Italian Mills Confront Foreign Competition

THESE are turbulent days for Italy's silk industry.That's the word from officials here at Mantero, one of Italy's biggest silk companies. Competition from the Far East is putting Italy - the world leader in high-quality silk production since World War II - on the defensive. Ninety percent of the world's raw silk is produced in China. But weaving and printing know-how is taking off in countries such as S. Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Their low labor costs and efforts to copy Italian designs are threatening Italy's market. "Around mainland China, you'll find very aggressive countries ready to copy everything we propose," says Moritz Mantero, one of five brothers who own Mantero. The company, which recorded $200 million in sales last year, produces silk and other natural fabrics for the women's luxury markets, as well as for ties and scarves. Besides its own labels, it produces finished products for Ferre, Gucci, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian LaCroix, and others. "Each year the Asian countries are producing higher quality goods," says Carolina Olivieri, marketing analyst for textiles and apparel at the Italian Trade Commission. Italy can't afford "to just sit back and take it easy," she says. Mantero's strategy to stay competitive includes: * Increasing versatility. In June, the company acquired Corisia, a fabric company specializing in collections of fine wool coordinated with solid or printed silks. Mantero is known mostly for its neckware divisions. This makes the company "stronger in the apparel fabrics department, particularly in the top level," says Mr. Mantero. * Computerization and automation. While most of its looms are already computerized, Mantero is experimenting with robotics for weaving, dyeing, and printing. A computer-aided design (CAD/ CAM) system was installed in April, allowing artists to see what one design looks like in various colors. "This shortens the time needed to go from a sketch to final production," Mantero says. * Research and development. Mantero produces "ideas" at its research center, where yarn specialists invent new fabrics and unusual weaves. In a unique process developed at the center, silk scraps from the looms are recycled into silk rugs or hand bags. Molded into plastic, the scraps can also be used in floor or wall tiling, or furniture. Mantero says Italy still has an advantage. "We have naturally a kind of ... sensitivity. Technology you can buy, but what you cannot buy is our feeling - that emotional moment when we choose certain designs to put on certain fabrics and to be colored in certain ways. This is our secret."

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