MaxMara, which brought designer ready-to-wear to Italy, has a reputation for creating clothes to suit all women - and for resisting the passing whims of the fashion industry. Yet it's never been more fashionable. Susannah Frankel met the man behind the label
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The Independent Culture
REGGIO EMILIA, a small provincial town in northern Italy, is hardly known the world over as Fashion Central. True, it is one of the most affluent regions in Italy, boasting - according to locals - the lowest unemployment figures and - this is very important - the best food. But fashion? The area is more famous for its cheese: Reggio Emilia's Parmesan is generally recognised as being the finest in Italy.

But Reggio Emilia is also HQ to MaxMara, Italy's leading women's ready- to-wear manufacturer. The MaxMara Group's 23 lines (from Marina Rinaldi to the better-known and more directional Sportmax, for a younger, more fashion-conscious customer) cater to the sartorial whims of every kind of Italian woman. Achille Maramotti, who, in 1951, opened the first branch of MaxMara here in his hometown, can claim to have initiated the Italian designer ready-to-wear industry. Since 1963, with the help of many a bright young designer - including Jean Charles de Castelbajac and Karl Lagerfeld - he has come up with twice-yearly collections of immaculate womenswear. In 1967, prompted by the emergence of a consumer-driven youth culture, he gave us Sportmax, the world's first diffusion line.

Now Achille has retired, and his legacy is presided over by his son Luigi. "My father was very much a pioneer where ready-to-wear is concerned," says Luigi with pride, speaking across a large desk at MaxMara's central office in Reggio Emilia. The place has an unashamedly industrial feel - the low-level building, built a little over a decade ago, is a far cry from the opulent Milan palazzos that are home to the likes of Armani, Versace, Valentino et al.

"In the Fifties," Luigi continues, "you had haute couture- that was like creative fashion - and then you had the garment manufacturing industry, and the two things were very detached. One was about creativity, the other about industry. My father pioneered the idea of using young designers and involving them in designing for the company." And so designer ready- to-wear was born: far less expensive than haute couture, and far superior in quality to the ill-thought-out copies in inexpensive fabrics that flooded the market.

"It was a business decision," Luigi says. "We wanted to make designer fashion available to many people, not just a few, but that was because we saw it as a business opportunity. It was a sense of the future." And the decision to base the company some way out of Milan was wholly pragmatic too. "Living in a province, the quality of life is much higher than in a big city. Everyone is more relaxed, people don't have to commute an hour a day, or be stressed by traffic, and it's better for the people and for their families."

Even in Italy, the family fashion business is becoming a thing of the past. But families remain highly important to Maramotti. "The people who work in our company know that there is a professional know-how being passed down through the generations," he says. "There is a stability that is not there in public companies, or companies managed by an anonymous management team. Families don't make projects for five years, they make projects for generations." A community spirit is also demonstrated by the fact that MaxMara also presides over the finest restaurant in the region. Even the cows that graze on the hillsides are MaxMara-owned - contributing, presumably, to the international reputation of Parmesan.

This is all a far cry from the "in" one minute and "out" the next philosophy that the fashion industry thrives on. In person, Maramotti is surprisingly sensible, dour even, although you get the feeling that he means what he says. And the same restraint is identifiable in the clothes. Season after season, MaxMara embraces the trends without ever bowing down to them. The company's shows are less likely to bring the house down than, say, Gucci's and Prada's: MaxMara rarely makes the fashion headlines. But then the company prides itself on being understanding of the fact that women generally prefer more straightforward styling than designers offer them. "MaxMara has always had an understated approach to fashion," Maramotti says. "We take into consideration the identity and personality of the client, and make sure that the clothes are never the first thing you notice. We are interested in making the best product we possibly can. This is part of our DNA."

In a world where the superstar designer - McQueen or McCartney, for example - reigns supreme, MaxMara's approach couldn't be more different. "We have always worked with very talented designers," says Maramotti. "Famous and less famous. The idea was always to create a team of people who worked together - in order to arrive at a product that has its own personality all through the collection, that is not overly influenced by seasonal designers. When you rely on the designer and every six months that designer changes, then where is the identity of the brand?"

Also unusual, given the unashamedly corporate climate of fashion today, is MaxMara's reluctance to hit the consumer with lucrative fragrance lines, or to branch out into menswear, childrenswear and "home" on the back of the success of the main line. "It's about being focused," Maramotti says. "We have a factory, and there is something there that is the result of years and years of exper-ience. How can I say that, in six months' time, I'm going to be excellent at making something that I don't know anything about? People say it's just a marketing thing, but we don't work like that."

Instead, the emphasis remains firmly on the product. "Our customer recognises the value of the product for what it is. Nowadays, you have a lot of trickery and manipulation to make a brand interesting for a short time, because of strong advertising or associations with celebrities. Our strength is to make a product rather than promote a product. The only thing I will say about the woman who buys MaxMara is that she chooses our product because she knows what it is made of. She's not interested in buying MaxMara because it's fashionable this season. She likes the idea of something that won't date, that has a classic side - meaning not that it's old, but that it's such a well-designed product, so well-made and well-balanced, that it's going to last." And MaxMara's clothes do just that. The media's perception of the main line collection may change, but the principle it springs from remains the same. And the word is that, for the past few seasons at least, the collection has been stronger than ever.

An hour-and-a-half's drive away, back at Linate airport in Milan, MaxMara's PR, beaming from ear to ear, hands me a package. It is beautifully wrapped and emblazoned with the MaxMara logo. I have to admit that it makes even my fashion-weary heart beat faster. Well-mannered enough to resist tearing it open on the spot, I wait until I'm safely on the plane home to London, at which point I dive in without shame. Nestling at the bottom of the bag, surrounded by a cloud of tissue paper, is the most enormous piece of Parmesan cheese that I have ever seen.