What do you think of, when you read the label or hear the words “Made in Italy”? If you have been living on the planet for at least a couple of decades, chances are these three words spell quality, elegance, style and history to you. How did the “Made in Italy” brand come to be a worldwide symbol of excellence? When it was first introduced, in 1980, Made in Italy was not a product category of its own, but an umbrella definition meant to identify Italy’s superior quality products in four industrial compartments: food, fashion, mechanical engineering and furniture. In has since evolved to comprehend any unique and outstanding product by Italian manufacturers. Here are 10 brands that have influenced global taste (in some cases literally) and made an impact on international markets, without losing their unmistakably Italian quality.
Armani is probably the youngest brand in this list and nonetheless it is among the first to be mentioned whenever the concept of Made in Italy is discussed. Armani is also the only brand in this list to be currently led by its original founder, Giorgio Armani, who started the company in 1975. Prêt-à-porter was the core of Armani’s production from the very first collection and in a matter of years the maison had taken the fashion world by storm and was among the most important brands in the world. The reasons behind this stunning success are still being investigated. Much is due, no doubt, to Armani’s essential and timeless elegance, the flawless and instantly recognisable design of its collections and the quality of the textiles employed. However, King Giorgio – as he is affectionately known in Italy – has proved over and over that his business acumen extends well past his outstanding management capabilities. Armani is always ahead of the times, both in matters of style and in matters of ethics and awareness (check the story about Giorgio Armani’s recent announcement that the brand will no longer be using animal fibres).
As a company, Barilla has existed since the late XIX Century, but the history behind it dates much farther back. The Barilla family has worked in baking and pasta making since the second half of the XVI Century, in the area of Parma. It wasn’t until the first decade of the XX Century that Barilla came to be defined and perceived as a brand and Emiliano Trombara designed the company’s first logo. Ever since, logo design has been an important part of the way Barilla communicates its brand identity. Studying the evolution of Barilla’s logos is of extreme interest to anyone willing to study the history of Italian design, as well of Italian manufacture. The first logo featured a boy tipping an egg yolk into a kneading trough and it was commissioned because the firm had started manufacturing egg pasta. The idea of the egg as a design element has stayed in the logo, throughout its complex evolution, in various degrees of abstraction, even though Barilla currently produces a wide range of baked goods and pasta types that do not necessarily contain eggs. Over the past three decades, the brand has acquired other manufacturers and is currently one of the largest players in the food & beverage industry.
Bulgari is one of the best known luxury brands in the world. It was founded in Rome over a century ago and it is still managed by the Bulgari family. Arriving in Italy from Greece in the XIX century, the silversmith Sotirio Bulgari, opened his first roman workshop in 1884, in the central via Sistina. A decade later, the shop moved to the nearby via Condotti, where it still operates as the centre of the whole international Bulgari empire. Bulgari collections embody a concept of elegance in jewelry that is strongly influenced by classical greek and roman ideas of beauty. As it expanded into the neighbouring compartments of luxury watches, eyewear, accessories and fragrances (and the slightly less obvious compartment of hotel management), Bulgari applied the same uncompromising attitude in matters of style and quality.
Adriano Ducati was interested in radio transmissions and he was not so much as thinking of a motorbike when he first became famous. The reason he became famous was that he had built a short wave transmitter with which he had succeeded in establishing a radio connection between Italy and America in 1924. And then you know how things are: a young, ambitious man talks his brothers into starting a company, building components for the new and exciting industry that was to revolve around radio transmissions, and next thing he knows there’s a war on and all his factories are being bombed. What is a resourceful entrepreneur to do? He converts his factories, starts building motorcycles and finds that he is remarkably good at it. The transition from good manufacturer to design icon, however, happened in the 70s, when Ducati entrusted the restyling of its logo to Giorgetto Giugiaro, a designer who is single-handedly responsible for the success of many an iconic Italian brand. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This should probably be the first item on this list, but it would have been too hard to pick an order after that, hence the alphabetical solution. Ferrari is what you think of when you think about luxury, status symbols, wealth and unattainable style. When he founded the company in 1947, Enzo Ferrari did not particularly want to build expensive cars, but he certainly wanted to build fast cars: car racing was his chief passion and he devoted his whole existence to the production of sports cars. The Ferrari legend was born on the racing track and to this day it dominates the Grand Prix and embodies the world’s dream of speed, beauty and sleek elegance. The prancing horse logo is the stuff of legend itself: apparently Enzo Ferrari copied it from the fuselage of a plane, where it had been painted by Count Francesco Baracca, a WWI hero and ace pilot. Apparently it was Count Baracca’s father who asked Enzo Ferrari to use the stallion as his logo.
Michele Ferrero was a baker from Alba. He had a passion for patisserie and he started experimenting with original recipes in his workshop in the early 40s. Once again, the war disrupted his plans, making it extremely difficult to source basic ingredients – it can be nigh on impossible to get hold of cocoa beans if you live in Italy and your country is being subjected to an international embargo. Michele Ferrero, however, was one of humanity’s natural optimists and he decided to fall back on something that was readily available and plentiful in his native region of Piedmont: hazelnuts. His experiments with the sweet cream named “Gianduja” were an overwhelming success, allowing him to keep afloat during those difficult times, even hiring new employees. Now, unless you are a connoisseur of traditional Italian patisserie, you might not have heard of gianduja, but you are likely to have heard of Nutella. From now on, every time you find yourself standing in front of an open fridge at night and reach for that sinful brown jar, you can spare a thought for Michele Ferrero and blame him when you won’t be able to fit into last year’s jeans.
The four founders of the small distillery that opened Turin in 1847 had no idea that their particular brand of vermouth was going to become internationally famous. In fact, the firm only took the name Martini in 1863, as one of the original founders died and the young sales rep Alessandro Martini took on a more decisive role in the company. Approximately a century later, the name Martini was the internationally accepted designation of vermouth in general and it was becoming synonym with sophistication and elegance. Its use in cocktails was of course made incredibly popular by Ian Fleming making it James Bond’s drink of choice. Glamour and good promotion, however, were already among the firm’s strong suites: the golden age of poster advertising in Italy, at the beginning of the XX Century, is universally identified with the beautifully designed ads for China Martini. To this day, the Martini terrace in Piazza Duomo, right across the Cathedral, is one of the most iconic views in Milan.
Are you thinking “Vespa”? Think ships, trains and airplanes. The small family business founded by Rinaldo Piaggio in the late XIX Century focused on woodwork for the shipbuilding industry, in the shipyards near Genoa. Design was always paramount for Piaggio, as the furnishings of ship cabins were luxury features and needed to be stylish as well as practical. The firm subsequently expanded into the building and repairing of train carriages and finally into the blooming aviation industry. What prompted Piaggio so start building the motoscooter that would bring the brand to international fame was – once again – the destruction of most of its factories during WWII. The original Vespa was designed in the late 40s by Corradino D’Ascanio and Piaggio has been identified with this remarkable vehicle ever since, particularly after it featured in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, becoming an epitome of Italian lifestyle.
When you think of luxury, style and, to an extent, Meryl Streep and that catchy song by K.T. Tunstall, chances are you are thinking of Prada. This brand may be a multinational behemoth of a company nowadays, but its history of elegance and uncompromising excellence is entirely made in Italy. The original core of the Prada Brothers’ business were leather goods and soon the sheer quality of the products made this small Milan boutique a favourite of European aristocracies. The first decades of the XX Century marked a peak in the brand’s popularity, which had somewhat dwindled in the 70s, when Miuccia Prada, last heir to the family fortune, brought it back to its original splendour. Prada has been acquiring assets in the luxury compartment ever since, tying its name to sports competitions and contemporary arts, as well as branching out into consumer electronics and fragrances.
Unlike Armani, Valentino Fashion Group is no longer led by its original founder, Valentino Garavani, who retired in 2007 after taking his own maison to worldwide success and managing it for over 45 years. Valentino is a living icon of Italian style and his name will be forever linked to the unique shade of red – known ad Valentino Red – that characterised some of his most popular creations. Valentino’s particular brand of elegance is a heady mix of essential grace and sensuality, while the man himself is known for his taste for grandeur and has been often referred to as “The Emperor”. Since his retirement, the brand has somewhat slowed down in its expansion, while remaining a symbol of Italian elegance worldwide. So much so, that Valentino featured in a scene of The Devil Wears Prada as himself : wherever fashion and style are, there is Valentino.
Does it have to be Made in Italy?
Yes it does. In order to be entitled to sport one of the several recognised and official “Made in Italy” labels, a product needs to have been entirely designed, manufactured and packaged in Italy. This is due to concerns for the economic consequences of outsourcing a Country’ s core products, but also to the need of keeping the Made in Italy label relevant and trustworthy. Most brands that have now become worldwide icons of Italian style no longer sport the Made in Italy label on their individual products. This is due to the fact that they are now multinational companies, with offices and factories in several countries and, more often than not, on different continents. This, of course, has no impact on the quintessentially Italian elegance of an Armani suit or a Ferrari GTS.