Profile: The Red who put Westwood in the pink

It took an Italian ex-communist to turn the high priestess of punk haute couture into a capitalist success, says Hilary Clarke

For a man busy building a global fashion company, Carlo D'Amario has some rather unconventional views. He finds Karl Marx more relevant than Adam Smith, describes the business he is in as being like "a game of Russian roulette", and says the thing that makes him most angry is to see clothing manufacturers using cheap, Third World labour. But then, who else would you expect fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, punk stylist turned haute couturier, to choose as a business partner?

Marxist economics eventually bankrupted the countries that took it at its word, but D'Amario's version is doing wonders for the woman whose "Pink Gordon" range of tartan bondage gear shocked the nation 20 years ago.

In the three years since D'Amario, 52, came to London from Milan to join Westwood full-time, her annual turnover has increased from "a few hundred thousand pounds" to pounds 20m. That's loose change compared to the Ffr1.26bn (pounds 130m) profit made last year by French fashion house Christian Dior, but it's a rate of growth any businessman would be proud of.

"He's not the easiest person to work with, but he has incredible vision," says one employee of D'Amario. Like his partner (Westwood has 70 per cent of the company, D'Amario 30) D'Amario is also slightly eccentric. Prolific hand movements adorn his speech - nothing unusual for an Italian - but he occasionally slips in a Japanese bow. He has a slightly dishevelled look, even though his grey hair is closely cropped and he wears Vivienne Westwood clothes.

D'Amario's career could have been very different. As a teenager he was picked by the Italian Communist Party to go to Lumumba University in Moscow, the former Soviet Union's international training centre for party cadres, "not to study but to make me a secretary general!" he jokes. His family's financial problems cut short his revolutionary career and on mama's orders he returned to Italy after six months with instructions to find a job. He landed one with Fiorucci, the Italian fashion house which, as D'Amario proudly states, was the first European company to sell jeans to America.

After seven years at Fiorucci, D'Amario set up on his own as a fabric buyer, a job that took him around the world, especially to Afghanistan, home of some of the world's finest textiles. Ironically, for a former prodigy of the Italian Communist party, the Soviet occupation in December 1979 forced D'Amario back to Milan.

He first met Westwood at a Paris fashion show in 1985. At that time he was running his own public relations company, Casanova. It must have been love at first sight with Westwood, because her financial prospects weren't too rosy at the time. "When I met Vivienne Westwood I thought she was a multi-millionaire because in some ways she was more famous in 1985 than she is now. I was very shocked when she said how little money they made. Luckily she seduced me."

For 10 years D'Amario "took care of Westwood's image in Italy". At that time the company had no production facilities; it was a purely creative phenomenon. Today all the clothes are made in Italy, except the Gold Label range, which is sewn in the UK. "It's like our wing gallery. It's the mother of everything," says D'Amario.

Vivienne Westwood is sometimes dubbed England's alternative Queen Mum, but the company she and D'Amario are creating reflects her staunchly pro- European, pro-federalist views. The creative team - mainly British - is overseen by Vivienne and Andreas Kronthaler, her Austrian husband; the sales and marketing manager is half French, and there are several other Italians. "We make the best salesmen," says D'Amario. The pattern cutters are German: "They are good on the technical side of things."

The first thing D'Amario did when he arrived in London was to persuade Westwood, who still lives in a council flat in Clapham, to buy some property in the West End. The value of the house the company bought as a shop and showroom in Mayfair's Conduit Street has already jumped by pounds 3.5m, excluding the money spent refurbishing it.

Under D'Amario's supervision Westwood has also been branching out abroad, and her clothes can now be found in 30 countries. A major coup was the partnership struck with Itochu, the Japanese trading company which oversees distribution in Japan and has the master licence of Vivienne Westwood that allows it to open shops and manufacture accessories.

