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'Made In Italy', 'Made In China' Or 'Made In Italy By Undocumented Chinese Workers': Why Consumers Should Care

Jan 21 2008

I had to laugh when I read of the new Italian government-financed advertising campaign featuring Isabella Rossellina that urges consumers to trust the Italian luxury industry (Source). Many within the luxury industry have been aware for some time that there is more to the "Made In Italy" label than meets the eye. While the average consumer is increasingly aware of the seedy origins of counterfeit goods, few outside the industry suspected that genuine luxury products are also plagued by some of the same issues: undocumented workers (mostly Chinese), clandestine sweatshops, human exploitation and substandard working conditions. Investigative reporting by Newsweek journalist Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (The Penguin Press, 2007), released last August, and most recently a documentary on Italian television network RAI, have shed light on the less-than-flattering facts about an industry that banks on exclusivity, quality and tradition to justify increasingly hefty price tags for its wares. Prestigious Italian brands such as Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Gucci and arguably the entire Italian luxury goods industry as a whole may have been tainted by these most recent revelations hence the government-financed PR campaign.


Gucci_handbag Prada_handbag Dolce_gabbana_leapord_bag

Please note that the products appearing above are for illustrative purposes only. They do not necessarily represent the products which were featured in the RAI documentary.

What seems to have struck a cord with Italian viewers is the fact that luxury brands continue to exact increasingly exorbitant sums for goods that cost them only a fraction of the hefty price tag to produce, thanks in large part to the toil of undocumented workers and all the human misery it entails. It's unclear to me whether the outrage stems from the fact that Italians feel duped by these brands, the moral outrage over the human misery involved or the hit to their national pride resulting from the loss of prestige of the "Made In Italy" label. Perhaps it is all three factors combined. What is clear however is that for many Italians the myth of the supremacy of their long and venerable tradition of craftsmanship has been shattered, and the denials from the brands involved appear not to have quelled the outrage. While I personally feel encouraged by this, the issues of counterfeiting, sub-contracting and European regulatory standards for labeling luxury goods, most notably the "substantial transformation" standard, are complex and much more is needed to properly address them.

In light of the complexities involved, the Italian government-sponsored ad campaign featuring Ms. Rossellini seems amateurish at best. It also misses the point. This is above all a question of image, credibility and legality, not quality as many seem to believe. Many of the goods in question are perfectly well-made. We've become accustomed to regarding products with the "Made in China" label or goods made by Chinese labor with a certain degree of Western disdain. The assumption is that such goods are of low quality. It wasn't always so. In 17th and 18th century France for instance, chinese goods, including lacquered screens, boxes, chests and fine porcelain, were all the rage amongst the aristocratic classes who hungered for the most exquisite and exotic luxury products. It was also customary for French artisans and craftsmen, who supplied royal courts throughout Europe and the aristocratic and haute bourgeoisie classes who emulated them, to import such items and then retrofit the finely crafted panels into their own products. In some instances, artisans would simply affix bronze handles and other paraphernalia to chests and armoires to satisfy French tastes and sell them for exorbitant amounts to their wealthy clients. There are many fine examples of such pieces in Musee Jacquemart-Andre or Musee Nissim de Camondo in Paris, two museums renowned for their exquisite collections of 17th, 18th and 19th century European decorative arts and furniture. Our Western or European disdain for chinese luxury goods is apparently of recent origin and at least in this particular instance misplaced.

Mainstream media such as U.S. Harper's Bazaar's "Fakes Are Never In Fashion" campaign, Newsweek and the New York Times have sought to raise awareness of the origins of counterfeit goods and the repercussions of purchasing them. Fashion and luxury industry bloggers, including The Luxe Chronicles, have done their part to publicize these issues as well. These efforts however have to date been targeted primarily at consumers likely to be duped or lured into buying a fake. But shouldn't we be just as outraged that the same people who manufacture the counterfeit goods are manufacturing the legitimate ones too? I believe mainstream media and the blogosphere have an important role to play here as well. Imran Amed of The Business Of Fashion first alerted the English speaking blogosphere to the RAI documentary. While I view whatever public anger and debate generated by the documentary as a positive first step towards reform, I maintain that it is the luxury industry itself that needs to now step up: when formerly small, family-run businesses are taken over by large conglomerates who then proceed to "build up the brand" in the name of expansion and "democratization of luxury" (an oxymoron if ever there was one), then revenue and profit margins take precedence over quality and integrity of production. Hence, the lure of subcontracting to overseas manufacturers or simply importing cheap and plentiful overseas labor to European shores. Of course, it then becomes virtually impossible to maintain the brand's myth or to justify the price tags and that is precisely the crux of the matter. Most importantly however, we as consumers of luxury products also have a role to play: We should be repulsed enough by the dubious provenance of these products to demand change and refuse to buy from the brands in question until such changes take place. Until this state of affairs is acknowledged and properly addressed by brands themselves, no significant reform can take place. Until then, we have Hermes.

Sincerely,

The Luxe Chronicles

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The Luxe Chronicles is a collection of interviews, profiles and musings on various aspects of the luxury industry and occasionally, a rant on our celebrity obsessed culture and the dumbing down of our collective sense of style and esthetic.

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