Yesterday, the strict lockdown we’ve been all submitted to here in Italy from the beginning of March was partially lifted. Life will slowly and cautiously resume a more familiar pace—streets will be less eerily empty; people will start going back to work. The contagion curve has somehow been flattened: Intensive care wards in hospitals are less burdened; the death toll has fallen considerably. There’s room for hope. But the threat posed by the coronavirus has by no means dissipated. So the government is adopting a prudent approach, easing the confinement gradually. For now, some restrictions of movement will still be in place; protective masks are mandatory, and safe distancing has to be maintained everywhere. Schools will still stay closed until September; stores will be permitted to open only after May 18, but not restaurants, gyms, or hairdressers. Sushi, blow-dries, and yoga classes will just have to wait, at least until the beginning of June. But runners are now free to put their fashionable sneakers on and exercise in city parks lush with green, courtesy of dropping pollution levels—one of the pandemic’s very few perks.
The country’s engine will also restart, with factories resuming operations. With fashion being one of the powerhouses of the Italian economy, it seemed timely to ask entrepreneur Renzo Rosso, OTB group’s founder and president, about his view of the challenges the pandemic has forced our industry to confront. How has his company adjusted to the crisis? How is he engaging in social responsibility in this moment of turmoil? And how will Made in Italy play a crucial role in the future of fashion?
Yesterday factories in Italy were allowed to resume operations. How is your company managing the reopening?
A few departments have already been active, like general logistics to guarantee shipments to countries where commerce is starting to recover, as in China. Online operations and e-commerce have never stopped working, thank goodness. From April 27, creative departments have also been activated—prototypes and product development, as well as the design studio. We’ve all been working remotely, experiencing, I must say, interesting and effective relationships with technology. From now, we expect the workforce to be much more present on-site in our facilities, giving production a much needed push. The engine has to be restarted; it was time. We are extremely well prepared regarding security measures to safeguard the health of our people; we are even more strict and vigilant than what the government’s official guidelines recommend. We’ll alternate working shifts, we have masks and gloves at the ready for everyone, and safe distances will be strictly respected. Safeguarding health is paramount. Thermal scanners will take everyone’s temperature at the beginning of every shift; the entire work space will be scrupulously sanitized with biodegradable products. We’ve been lucky so far—none of our 7,000 employees has tested positive for the virus.
Entrepreneurs are called today more than ever to a role of social responsibility. How are your responding to this call?
At the beginning of the lockdown, I sent all my employees a personal letter, asking them to take advantage of the time spent at home to think and to suggest new ways of making our company a better place in the future, focusing on what needs to be improved or changed. I’m receiving lots of wonderful ideas, which I’ll try to translate into action. I think an attitude of generosity is of the essence in this moment; as an entrepreneur you have the duty and the opportunity to share [the] knowledge and means and to effectively engage for the common good. One thing I’m particularly concerned about is the survival of Italy’s small factories, a galaxy of family-run businesses, highly skilled artisans, microenterprises, and ateliers. If the government won’t urgently provide substantial, long-term economic support, they’re seriously at risk of disappearing. I feel the duty to bring their problems to the fore and to call for an effective, substantial intervention in their favor. If this won’t happen, our Made in Italy, on whose know-how the entire international luxury production chain depends, will be damaged forever—the pandemic has hit this fragile, precious ecosystem incredibly hard. All its technical creativity and genius must be protected; it’s a heritage of true cultural relevance, where human skills and values are organically connected with cutting-edge technology. Technology alone will never become a substitute for craftsmanship; the human touch cannot be replicated, because it embeds centuries of knowledge, creative practices and genius loci, in that all these small factories are imbued of the unique spirit and the local character of the places to which they belong. The strength of our Made in Italy is that it’s been able to build a global presence while remaining exquisitely local. We have to protect it whatever it takes.
Talking about social generosity, many of your industry peers have substantially donated to be of help in the fight against the pandemic. How have you acted on that front?
