Whisper it, but things are looking up for the Italian textile trade. And for the first time in five years, the manufacturers have figures to prove it. The fourth edition of Milano Unica, which hosts textile shows Moda In, Ideacomo, Prato Expo, Shirt Avenue and Ideabiella, started with the show's president Paolo Zegna announcing a 1.4% upswing in turnover for 2006.
At the same time, the show itself rubber-stamped its international credentials with an 8% rise in overseas visitors to 10,500. The largest increases came from Turkey (up 34%) and the UK (up 25%). Overall, the show beat organisers' expectations and the total of 33,000 visitors was a record for the event, up 7% on the previous fair.
It is a welcome boost to a show that is sandwiched on the buying calendar between the burgeoning Munich Fabric Start and textiles heavyweight Premiere Vision, which follows a week later in Paris.
One agent working in Milan admitted: "It's tough doing the shows back to back, but Milan and Paris are essential. It's worth coming to Milan because you get better-quality appointments. Here, people have time to talk with you."
Milan also guarantees a certain calibre of international buyer. Lorenzo Laffi, designer for Dinamo fabric mill based in Prato, Italy, said: "Premiere Vision is busier, but we see the Japanese here in Milan."
Laffi's comments were echoed by Giovanni Bruni of Efilan, also from Prato. "Milano Unica is becoming more international. Once it was mostly Italians who came here, but now as well as other Europeans there are lots of Asians - especially Koreans and Japanese."
Milan is a honeypot for Asian buyers. It is this that inspired UK cashmere supplier Johnstons of Elgin, which showed in Ideabiella, to give Premiere Vision a miss this season. Its design director Susan Brash said: "We have showed at both but it has been a drain, and here we get the Japanese buyers. Whether it will have any effect on our figures will only be clear once the orders are in."
Peter Ackroyd, director of the British Wool Textile Export Corporation (BWTEC), agreed: "UK exhibitors show in Milan because they are guaranteed an audience with the three blue-chip markets - Japan, Italy and the US. However, it's not necessarily the case that Paris is for womenswear and Milan is for menswear. There are more menswear fabrics on show in Paris".
In all, 18 UK firms showed at Milano Unica under the BWTEC umbrella. Of these, the majority took stands in tailoring fabric show Ideabiella. The big concern among these mills was the unusually clement winter weather, which has caused a degree of nervousness among buyers who would otherwise have already committed to heavier cloths.
Ben Jones, director of UK mill Savile Clifford, believed there was a solution. "We are selling lots of silk and cotton in thick yarns, which give character to cloth and a weight of about 260 grams. This means we can produce some of the effect of wool without the weight." He said flexibility is an important quality for any mill and he has found that heavier-weight suitings are now selling as outerwear.
A similar willingness to adapt was in evidence at UK niche manufacturer Denholme Velvets. Managing director Roy Earle said that UK buyers were working ever-closer to the season. This has caused Earle to reduce the variety of his offer. "Where once we had 30 colours to show, we now have 16, on which we can offer stock service. Customers want to order more frequently and with less commitment."
Paul Francis, co-owner of Gilltex, which represents Italian mills in the UK, agreed. "The days of huge orders are gone," he said. "Now people will order far shorter runs of fabric and do it more often. But the plus side in the UK is that more customers are looking to add quality to their ranges, even on the high street, to differentiate from the basics."
This demand for quality - rather than just price - has been vital in restoring confidence in the Italian textiles market.
Research consultancy Smi-Ati, which provided the figures quoted by Paulo Zegna, valued the Italian textiles industry at £6.1 billion, up almost £100 million since 2005. It is a reverse from the slide which saw the industry's total value fall from £11.1bn in 2000.
However, all this gloss is not without its cracks. Although most of the major companies exhibiting in Milan were bullish, for some continued consolidation was still a concern.
On the positive side, the mood was summed up by Silvio Albini, president of Shirt Avenue and chief executive of Cotonificio, which supplies UK brands including Jaeger, Aquascutum, Burberry and Thomas Pink. He said: "Business is good. The results for 2006 are up; we have grown by 4% and turnover has hit £107m." He attributes the growth of his company to the smartening menswear trends, which are driving a renaissance for shirt manufacturers.
He added: "We still feel the price pressure from the Far East, but the market is dualistic now. There are cheaper manufacturers, but they are separate from the mid- to high-end where we are."
Albini emphasises that emerging territories are no longer seen just as competition, but as growing customer bases for high-end product. He says both China and India are becoming significant markets for Cotonificio.
This shift in attitude towards emerging territories was displayed by plenty of exhibitors at the show and was backed up by the Smi-Ati figures, which noted a 4.8% rise in exports for Italian textiles in 2006 - including a 7% increase in supply to China and Hong Kong.
Silvio Galimberti, sales manager at Ermenegildo Zegna, said: "China now represents about 5% of our business and offers an opportunity for growth." This positive outlook has influenced the company's view of the global market. "We are also looking at the rest of the world, at South America for example, as territories we can enter," he added. He believed the brand will finish spring 07 10% up on spring 06.
