From Made in Italy to Made in China: A European Story, 1960-2010

May 09, 2013

4th Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Victoria de Grazia (Columbia University)

The Feldman Memorial Lecture was established by the Friends of the German Historical Institute to honor the memory of historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007) and has been made possible by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung and generous individual donations to the Gerald D. Feldman Lecture Series Endowment Fund.

The historian Victoria de Grazia of Columbia University delivered a highly relevant lecture about changing European consumption and production regimes in the last fifty years, focusing on the fashion industry in Italy. Entitled From Made in Italy to Made in China: A European Story, 1960-2010, Professor de Grazia's lecture introduced her current research project, still in progress, which dovetails with her 2005 study of the globalization of American consumer culture, Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe.

Professor de Grazia situated her talk in three Italian cities and time periods, Treviso (1965-95), Prato (1995-2009), and Naples (since 2004). The "Made in Italy" revolution began with Benetton in Treviso. Whereas Italian producers had previously wholesaled to department stores such as Macy's whose own brands were emphasized, Benetton set up its own retail stores and brand, aiming at younger consumers. It also used technology to respond more rapidly to consumer preferences and to automate distribution. As a family-owned firm, it was exempt from unionization laws. Because of that and other factors, such as the devaluation of the Italian currency, Benetton's costs were competitive with those in Asia in the 1990s.

Professor de Grazia's second city was Prato, the West's oldest textile manufacturing center. Prato thrived after 1945, selling standard products such as loden coats to Germany and Austria, work that did not require participation in trade fairs or the use of new technology. Changing European Union rules and the introduction of the Euro, among other factors, undermined this business model, however. At the same time, young Chinese entrepreneurs and workers immigrated to Prato from Wenzhou, a region in China with local craft production. The new legal and illegal shops that arose reduced the turnaround time for new designs from eight months to one week, using the valuable "Made in Italy" label on goods produced with materials from China that could be delivered to Prato within 10 days. This made it possible to produce "fast fashion" for young people on modest budgets.

The last city Professor de Grazia looked at was Naples, where Chinese investment in a container port, Italian manufacturers' investment in production facilities, and the availability of skilled labor made it possible to produce high-end "Made in Italy" brands such as Armani in a competitive fashion.

De Grazia's Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture made evident that the Americanization of European economy was and is followed by a new globalization and how this occurred. This raises new challenges but also provides opportunities.