charging too little, and then working too fast and missing details in order to meet deadlines. This was the reality of Italian factories in 2006, and the next year saw this and several other factories closing down, unable to compete.
Desperate to find an alternative, we explored manufacturing in other countries. China was not an option- it went against our entire brand identity and we could not guarantee working conditions. So we tried Brazil. And Colombia. And Los Angeles. And in each country we saw similar issues- better communication and efficiency, but the final product just wasn’t the same. It was hard to put our finger on it exactly- we used the same materials, often the items were still hand-made, but they were lacking a certain flair, a certain “hand.” We could create a sexy shoe in Italy and send the exact same specs to factories in the other countries and we always ended up with something…not sexy. It was maddening. Like it or not, we validated that “Made in Italy” did matter, and it was worth searching the entire country for a factory that could support us.
To be continued...