All wrapped up: What's next for Max Mara?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Achille Maramotti founded a ready-to-wear clothing company in Italy in 1951, he was doing much more than just continuing a family tradition. His great grandmother, Marina Rinaldi, managed a dressmaking shop in the mid-19th century and his mother, Giulia Fontanesi Maramotti, had established a tailoring and sewing school. As the bourgeois became rich through hard work and saving in post-Second World War Italy, Achille Maramotti recognised the emergence of a new market and transferred the idealistic developments of the time to the traditional ideas of dressing.

The vast scale of clothing manufacturers today may make it difficult to imagine that just 60 years ago, the landscape of fashion retail and manufacturing were so different. Indeed, when Maramotti created his company, Max Mara, in the affluent city of Reggio Emilia (a place better known for its cheese) he showed great vision. He decided to focus on the manufacture of coats, inspired stylistically by sophisticated French high fashion but manufactured in unprecedented volume by using industrial tailoring techniques – a somewhat risky venture when fashion was considered a hand-crafted product.

By 1967, Maramotti's aim of catering to the new middle-class population – in his own terms "the doctor's wife" – was enough of a success to warrant the founding of the very first Max Mara boutique in Milan. Within two years the brand had started to develop international sales, expanding into the UK, Belgium, France and Switzerland.

To this day, the company has remained under the control of the Maramotti family, which has eschewed big-name investors and which last year had a healthy turnover of $1.2bn.

A true family affair, second and third generations of Achille Maramotti's family are involved in the business. The chairman of the board, Luigi Maramotti, has led the business further into global markets, with 10,000 member stores in 105 countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and America. "We have been very successful in pioneering markets," Luigi Maramotti tells me at the company's office in Milan – the headquarters remain in Reggio Emilia to this day. "It is not because we believe you have to know the market in order to adapt. Max Mara has an identity and we are looking for the women who see themselves connected to this identity in different parts of the world. It's interesting to see what's happening in China, because everything there is kind of boosted by the speed of the economy. You can see how taste is developing in different directions."

Luigi Maramotti, aged 54, is keen to share his philosophy of the business of fashion. He believes, he says, that those who work in the field are similar to anthropologists, because they have the "privilege to see social trends as they are happening". Looking back, Maramotti takes obvious pride in the way his father revolutionised the garment industry in Italy, recognising that he was at the forefront of a move towards democratisation that has rippled through society over the past 60 years.

"The Max Mara way is to take two steps forward and one step back." Explaining this somewhat surprising statement, Maramotti continues: "We are interested in exploring change, but then we try to simplify the change into something which is more of an absolute statement of desire. It incorporates classicism but not in the same way that classicism is boring. It's the sense that something stays as an absolute."

Indeed, dealing with absolutes is one of Max Mara's defining characteristics – it is undeniably known as a brand which specialises in coats, so much so that to celebrate its 55th anniversary, an exhibition of coats was installed in Berlin. The exhibition, which has been touring for the past five years, this month takes up its final residence at the State Historical Museum, overlooking Moscow's Red Square. The archive collection of coats on display catalogues the evolution of fashion over the past 60 years, of course, but one piece in particular is worth singling out for special attention.

Coat 101801 was first designed for the autumn collection of 1981; it is a double-breasted camel overcoat with a slight egg shape and softly padded shoulders. A shining example of balanced proportions and the brand's sense of refinement, the 101801 has in fact been continually produced since it was first shown.

That is not to say that innovative design is not an important part of the brand's development. Maramotti tells me about a concept intriguingly called "The Cube". This multi-use product mimics the customisation process of a luxury car. "We needed to have the technology to develop a basic product, which was a coat in a down fabric that we patented. Then we developed the universal accessories and the idea that you can accessorise years after you bought the coat with fur, cashmere or even Swarovski crystals." The jackets are reversible, too – quilted on one side, they appear as a very thin, yet warm, padded jacket, perfect for the daytime; turn them inside out, though, and the shiny fabric revealed is ideal for evenings. Once winter's over, the jacket can be folded back into the small cube container in which it came, ideal for storage or travelling.

This innovation, like so many of Max Mara's, came from the starting point of fabric. It's an approach to design that is representative of the company's policy: instead of relying on the column inches created by a big designer name signing, it instead keeps the identity of the creative director under wraps until long after their tenure is over. In this way, over the years – and incognito – Karl Lagerfeld, Dolce and Gabbana, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler have all designed for the brand. Instead of putting all their eggs in one sartorial basket, the company values every member of the design team rather than conveying the personality of a star to the public. "I could introduce you to 'Mr R' who will never be on the cover of a magazine," jokes Maramotti. "He isn't a party man but he develops fabrics, yarns and sewing techniques. The focus must be the creative process. Of course it's a challenge to transfer an idea of style without visible personification, but it's our challenge.

"I am not interested in gossip about a designer, their lifestyle, what it represents. My interest is in the creativity as an organisation, including with young people who have ideas but maybe lack experience." The company has long been an investor in young people – inspired perhaps by Maramotti Snr's mother and her sewing school. "We started to collaborate with British schools back in the Eighties, with Kingston University [where the brand's Creative Director, Ian Griffiths, is a professor of Design Research and Max Mara sponsors a PhD programme] and the Royal College of Art. It's a more demanding relationship than just scouting new talent. What I try to avoid is a predictable collaboration – perhaps getting students to re-interpret the 101801, I become bored just saying it. I want an idea to be a bit dangerous, I like the idea that it could fail and you're lucky when something interesting comes out of it. Take 'S Max Mara, developed for comfort and style ... the idea came from a [1991] collaboration with the Royal College of Art. The brief was to imagine 10 years from then; what is going to happen in terms of how women will live – not just the garment, but the environment and behaviour. The majority of students imagined a world that was very scary – an urban life with a much more cocooned environment. Translated into clothing this became dressing for yourself, not just to communicate with other people. If you have a jumpsuit, it would be cashmere, for example. When the collection came out, the fashion was not about clean, rational, soft clothes, it was showing embroidery and colour – the exact contrary. From a marketing point of view that should have been a very unsuccessful collection, but it was one of the greatest successes we have had."

Women's coats are obviously an integral part of the business, and to Maramotti they represent the concept of a fashion house. The empowerment of youth, especially women, is championed by Max Mara through an Art Prize for Women and the Giulia Maramotti Foundation, which collaborates with state schools to teach the process of garment- and pattern-making. "We believe in education," says Maramotti. "People from the younger generation are questioning where they want to go. I'm hopeful there will be a resurgence in the garment-making industry, that people will go back to using their hands."

Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti, daughter of Luigi Maramotti's sister, Ludovica, is the third generation of the family to become involved in the Max Mara group. She recently moved from Paris to New York, where she oversees retail operations. "Family business is the right word," she says. "The values and concepts with which I approach my job every day have been transferred to me from my family. I have always been proud of the way we approach the commitment to Max Mara – most of all it's about the love and passion I have always seen around me.

"Being raised in a family of entrepreneurs, the example that has always been set is simply that you are responsible for your stakeholders. It is not just about being successful; it is the ethics of an entrepreneur. "

As the future of Max Mara, as well as its present, Maria Giulia realises that competing on a global level will become more important, but she insists: "We are an Italian brand, but more than that, we are a Reggio Emilia brand. Made in Italy is a concept which I respect because it is perceived as a guarantee of quality. We never want to let down our customers," she says. "And they know it."

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