Milano Unica: My first visit to the cloth fair

Monday, February 11th 2019
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They said Milano Unica was like Pitti without the peacocks. That was partly true.

Certainly, there are no photographers, so even though many of the same people visit Milano Unica (MU), they're not on display. Everyone is noticeably more relaxed: there is no playing or posing.

But a bigger difference from Pitti is the way the exhibitors present themselves - with the same absence of showing off.

At MU, all the stands are closed. From the corridors, all you can see are homogenous brown walls with the occasional ‘Loro Piana’ or ‘Fox Brothers’ board sticking out like a street sign.

There might be orders for millions of euros of cutting-edge fabric going on inside, but you’d have no idea.

Inside the booths there is a little more going on, but not much.

A small British mill might have a logo and a couple of lengths of cloth draped over the wall. A bigger outfit like Loro Piana has its own wallpaper and reception desk, but there is little razzmatazz beyond a video screen.

“Milano Unica is such a nice, relaxed atmosphere,” Agyesh of Stoffa told me on the second morning. “I do most of our development at the mills, but it’s lovely just to see everyone from those mills, to catch up and congratulate them on their work.”

So what was I doing there, you may well ask?

Well, Vitale Barberis Canonico (VBC) asked me to give a talk to their agents on the Monday night – basically, to tell them what questions you all ask about cloth every day.

So I thought I’d use the opportunity to stay for a couple of days and tour the show. I’d never seen this side of the menswear industry, though many had told me about it over the years.

(I also didn't have a photographer with me, hence the delightfully amateurish photos.)

My strategy was to spend that first evening understanding how it works for a seller, like VBC.

And then for most of the next day, to piggy-back on the appointments of Mike and Kasia from Private White, to understand how it works for a buyer.

Most of the third day seemed to be spent hanging out with Gianluca (Migliarotti) of Pommella, or talking to Fox, Albini and Canclini about the various cloth collaborations we’ve done.

'The wall'

The VBC evening was probably the most eye-opening.

The company was presenting its collection to the 30+ agents that represent it around the world, who would be on the stand for the next three days, meeting their clients and repeating the same information.

There were macroeconomic forecasts, a deep dive on the French market (where VBC is the market leader) and 23 new ‘qualities’ to understand and memorise.

A ‘quality’ is a new type of cloth, whether due to fibre, weave or finishing. But each quality then has a range of colours and patterns – perhaps a handful, perhaps 20. So the total number of new cloths for someone like VBC is in the hundreds.

With Mike and Kasia (above, left, with Alex of Anglo-Italian) the next day, it sometimes felt like you were going through thousands of swatches. And they all started to blur together.

Mike and Kasia had pretty clear objectives on what they wanted, but given the scope of the Private White range, they still ordered scores of samples.

For someone like Jake and Alex from Anglo-Italian, whom I saw on day one, things were simpler.

They have a very focused idea of what they want and simply looked through everything until they found it – usually no more than a handful of pieces from a mill.

The Liverano team

The overall process is: mill presents client with their whole collection; client picks several qualities/designs they like; these are sent to the client a couple of weeks later to make sample products.

Those samples are presented at shows like Pitti Uomo the following June. From these, brands or shops place their orders. And the final garments are made and delivered to shops for January – for us to buy from February onwards.

So the cloth on show at MU in February 2019 is for things to sell in Spring/Summer 2020.

You’re going almost six months further upstream.

Wine, cheese, honey, nuts

Fortunately the lunch is very good, and free. But then you can’t get into the show at all without being invited – and ‘IdeaBiella’, where the tailoring cloths are, requires an extra level of access.

For some reason the shirts section, ‘Shirts Avenue’, is open to everyone.

For me, an unexpected bonus was that I got to meet lots of mills that I’ve never quite had the time to visit.

Marling Evans, for example, a lovely mill in Yorkshire with some beautiful coatings in undyed yarn (below).

And Stephen Walters, the silk weaver in Sudbury that celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2020. (I visited Vanners, next door, years ago, but never got here.)

It's similar to Pitti in a way: even though lots of the exhibitors are British, it's a lot easier to see them here than to travel to all their factories/mills around the UK.

As a consumer, though, it’s very frustrating.

Pitti is bad enough, where you see so many products that aren't picked by buyers and are therefore never available in the shops.

But at MU you see hundreds and hundreds of fabrics that are available to brands to order, but will never make it into a bunch for a bespoke customer.

It’s just too expensive for mills to weave all these designs and hold them as stock, in the hope that they’ll all be sold, two or three metres at a time.

High on that list was some of the boating stripes and madras checks from Fox, who had one of the most attractive and interesting stands (below - hello Douglas!).

As far as trends in general go, these were pretty consistent:

  • Performance fabrics. Everyone had new versions to show, whether Albini, VBC, Canclini or Loro Piana: anti-wrinkle, natural stretch, UV-resistant, water-resistant
  • Sustainability. Just as often, the mill's big pitch was how much water they had cut out of production, or fibres (like tensel, bamboo) that are completely recyclable
  • Transparency. Providing more information to customers about where every element of their fabric comes from. Something on trend and particularly useful for the mills still doing it all in Italy
  • Decline. Mills being bought, going out of business, or cutting agents. Usually those not at the top level for quality, and losing business to Asia and elsehwere
  • Vintage. Linked to the trend of authenticity. Old-fashioned, duller and micro-patterned fabrics that feel vintage and so (ideally) connect the customer to the mill's history

I'm not sure it would ever make sense for me to go to MU regularly, but as with lots of things, I found it really interesting learning the mechanics of this part of the industry.

I hope you did too.

Photography: Permanent Style

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JJ Katz

Very interesting inside look.
I think it would be good business for the mills to organise a pop-up once-twice a year, perhaps with some support from tailoring houses, for the general public to whip up interest among customers.

Joel

Past experience for me when enquiring about taking cloth to a tailor is that they still charge their first price point, they never reduce the price for taking your own cloth.

Joel

The cloth I took was 40 plus years old Scabal, wool, with Cashmere and Vicuña. I think Scabal told me the equivalent today (15 years ago when I took it in) was £200 plus a meter.

JB

I find this a lot more interesting than Pitti Uomo for instance. I share JJ Katz’s view that a pop up where mills could meet tailors and customers would be a very interesting idea.

Anonymous

Glad you enjoyed your visit to MU.I’ve recently looked at some Loro Piana cloth to make up into an overcoat.My tailor said it was much more expensive than the compable Harrison’s alternative(10% cashmere,90% wool).Any thoughts as to why this higher price prevails?

Anonymous

I’ve never worked out what LP’s revenue/profit split is. I’ve seen it quoted at 25% revenue as fabric sales to other brands but never seen anything that splits their own RTW out from wholesale fabric.

I’m sure a lot of the value goes into R&D etc but given their sponsorship of sports etc I’d be suprised if there wasnt an element of fabric sales funding these marketting activities.

Anonymous

Thanks Simon.You’re a mine of information.

Scott

In many ways Loro Piana is in a class by itself. Did you see the Harris Tweed folks. I’m becoming slightly obsessed with both of these companies.

Joel

My opinion is that Loro Piana is seen as a premium brand ahead of their competition, even more so than VBC, Scabal and Zegna.

You will probably notice that almost anyone who uses Loro Piana cloth tells you it is LP.

Scott

I think you’re right about that Joel, but you can’t go wrong with any of the other three you mentioned, all are fantastic.

Nick

I actually quite like the photos in this post! Good to see the more ‘real’ side of the menswear industry.

Joel

Did you find anything to collaborate on?

Joel

I’m sure you know these guys already, but in case you haven’t I came across this company which could be a good manufacturer.

http://www.tregifashion.co.uk

Anthony

The mills should be more vocal about there efforts to make there product more sustainable! I would love to hear from my tailor that the cloth i just picked uses less water.

How did those performance fabrics stack up against traditional luxury fabrics?

Anthony

I look forward to reading them !

KGJ

As I have taken up weightlifting more seriously, my tailor recommended cloth from Dormeuil’s Excel range. My past commissions have either been H&S or vintage, so I’ve been on the fence about experimenting with natural stretch cloths.

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Gonzague

So is there any interest for a bespoke tailor to attend? A MTM tailor maybe, or is it for RtW only really?
What share of a mills fabrics do you reckon is available in tailors bunches? Would you say tailors fabrics are the best of the mills’ fabrics or does RtW get the best?

P.F.

Really interesting article. I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the life-cycle of a cloth from the mill to the shop. And it is certainly more interesting than the peacocks at Pitti Uomo. Nobody in his right mind would dress like them on a regular business day.

Regarding the performance fabrics, what is your opinion on the fabrics like Loro Piana’s storm system. I know you don’t like the drape for am overcoat, I believe you have already replied it somewhere else. However, due you believe that they are worth the money for other types of clothes, like a blouson. I am thinking of Valstar’s Valstarino in Loro Piana’s storm system.

AMS

Those undyed coatings from Marling & Evans are part of the Natural Collection available from M&E via Huddersfield Cloth to all custom/bespoke/mtm tailor shops. You can see the range on the HC website. I also saw a coat of cloth from this range at Suitsupply last season. I myself have a mtm coat of it in a giant gray/black check made by Kent Wang. It’s 720g, so as warm as a blanket.

Alec

Hi Simon. I enjoy all these articles on cloth. Just wondering if you end up collecting lengths of cloth from all these meeting with cloth merchants and mills. If so, has it been easy to find tailors willing to work on CMT?

Joseph

I lament that the word “fascinating” has been so commonly used in a sarcastic manner, as I find myself at a loss of anything to replace it when I do read something genuinely fascinating.

I’ve always loved your writings on the way the industry works. Thanks for this bright patch in my afternoon routine, Simon.

Matthew V

I completely agree, another fascinating article!

Chancellor

Ditto. Very interesting!

Alex

I’m sad to read that some mills are going out of business – I hope that this is not a trend that will affect even the big names in the future. I was under the impression that classic menswear is on the rise even in the younger generation, and that this should be affecting mills positively? I feel like I’m seeing the VBC logo on the inside of RTW garments that just a few years ago were half plastic, half cheap wool? Am I wrong?

Could you elaborate a bit on this? Is there perhaps an article to write about it?

Trang

Is an invitation a must to be able to attend MU? Do you know how I could get it as founder of a menswear brand? Thank you very much!

George Fang

Wow, I always wondered more about the fabric fair than Pitti. This is where the actual cloth begins. Like cariaggi, albini etc. Great unexpected post. Love these industry coverage posts. It is really illuminating.