Pier Luigi Loro Piana, chief executive of luxury mill Loro Piana, was also upbeat. "The global market is expanding and there are both traditional and new markets - such as China - for us to exploit. We need to be in South America, the US and India. But we, like all Italian companies, need Milano Unica as a marketing tool. Barring any political upheavals on the scale of 9/11, the luxury sector can keep growing over the next three years."
According to Loro Piana, this means that more firms are entering the luxury market, making it even more competitive.
Contributing to the crowding at the high-end is pressure from Turkish manufacturers. The Far East's cheaper production has led to Turkish companies driving for higher-end sales, in turn pushing European manufacturers into the luxury market to fight a quality battle rather than a price war. One exhibitor said: "The pressure is felt particularly by the smaller manufacturers. Their experience echoes that of UK manufacturers about 15 years ago, when the likes of Marks & Spencer - or at least its suppliers - decided to buy from Turkish manufacturers."
Confirming this, Smi-Ati's research claimed that a feel-good factor is more pronounced at larger Italian companies, suggesting that consolidation still haunts the trade.
Brunello Pugelli, export manager of Texmoda, said: "There are plenty of mills with problems. The buyers know this and know that they are desperate to receive orders, so they demand lower prices. It's difficult for the manufacturers and makes it easy for buyers to command prices."
Hi-tech finishes and bright disco shades added a fun gloss, often in floral prints. Plastic handles and shiny finishes were a counterpoint to organic-looking shades, while natural looks had finishes from rustic and untreated to smooth and shiny. Animal print was in the mix and texture came from ruched and manipulated fabrics and weave contrasts.
Geometric weaves in thick textures added weight to natural and nude shades, while juicy bright shades of pink, orange, purple and green put a tropical edge on proceedings. Soft handles and sheen finishes added a more refined flavour, and nude and ivory shades looked more natural. Manipulated textiles were pleated and overprinted.
A refined, grown-up palette emerged, with the key grey and black shades blending into jacquard patterns. Sparkling yarns were used again as were silver sheens. But while the spectrum was sober, texture was turned up and mini geometrics were woven into fabrics. Colour came through in rich hues, with purple and scarlet adding depth.
Toned-down citrus shades and Oxford blues made up the palette for spring 08, but with less seasonality on show some darker shades appeared, as did a few glitzy satin weaves. Smooth handles and washed fabrics appealed to older customers, with crinkled finishes giving younger options. Stripes and semi-plains were simple and commercial.
Lighter weights were crucial as buyers turned away from anything too warm. In terms of colour, mid-grey shades were most directional and with stripes thin on the ground, semi-plain patterns, such as end-on-end weaves and tonal patterns, added interest. Subtle versions of sheen were in evidence - what the Italians call "brilliant cloths".
WHAT THE BUYERS SAID ...
TRISTAN MELLE, JERSEYWEAR DESIGNER, COAST
"There are more natural-looking fabrics here, which will be perfect for our spring 08 story. There are sludgy greens combined with natural-looking shades and linen-look fabrics. But there are also lots of brights, especially yellow and purple, which are the sort of things that we can use for trims and as highlights."
PAUL BUCKLE, RETAIL DIRECTOR, AND RUTH LEWIS, ACCESSORIES BUYER, EDE AND RAVENSCROFT
"We used to visit Premiere Vision too, but we only come to Milano Unica now - it's more focused and more appropriate for us. This show is getting more popular and there are more buyers in Ideabiella this time. Distinguishing between the seasons is becoming increasingly difficult, because there is less seasonality in the trends now."
MICHAEL WEST, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, FAAONNABLE
"All of our customers are requesting lighter weights, so buying is becoming seasonless - people just buy light and layer up when it is cold. It has an effect on the trade because the better-quality yarns are needed to create that look properly, which can mean that it can cost more. Our European customers are also demanding more staggered deliveries, as is traditional in the US, because they want to deliver newness with increased frequency."
ROBIN ARORA, SUITING BUYER, AND JOHN NEWTON, DIRECTOR, BAGIR
"We have not seen a huge amount here, unlike last season when there was so much to inspire us. But there are some interesting fabrics and there was plenty of excitement in the mills' pre-collections. There are some intelligent colours, particularly sepia browns and greys, which are not the bog-standard shades."
REBECCA INGHAM, DESIGNER, AND ZOE BUTLER-MOSS, JUNIOR BUYER, WAREHOUSE
"The biggest trend that we have noticed has been that it's all more refined. We like the sheen and the shine on fabrics such as linen - it's a move on from the metallics and Lurex, and it looks a lot newer. It's great that there is such a clear message and direction from the show. It's been surprising to see animal print again, but the finishes on it have been different. Although we probably wouldn't make a real statement with animal print, it could work on items such as macs."
LEANNE SEWELL, TAILORED WOMENSWEAR DESIGNER, AND KATE PLEASE, WOMEN'S FORMALWEAR DESIGNER, NEXT SOURCING
"We're still looking at autumn 07, rather than just spring 08, which this show is supposed to be about. It's lovely to come here and be inspired by beautiful fabrics. Commercially, the fabrics here are used on only a relatively small part of our business, but we get plenty of inspiration before going to Premiere Vision next week."