Together with my partner Arianna Alessi, we’ve come up with a rather different approach to tackle the emergency, doing it our own way. Through our OTB Foundation, which we established in 2008 to develop a wide range of social-responsibility projects, we have decided to personally manage direct help by providing aid to small suburban hospitals, foster homes, and retirement houses throughout Italy, according to their most pressing needs. Instead of making a fat una tantum donation to a major institution, we have activated a network of requests for specific medical equipment coming directly from small hospitals, buying exactly what they needed to operate effectively against COVID-19. Avoiding the paralyzing Italian bureaucracy has been one of our main concerns, and managing everything directly has helped to speed up operations and get things done. With the help of medical experts we have bought everything the hospitals needed, activating our international network to reach suppliers everywhere—from basics like surgical and filter masks, scrubs, shoe covers, and hand-sanitizer gels to ventilators and other medical tools, like air purifiers designed by NASA and usually employed for space missions, which clear the air of 99% of viruses and bacteria without ozone emissions. We have supported converting an area of Milan’s Fatebenefratelli Sacco Hospital’s pediatric department into a COVID-19 ward; we are giving the opportunity to doctors and nurses testing positive to the virus to quarantine at two hotels in Bassano del Grappa, the city where we live. Now we’re concentrating on providing food donations to families in need—there are so many. And the request for psychological help is also on the rise, especially for children affected by the solitude of the confinement. And since schools will remain closed in Italy until September, we’re trying to organize a service of nannies for our employees’ kids. It’s been incredibly intense, but we have decided to be at the forefront and to contribute directly in the best possible way, seeing results firsthand.
There’s debate now in the industry on how to address the need to protect business opportunities without losing a creative perspective. Do you think that collections will have to become more commercial in the near future, since the need to sell will be of essence to keep brands afloat? Or will creativity be needed more than ever to give collections authenticity, identity, and appeal?
This moment challenges our notions of how collections will look and how customers will spend their money. Our “product philosophy” has to adjust accordingly—collections will be smaller and more compact, built with a more realistic approach, somehow simplified, with a focus on comfort, less occasion-driven, addressing everyday needs. This doesn’t mean at all compromising on quality. Quite the contrary, we’ll increase it even more; it has to be maintained at the highest possible level, even if the style will somehow be less flamboyant or hyperbolic. I’ve been constantly in touch with my designers (like Maison Margiela’s John Galliano and Marni’s Francesco Risso) through Skype, WhatsApp, and email—they’ve been working with dedication, rethinking a lot of things. I’ve shared with them thoughts about how future collections should look, and how this crisis is actually challenging their creativity. Creativity has to be absolutely protected; it’s always front and center for us and has to remain so. It’s more needed now than ever, actually. Our high-end labels won’t compromise on that. As for the need to make collections more balanced—it’ll be a phase, and not an end point. This is just a phase we have to go through now, also because customers will probably be cautious in their spending and the value-for-money ratio will be on their minds. But fashion is an incredible tool for self-expression, reinventing itself constantly; creativity will help us go forward and look at a different future, experimenting on new solutions. For example, this emergency will help us reconsider the quality and nature of fibers we’ll use in our production chain, expanding and developing technologies to research new ways forward. Antibacterial fibers, or fabrics both comfortable and protective, possibly with waterproof treatments to repel droplets carrying viruses—I’m sure we’ll see a lot of new proposals on this matter. Technology in general is playing an important creative part in our lives at the moment, and obviously will be part of a new way of showing our collections too. In the past we have used holograms for a show, and we are working, together with my very talented creative team, on new innovative formats, something special that makes me vibrate with excitement. There are so many possibilities to explore.
Can the research on new materials be considered part of your company’s sustainability plan? Will you increase your commitment on this front and how?
Our engagement on sustainability is unwavering, it’s one of the pillars of our strategy going forward. We were going at full speed on this—unfortunately, the pandemic has stopped a series of proceedings we were working on and of which I was really so proud…. But it’s just a bump in the road. It’s momentary, [and] we’ll be back on track as soon as possible when the factories will be able to operate at full speed again. Before the pandemic’s outbreak, we were ready to present almost 25% of our collections across the company produced sustainably—I’m talking about recycled and certified organic materials, nonpolluting vegan dyes, washes made saving at least 80% of water. Since factories have been shut down, as of today I’m afraid I’m not sure how much of the materials we’ve been working at will be included in the upcoming collections, whose offerings will be considerably reduced. But in any case, making the sustainable process happen will become one of our greatest commitments going forward; we want to become a company with the best sustainable practices: real, certified, and honest. We’ve already been working on upcycling, every season we reuse deadstocks and leftovers from our warehouses, giving them new life—all our brands are engaged, as I truly believe that this is an effective way to reduce waste on many levels. My son Andrea is extremely involved on this front. As for myself, I was born sustainable, so to speak; I grew up on a farm in the countryside. My values are deeply rooted in my upbringing. They have also imbued how my company is structured and how we as a company behave and act, how we think, how we are engaged in social responsibility. It’s all part of the same mindset.
Originally Appeared on Vogue