Shopgirl Strikes Back: A Review of “Made In Italy”

Posted on February 22, 2011

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It’s late afternoon, and I’m working a shift at a leathergoods boutique on Collins Street. The Australian Open is on, and it’s early rounds yet, so there are bucketfuls of British, American and New Zealander tourists ambling around the city between matches.

In walk two overweight British women. They start trying on mens’ items, something which only a handful of very stylish, minimalist fashion types can pull off, and I tentatively ask them whether they’re shopping for a gift or something for themselves.

“Oi’m lookin’ fer a pouch fer me tickit, me phone, me cahm-ra…”

Apologies to the good people of Gloucestershire, but a stylish, minimalist, fashion-typey accent it is not. (These days fashion types all have a trés classy degree in English Lit. from Durham, or Oxford, if you’re Plum Sykes. Even Whitney Port of The Hills/The City fame has a Gender Studies major from USC. You heard me. These girls do not advertise their roots, people!)

Back to the Susan Boyles at hand. I explain the bag, as in, blah blah blah of COURSE they’re unisex I swear, and they’re looking pretty rapt. To each their own, I’m thinking. If this bag is going to make this lady happy, then all the best to her.

Authoritative “Made In Italy”…

But suddenly my train of mental generosity is interrupted by that most dreaded of questions:

“So whurr’s this ‘ere pouch made, then?”

“The leather’s Italian,” I say, “but the assembly’s all done in China.”

The two let out a collective gasp. Shock. Amazement. Outrage. China. Tentatively, Susan Boyle A reaches out to touch the leather, as though she can’t quite believe that these “pouches” are from the same place as Confucius, Bubble-Cup and Mulan.

Susan Boyle B shakes her head, muttering something to herself.

“Sorry?” I say. “I didn’t quite get that.”

“I said, we don’t boy pouches from Choina. We’ve got urrr principles, we do!”

Unfortunately, these two homely gals are all too symptomatic of a wider problem – namely, that despite being perfectly happy to buy furniture, computers, phones and even alarm-clocks made in the (other) Red Centre, there’s some kind of superstition out there against Chinese bags. When it comes to bags – more than any other item of clothing – it isn’t about quality, it’s about Italy.

Now of course, I know that this whole Italy fandango has to do with deep-seated prejudices about luxury and tradition – Italians historically did a lot of trade in leathergoods, so the established houses are there, and so we associate them with quality. But those traditions emerged in a very different time – more often than not under a feudal, rather than capitalist, economy. These days it’s all about mass-production, not making super-dooper nice bags so that the Medicis will patronise your workshop for another year. So how well do assumptions about luxury really hold?

Here’s my take, conveniently divided into subtitles for your reading convenience. It’s actually more of an op-ed than a review, but let’s be totally naughty and admit to ourselves that no-one really notices the difference anyway. Gooooood.

People live in fantasy-land.

You stroke your bag lovingly, admiring the texture of the leather and the quality of the stitching. Yummy, you think, opening up. Too right – there it is, white calico gleaming amongst the folds of the lining: A Made in Italy tag, proud, bold, and conspicuously placed. Italy, you sigh. Italy…

The cow you’re wearing was the best cow of all the cows. It died of natural causes after a long and happy life, after which its butt was hand-stitched into a bag by a grumpy-yet-lovable Gepetto who gets paid €60,000 plus benefits… right?

WRONG! If your bag says “Made in Italy” on the tag, chances are it was made in a dirty, smelly factory just outside Turin (as opposed to a dirty, smelly factory just outside Shanghai) employing unskilled, minimum-wage workers.

Want to know a secret? A high-up Hugo Boss employee once came into our store, looking for a bag for his wife. Instead of asking where the bag was made, he asked where the leather was from –apparently (hot tip boys and girls!) that’s a better indicator of quality.

“I’ve seen our factories in Italy,” he confessed. “And it’s all Chinese immigrants over there anyway, not that anyone actually touches the bags – it’s done with machinery.”

Here, if you’ll excuse the American spelling, is an excerpt from “Made in China on the Sly,” an article by Dana Thomas which appeared in The New York Times:

To please customers looking for the “Made in Italy” label, several luxury companies now have their goods made in Italy by illegal Chinese laborers. Today, the Tuscan town of Prato, just outside of Florence and long the center for leather-goods production for brands like Gucci and Prada, has the second-largest population of Chinese in Europe, after Paris. More than half of the 4,200 factories in Prato are owned by Chinese entrepreneurs, some of whom pay their Chinese workers as little as two Euros an hour.

People think an Italian bag is classier and thus magically of a higher quality.

Here’s a list of brands you might have thought were made in Italy, or France, or England…

–          Burberry

–          Armani

–          Prada

–          MaxMara

–          Ermenegildo Zegna

–          Coach

–          Oroton

–          Longchamp

–          Mimco

–          Pierre Cardin

The World Luxury Association estimates that by 2009, 60% of the world’s luxury brands had shifted all or part of their production to China. Of course, many brands, including those listed above, have some lines which are made in China, and some which aren’t. There’s an easy rule to go by: If you can almost afford it, it’s not made in Italy.

(See http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China_Business/ID14Cb02.html)

“I don’t buy Chinese because I have principles.”

These people can be further divided into two categories: Those afraid of the big C (Communism, not Cancer) and those who object to China’s dubious human rights record.

If you’re the first, you’re a conspiracy theorist who still calls Russia the Soviet Union (I’ve heard you do it, Condoleezza!) you have a bunker in case the Indonesians invade and you think Gillard’s red hair is PROOF. You have worse things to worry about, don’t you? Stop reading this blog – read Mein Kampf instead! You’ll enjoy the uncomplicated grammar…

If you’re the second, you’re not necessarily a nut-case – you’re just a little short-sighted. Now I’m no fan of the Chinese government’s treatment of the Falun Gong, Tibet, certain Nobel Peace Prize winners…

But imagine if I wrote that I wouldn’t buy an Italian bag because they’re a nation of formerly-fascist Jew-killers whose most stable Il Presidente since then is a Mafioso who sleeps with underage prostitutes.

You’d probably say that the above sounded immature, racist and completely irrelevant to the poor schmucks who make the handbags. And you’d be right.

And FYI, before someone starts about the whole child labour thing, let me say one thing. China is communist. Italy is not. In which country do you think they take better care of their workers?

“Judge the bag, not the tag”

Judge the bag, not the tag

Snappy phrasework, right? But it’s true. Sooo true. If you want to know whether your bag is the real thing, don’t be a noob and ask where it’s made. Instead, do a little quality control of your own. Check the stitching (unobtrusive, even, STRONG, not fraying), the leather (does it smell like leather? Then it’s probably OK) the hardware (is it going to fall off/unscrew/scratch/squeak) and the lining (tacky lining = tacky bag). Done. Have a certificate.

Now go forth and buy bags. The economy orders you.

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Posted in: Fashion, Opinion