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Italian fashion: outside point of view

Just over a year into the job, the first women and first foreigner to be appointed as head of Italy’s fashion council, Jane Reeve, who did not have any background in the fashion industry, tells K what it's like to work at the highest levels of this demanding sector in a country proud of its Made in Italy tradition.

Imagine sitting in a board of directors meeting with the leading entrepreneurs of Italian fashion, including Patrizio Bertelli, Lavinia Biagiotti, Brunello Cucinelli, Angela Missoni, Renzo Rosso and Ermenegildo Zegna. Now imagine trying to get them to agree a common strategy to support Italy's fashion industry.

Banging these heads together – so to speak – for the common good is one of the jobs taken on by Jane Reeve, the first-ever chief executive of Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana. Not only is she a she, she is also a foreigner - two firsts for Italy's national fashion council – and a novice to the industry.

But Reeve – Oxford educated (degree in English literature) and with a lengthy and successful career in communications, branding and advertising – is not one to flinch at a challenge. A “naturalised Italian”, as she puts it, Reeve has lived in Italy for 27 years, has an Italian husband and two, Italian-born children.

Taking on the chief executive role at Camera as a complete outsider must have been daunting at first. How was the beginning?

“I started in January 2014 and at first it was a bit, 'what does she know about fashion?' I jumped right in with the start of the men's shows, so I was running from the beginning and all of a sudden I was meeting Giorgio Armani and Vivienne Westwood. It was all very ‘wow’: you find yourself immersed in a world you don't know and you're meeting people who make history. And then you find out they’re perfectly normal people."

You were recruited into Camera by executive search firm Egon Zender. What did you think when they first contacted you?

“One of the first times they [Zender] rang me I said, 'well you do realise I’m English, don’t you?' When I met with [Camera board member Patrizio] Bertelli the first time, he told me, 'you seem like quite a determined person, but maybe when the crunch comes you take a step back.' I said 'yes [I am determined], but you would have to ask other people.' In the end I think Camera came to the conclusion that they needed disruption. And time will tell how happy they are with disruption!"

In what sense do you feel you are a disruptor?

"I don’t come from this world, I think this is why Camera chose me. I have a broad, all-rounded professional experience, and am always open-minded. Until my arrival Camera had been pushing its institutional role. It still has this role, but other associations, in New York and London, for example, have built up marketing support and this was missing here.

Finding the balance between [Camera's] institutional and marketing roles is crucial.

I understand it has to be both. Also, coming with a managerial background helps, as my job has always been to work to objectives."

What was toughest challenge you faced so far?

“The hardest challenge of this first year has been to make clear that there were changes in act and that I was a clear representative of these changes. I was the first change and not because of my background, but because of my point of view. If we want to change the content of what Camera can give its members we have to change the perspective people have of Camera, of it being a dusty box, like a government institution. So I've worked on the branding and the fashion weeks are my branding. That was my emphasis this year... Speed is also a challenge.

Fashion is a business that works at great speed; this is one of its virtues.

I was used to working quickly in agency life, but here they turn things around much faster.

There’s also lots of effort in finding consensus, understanding that there are very strong personalities and that I need to learn how to get through. For example Camera board members are also entrepreneurs. At our meetings you have to concentrate on the association’s business, but since board members come from running their companies, their priorities can change from one meeting to the next. So keeping pace with changes in points of view is also a challenge.

I'm also very frank in my views and I maybe have stepped on a few toes but not really known it. This job is also about learning relationships, but it’s irrelevant to me what happened before, if one person spoke to another and vice versa. If I get immersed into the system then my usefulness in the system loses value.”

Jane Reeve, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana

Italy's world-famous designers aren't getting any younger and young designers seem to be having trouble emerging. What are some things you are doing to help? 

"One of our key initiatives is Next Generation, where we select four young designers, all under 30, help them prepare collections and then get them seen at the autumn/winter women's shows. We pay all their costs for making 12-outfit capsule collections and set them up with mentors and professionals. Next Generation is in its ninth year and I am beefing it up by creating a web-video series that will follow the designers through the various stages of their collections' development.

Through Next Generation we open up the mysteries of the world of fashion, letting young generations know about other aspects, like the business side.

Speaking of business, I also want to kick off mentoring programs to help emerging designers get their businesses going, to help on the business acceleration side. And I want to create a temporary showrooms programme in cities like Paris and New York where we can take groups of designers, give them some visibility and see if they have commercial potential."

Jane Reeve, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana

World-class schools, with strong connections to the working world, would also help. In Milan, it's difficult to think of a real competitor to, say, Central Saint Martins...

“London is certainly the benchmark, but Italian schools are also good. I couldn’t comment on the value of the single ones. We're not at the benchmark, that’s a challenge we should take on."

While ‘Taught in Italy’ might not be best in class, there certainly is much to be said for ‘Made in Italy’...

“I have been to a number of factories, so I can see the excellence.

Seeing a hand-stitched bag, you can understand the difference between something that is good and something that is excellent.

Quality and craftsmanship is second to none. The French buy Italian companies, keeping them exactly as they are, because of the excellences they have and they come and produce here. The English, too... I think that abroad 'Made in Italy' has a more powerful meaning than Italians realize. It opens up greater opportunities for new brands and hopefully I can spread new brands based on this.”

In terms of work culture, isn't there a sense that in Italy getting things done is always a long, contorted process?

"The best route from A to B isn't always a straight line. I criticize the English now - they're all too process driven, from A to B or D: they don’t think creatively. Ideas are a combination of both [process and creativity]. You can get to Z by jumping and if you go in a roundabout way you’d get there faster.”

With Italy's economy in the doldrums and youth unemployment skyrocketing, is the fashion industry an opportunity?

"There are jobs and it's one of the best industries in the country. There is a lot of demand for skilled labour, but at factories they say it’s tough to find workers because people don’t think it’s 'noble' to work on the production side…

Today young people have very high expectations. When I started working in '81, I had a reasonable salary and shared houses with friends.

Nowadays it’s very different and Milan doesn’t help.

Milan parents want their kids to have everything right away, they think their kids should be going to 5-star hotels. Maybe they should start with 2-star hotels. It is tough and it's easy to get discouraged. When I see young people, I often tell them ‘don’t be discouraged by obstacles, otherwise you won’t be able to overcome them. See them as a challenge and then you can get past them.’"

You're into the first of two, three-year stints at Camera. Is it too early to think about what comes next?

“It’s too far ahead…and I’ve got too much to do to think about that. I don’t like leaving places until I think I’ve got the job done. I feel really lucky to have this job, to meet all these people, important people. I've been inducted into this club, thrown into this chaos, with a glamorous side, but I’m happy to be a person who keeps my feet on the ground, and who can’t be influenced by this world that can seem so glamorous."

 

Photo credits : Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana