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‘Made in Italy’ may not mean what you think it does

Sam Harnett Sep 24, 2014
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If a handbag is stamped “made in Italy,” it may seem safe to assume that it is, well, entirely made in Italy. But it’s not so simple.

Patricia Jurewicz directs the Responsible Sourcing Network, an organization that advocates for more transparency in supply chains. She says, “It’s extremely difficult to understand what companies are doing and how they have their products manufactured.”

In the U.S., there are some laws covering this. The “last substantial transformation” of a product must happen in the country of origin. Guillermo Jimenez of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York says that phrase can be stretched pretty far.

“If you have the handle of the handbag come from South America, and the leather panels come from India, and another part comes from another country, well none of that is a handbag yet,” Jimenez says. But put all those pieces together in Italy, and presto: Italian handbag.

“That’s legally allowable,” Jimenez says, “but arguably can be deceptive to the consumer.”

The only way to know for sure how a bag is made is to visit the company factories. Jimenez says U.S. customs and the Federal Trade Commission don’t have the resources to keep tabs on all of them.

“With the dizzying number of handbag companies in the world,” Jimenez says, “it’s hard for the FTC to stay on top of it.”

In fact, the trade commission has not brought a case against a fashion company for violating country of origin laws in over a decade.

That country of origin label is a powerful brand for Italy. As a symbol of craftsmanship and prestige, it brings in boatloads of cash to producers of luxury products. Italians considers the label a national economic resource. Many would like to protect that brand with a stricter definition.

Made in Italy” is an initiative funded by the Italian government to provide an additional label for products completely manufactured in the country: components, design, the works.

“If you want to buy a real Italian product, it’s easier if you actually have a certification that proves that,” says Made in Italy representative Marco Tomassini. “It’s just to be very clear what you are offering to the end user.”

This certification helps smaller Italian manufacturers stand out from global brands with sophisticated supply chains. It reassures customers that the products are made entirely in Italy.

Keanan Duffty, a designer and professor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, wonders if customers today really care. “The younger consumer, I am not sure if they are concerned about where the goods are made,” he says. “I think they are more concerned about the label.”

Duffty says for many young people it’s less about what the label actually means and more about what it signifies: status and luxury. And keep in mind, he says, “With luxury anything, you’re buying a fantasy.”

Fantasy has always been a big part of fashion. If you need a refresher, just watch an “unboxing video.” They are part of a YouTube subgenre in which people post videos of themselves opening up new products so other people can watch. For handbags, big moment in these videos is when the person displays the country of origin label. Whether it is entirely true or just partly true, the “made in Italy” stamp makes owners proud.

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