There are places you go to when you are younger as a tourist on a bus or a boat. I grew up in an aspirational middle class, the grandson of a fishmonger on one side and a cafe owner on the other. My father worked very hard and was successful and his passion was travel. So he would bundle us all up at every chance he got and we would go to all sorts of places but always, seemingly, in a hurry. So as a young boy I had a different desire, I always wanted to go somewhere and plonk myself long enough that I felt like I was a local. Unfortunately, I wasn’t gifted enough in any of my skills that I was seconded anywhere nor did I strike a career path in my own business that allowed me to freely get up and go work anywhere in the world. So by the time I found my craft I was well and truly fixed in my city, Sydney, Australia.
That being said I did a small stint in London and a smaller stint in New York and Paris. I would not dare to say I was gainfully employed in any of those cities, instead I was restless and took odd jobs wherever I went.
That has changed somewhat with my business over time and now I do consider Como, Italy somewhat of a second home and somewhat of a base from which I explore Europe. I have my favourite hotel, I know the staff by name, I have my friends there, though I work with many of them so the lines are blurred, and I have my favourite bars and restaurants that I visit each time.
I have watched the silk industry change substantially since I went to Como, and the city too in many respects, and that is what I wish to write about today.
I can still recall my first trip very clearly. A small dingy hotel, it was cold in May, I wore black jeans a lot that trip, with my RM Williams Crsftsman chelsea boots in a brown, a limited edition leather that had been done for the movie Australia. I had a Burberry Macintosh that I wore at that time too. I had no idea what I was doing. I distinctly remember those bare trees as I walked the streets whilst light drizzle and mist covered the streets and dragon’s breath hugged the mountains around. In those days the restaurants were a little more sparse, there was one McDonalds and it was reasonably empty, I knew nobody and I had no idea what I was doing. I had gone there because I had read somewhere on the internet that all great silk came from Como, Italy and I had found a wholesaler of ties with an address in Como. That was all.
At a dinner one night with a tie maker called Diego at a restaurant called Hemingway he told me where I could find a business that would sell me silk. I met a man called Carlo who was wearing a bow tie and I came to like him and the manner in which he conducted himself and I placed my first order for silk.
In the years that followed I would take out my Tom Tom and rent a car and I would use every contact I had to get to the next contact and scour the landscape looking for these places that were off the beaten track, certainly nowhere near Como central and, parking my car at the gate, I would press on the buzzer and speak what pigeon Italian I could to get in front of the next silk merchant.
Quite a few of those companies I first went to no longer exist or have either merged or been bought out by competitors. Many of those first account managers I had no longer work in the industry or have since retired. As I write this I am listening to my playlist of Chopin nocturnes and so it makes me rather pensive and somewhat nostalgic. My hatchbacks were usually stick shift and those Tom Tom’s sometimes took me on a veritable odyssey of the Italian countryside. I don’t miss those days but there is something to be said of life before Google and Apple Maps where you are spoon fed almost every detail door to door.
Today the landscape of Como is very different for me. I arrive at Milan airport, pick up my car that was pre booked months before, by the time I get to Como I collect my e tag (which did not exist back then, you had either coins or a Visa card that was temperamental). There are no cashiers on the roads anymore. We don’t notice progress in increments but looking back now it seems much clearer.
When I arrive at my hotel I feel like I am at my second home. The staff greet me and I have come to be known at Mr Papillon. I think it’s easier than saying Mr. Atgemis … I know my room back to front, I know how to work the windows to open them right up and get that cold air flowing through the room. I look out over the square outside my window and I prepare for the week ahead on my desk. My ritual now resembles my ritual in Sydney too. I stretch in the morning, shower, take breakfast and write a list of affirmations and then my list of things to achieve that day.
The looms are now on Google of course and so my friend Carlo and I map out who we will see that day and onwards we go. He now drives a Tesla and there is charging pad in his car for our phones. The only reason I don’t sit back and relax is that Carlo drives like a maniac and I want to witness my own death if it is to come. I once took my attention off him and found him driving up a one way street in the wrong direction on a steep escarpment. When I raised the alarm in a firm voice he swore to me black and blue it was a two way, only later apologising that ‘they must have changed the road rules recently, it was always a two way’.
He speaks Italian, French and English. I speak Australian English and childish French. We make it work for us as best we can. Sometimes when get stuck we revert to our French, mine, he says, with an American accent, his to me like he is speaking Italian in French.
These days we stop for coffee to charge his Tesla because I am one of those people that can’t understand people who do anything on less than 30%. At 30% I see the end of my life as I know it coming. We are all God’s children so I forgive him, it’s something I think we are always going to have to disagree on. But lately he seems to listen more and so we charge the Tesla some days when its getting low.
Carlo is formally retired now. What we do together is more out of friendship. That friendship has seen many changes in both our lives. When I met him his children were my daughter’s age. His daughter is now a considerate and charming young woman, his son a strapping young man with his own hopes and dreams and already on his path in life. He is unlikely to enter the textiles trade, instead he hopes to create digital content. I cannot blame him, he has seen how hard his father worked for a salary that I don’t think warrants the work and time he put into his customers. The jobs in textiles are not ‘sexy’. They are technical and require a lot of work and the pool of business diminishes with each passing year. And his son is emblematic of what I told La Provincia when we met a couple of weeks ago to talk about life after three years of Covid and returning to Como in person to source, select and develop silks for the year ahead.
When I sat down in Como with the team at La Provincia I considered the three years that had passed since I was last in the office. I had shed about 20 kilos since that time, my hair was much whiter, my beard too. I was less restless than I was back then and I felt very happy that day, as though just to be there again was an accomplishment itself.
Opposite me was Enrico Marletta, the very same journalist that had seen me the time before. And so too was Antonella Corengia, a woman I have come to know as a friend, who does a lot of their social media and content editing. She is fashionable and elegant, a very fit woman who cycles rigorously and religiously and doesn’t mind a Boomerang on Instagram (I have never understood Boomerangs). We had stayed in contact all through Covid and I had brought with me a gift for her, one of our Australian Brumbies scarves, which, if any of you follow our Instagram handle, you will have seen me tying said scarf on her. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say to Enrico about coming back to Italy but as the meeting went on and Carlo translated, I found the words to the feelings that had been ruminating in me since I arrived. And these are my thoughts, which may or may not have been conveyed in the article.
The hub for textiles that is Como is one of the great wonders of this world. It is not just a series of factories that produce textiles in a copy and paste environment. Is it a world where creativity and textiles engineering come together in such a unique manner that if it were to go the world would be significantly poorer for it. It needs to be preserved and it needs to be nurtured. As I said on an Instagram post, you don’t just come here for the lake, nor the mountains, you don’t come here just for the restaurants and the pride that the owners take in sourcing their food, you don’t come here for the wine or the truffles, the characters that run the looms, the looms themselves, the print houses nor the local coffee shop where you stop between meetings. Nor do you come for the idiosyncrasies of Italians and the way they live, nor the history that dates back to the pagans before the Romans. You don’t come here like that. You come here for everything, for the whole package, the way writers and artists descend on Paris or New York. Como is for textiles what the arts are for those cities. It is a melange, a milieu, the best of what Italy has to offer where culture, creativity and technical brilliance converge to produce the finest fabrics as a by product of everything else that Como is. The fabrics are the output but there are so many inputs that make it so.
To my mind I consider the province of Como as one of those world heritage sites, as wonderful as the Pyramids in Egypt, as breathtaking as Paris at night. You can’t recreate it, you can’t place it anywhere else. It is where it is for a reason and it must must must be preserved. And the problem that presents most prominently for the future of Como is …people. Covid has caused many of the looms to merge or close. It has made it much harder for the locals to find labour, energy prices are soaring and, most importantly, the younger generation is not inspired to take up the slack because the world is changing rapidly and young people don’t see any opportunity in the business. They have seen their parents work long and hard hours in an industry that is in decline as more and more fashion companies take their production to lower cost countries. They see the ride of social media and a shift to everything being in a cloud and on a subscription. The industry is dominated by companies that are owned by families and those families themselves don’t have children that want to take up the slack as their parents wind down the companies that often have been owned by one family for very nearly a century and sometimes even longer.
I do not purport to have the answers, these are merely my observations. At meetings I find myself seated opposite people in their fifties, sixties and seventies. Often their children study or live abroad, their businesses are focused on fabrics which are used in products that are seeing a decline in consumption. Neck ties are a wonderful example. Bow ties too. Covid has rapidly changed the way people dress and less and less people are using pieces of cloth around their neck in general. Scarves, foulards, ascots, bow ties, neck ties - these are items of clothing that have been shunned by the next generation. And in every meeting I do my best to ask each and every fabric producer “are you working on any new products?” . Some are. Many aren’t. As one of my account managers said to me in a meeting “we believe that trends come and go, for the time being we see that ties are no longer fashion, but this we believe will change in the coming years”.
I disagree. I believe that Covid has had a profound impact on menswear that’s effect will be felt progressively in the years to come. The same way that the advent of World War 1 and the Spanish influenza changed clothes considerably in the years that followed, I believe the same will be said one day for Covid. The worker’s revolution, the stay at home worker, the “rethink” of work life balance has meant that people have steered away from classic menswear and business attire forever. The neck tie to them is a symbol of corporate slavery. You only have to look at the way Hollywood stars are turning up to celebration events in skirts or the way Harry Styles makes clothes fluid to see that the cat is out of the bag.
Only by making products that appeal to the new wave of menswear will there be any reprieve. But that in itself poses a problem. The fabrics that form a great deal of the production in Como have or were centred around jacquard and printed silks used for the most part in fashion accessories from scarves to neck ties. And they are for the most part made in natural fibres, silk being the most predominant fibre that comes to mind. Yes, some of the looms are producing for home furnishings and I think this is really smart. There will always be a demand for high end fabrics in this manner. But what about fashion, and specifically to my own realm of fashion, what about menswear?
When I scan a mountain side these days I rarely see skiers where anything other than polymer fibres on the mountain, and around the neck the buffs they use are usually technical polymer fibres. The same could be said for sports of other varieties like cycling and mountain climbing. In work people wear little to nothing around their necks and often prefer these days to have a gilet or puffer jacket again in man made technical fibres. When I pass tailoring shops in Como I rarely if ever see a client inside. When I go for meetings in Como, or in Sydney for that matter, I rarely see men wearing suits. At best I see jeans and a jacket. In Como, thankfully, most men will still wear a tie to a meeting with a client. But behind the scenes the makers do not. Nor do the people you pass in the street.
Also being lost concurrently is the art of tying a piece of cloth. That way you used to see an Italian woman effortlessly knot a scarf or foulard around the neck is dead. I often spend time with Italians showing them how to tie bow ties and foulards. They themselves wear them so infrequently.
Almost every book I have ever read set in Europe often tells the tale of decay. Swann’s Way tells the death of French society as Swann chooses his mistress Odette instead of choosing a woman of his class. Lampedusa’s Il Gattorpardo (The Leopard) tells the story of the last days of the Bourbon reign in Southern Italy. I could go on. Europe in decay has always been a story that’s familiar. And you can see it as you go around Como, those villas that once were the homes of the great fabric traders of their time. The aristocracy that once held homes by the lake where now it is owned by Russians or Americans who descend upon their in the high season (well maybe not the Russians right now). And decay is fine, it’s always been that way, you only need to spend a day in Rome to know that life continues on regardless.
But Como? That inimitable hub of creativity and technical brilliance converging - it is under threat. It lacks a new generation, it lacks a purpose unless it transforms itself again and again. Some might say “but tourism becomes the main driver”. Maybe. But tourism works on Sundays in winter and for the three to four months of summer. The backbone for centuries has been fabrics and fabrics is in the DNA of the province. If Brussels had any brains they wouldn’t send out directives that fabric production in Europe should be a thing of the past, that they should focus on other industries. Because that will merely mean another industry lost when all it needs is fresh blood and some renewed vigour.
I lunched with one owner of a factory, he is one of the most fascinating characters I have met. Recently he acquired his competitor and now has a veritable monopoly over one style of silk. He asked me. “How old do you think I am?” . I said sixty five. Thank you he said, he was seventy two. “Seventy two” I said, “so how many good years do you think you have left and what happens to your looms when you are too old and too tired to keep running them? All I have seen is men and women over fifty working in this industry, where is the new blood?” He didn’t have an answer for me. We don’t live forever and as I said earlier, decay is everywhere. Como is no different. So what will come of this hub after myself and all my contacts have run out of steam? A new chapter needs to be written but it won’t happen without new blood coming into the mix.