When D'Amario made the initial, exploratory phone call he hit the jackpot. The Japanese manager he spoke to had been a punk sympathiser in his youth and knew Westwood. Now Japan accounts for one third of the company's exports.

Next year Vivienne Westwood plans to launch a cheaper sportswear range, Anglomania, alongside her Gold Label demi-couture, Red Label ready-to- wear and menswear ranges. The company is also bringing out a Vivienne Westwood fragrance. Bottles carrying the instantly recognisable "gold orb" Westwood logo will be stacked on the shelves of duty-free shops alongside perfume by Yves St Laurent and Armani.

Is Westwood, who accepted her OBE wearing no knickers, and is considered something of an intellectual dilettante, about to sell out? "Vivienne did punk in the 1970s and haute couture in the 1990s, but she has the same enemy and that is the system," says D'Amario.

By "the system" he means the huge European fashion conglomerates such as LVMH, France's handbags-to-champagne giant, which can afford to spend pounds 1m on one fashion set. The other "enemies" are the aggressive American companies such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.

The established European couturiers are adversaries to the Westwood/D'Amario ideal because they "cut creativity out at the roots", says D'Amario. By this he means they buy in talent, who then design to corporate order. "The young people are not given any time to grow themselves. This is very dangerous for creativity."

The American companies are an even bigger threat to the European fashion industry, D'Amario believes, because they attack the continent's sense of self by promoting simple, practical clothes, which D'Amario describes as minimalist fashion as opposed to detailed, sensual European couture. "There is a big war between Europe and America. America wants to teach Europe how to live in terms of fashion. It's a Calvinist versus Catholic thing. I'm not saying who is right, but American clothes are far too easy to copy in the Far East," says D'Amario. The bottom line, he says, is the erosion of European jobs in the industry.

D'Amario's counter-attack is a two-pronged strategy. First, safeguard your own intellectual property. This means controlling the company's image by keeping a tight control over the people to whom you grant manufacturing and retail licences, telling them where they can and cannot sell Westwood products, including her accessory range. "Identity is not something you eat. It's a business. It's a stock exchange thing."

The Anglomania casual wear line is part of this strategy. "A lot of people copy us, so it's better that we copy ourselves." The collection includes some of Westwood's earliest designs, such as the 1979 "pirate" collection. Most of the new designs are inspired by the company's archives of more than 15,000 pieces of clothing, and they give credence to D'Amario's claim that Westwood clothes are classics.

The second prong of D'Amario's strategy is investment in people. Vivienne Westwood is essentially a young company - the average age of the 95-strong staff is 26.

D'Amario believes in an old-style apprenticeship with the aim of providing a job for life, something he says he learned at Fiorucci and to which the other fashion companies no longer adhere. "I spend 95 per cent of my time looking for people for the team," he says. D'Amario plans an employees' stock option scheme as another incentive. "We want the people to stay with us all their lives. You can't just buy people in. I don't believe in mercenaries. I believe in the People's Army."

Later, the company may think about joining other fashion houses like Versace and Armani in going public, but even then D'Amario would only consider floating the shop and the distribution business.

D'Amario might now live in Belgravia (he is married to one of Westwood's former press officers, a Brazilian, and has a two-year-old daughter) but he still recommends Marx's Das Kapital as essential reading for the businessman. "It analyses the system, tells you how to create a structure and then runs that structure. That is all you need to know."

His philosophical sympathies might prove useful in other ways. Two years ago D'Amario was in Peking. A Chinese official surprised him when he said he knew Vivienne Westwood and that the government might be interested in opening a boutique in Peking. "I asked why. He said it was because they wanted to teach the people what is good and what is bad. He said they didn't want any old rubbish from Western countries. That was the best compliment possible. We don't want to be another Benetton."

With D'Amario and Westwood in charge, there seems little chance of that.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst with experienc...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Sales Team Leader - Wakefield, West Yorkshire

£21000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged b...

Ashdown Group: Head of Client Services - City of London, Old Street

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders