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Made in Italy

Raffaello Napoleone, CEO of Italy’s premier trade show Pitti Immagine, shares his insights on the international childrenswear scene. By Jennifer Cattaui
With more U.S. exhibitors …

Raffaello Napoleone, CEO of Italy’s premier trade show Pitti Immagine, shares his insights on the international childrenswear scene. By Jennifer Cattaui

With more U.S. exhibitors seeking out the international reach of Pitti Immagine Bimbo, the Florence, Italy-based trade show that has showcased the children’s fashion scene since 1975, CEO Raffaello Napoleone feels confident that the company has found a recipe for success. Despite the shakiness of the European economy, or maybe because of it, Napoleone asserts that the emergence of a truly international offering is crucial to the business. He offers up a trade show that is so much more than a market—a biannual event that amplifies the difference between need and want and argues by comparison that want is always a more compelling sale. Runway shows, cultural events and interplay with the local art scene, as well as its digs at the Fortezza de Basso, make this market highly anticipated and eminently memorable.

Napoleone had many interesting and varied jobs before taking his post as CEO of Pitti Immagine. His first job was as a sailboat builder and racer that he pursued during his university studies through his mid-20s. “I started sailing with my father and brothers and have raced yachts in Italy both with dinghies and bigger boats, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and gone from Saint Malo in France to Cape Town in South Africa,” he says. “Sailing is a reason for living as well as a great opportunity to reflect on one’s work.” He moved from boats into pharmaceuticals, and then took a turn into the fashion industry, quite by accident. “I was not looking for something in fashion. Somebody sought me out,” he says. That “somebody” was none other than Salvatore Ferragamo, who brought Napoleone on as his personal manager in 1986. “As you can imagine, being a personal manager is an administrative function, not really a fashion function. But, from there I learned a lot of things about fashion and ultimately that is why I was later hired by Pitti Immagine,” he says. With all of that experience, Napoleone brings to the table a unique mix of bravado, organization, eye for beauty, mind for business and intuitive Italian elegance. After 23 years under his very fashionable belt at Pitti (20 as general manager and three as CEO), Napoleone has a global and broad view across market segments, including men’s, women’s and children’s. He sat down with Earnshaw’s to give his insights into the evolution of childrenswear, how it relates to the adult fashion market and what we can expect for the future.

What makes Pitti Immagine Bimbo so special?
It is indeed something extraordinary. It’s held in Florence where Italian fashion was born in 1951. Florence is in a region of Italy where fashion is the biggest industry, from leather to yarn and fabrics.

When I started with Pitti it was a very difficult period. A lot of people had the idea that Pitti was in trouble and would be very hard to relaunch. We renewed the management, the strategies and the label of the company and we started traveling much more. We improved the services for the exhibitors and visitors and changed the layout.

At Pitti, we have an integral role in the culture of fashion. We are the only organization that puts together exhibitions and publishes books about fashion, and we have a real 360-degree strategy to bring exhibitors and buyers to Florence. We are now the foremost platform on the market in the menswear industry, the womenswear industry and the childrenswear industry. We also just launched an exhibition on food called “Taste.” We now have established roles in these industries and hold exhibitions season after season.

How have you seen the children’s marketplace transform over the years?
It has changed dramatically. In the very beginning, we served an industry of small companies, mostly Italian, but now the children’s marketplace encompasses much bigger organizations, many of which are international. Slowly over the years, designers started paying attention to the childrenswear business. Large labels are not just signing a licensing agreement to produce children’s clothing anymore, but they are also taking care of production and the distribution. The industry is now much more mature, much more evolved. The real change is in the fact that now the children’s industry has what we call in Italian, the majorita—it is more than 18 years old—it has hit majority. It’s mature. Children’s now is a really big industry with proper turnover, and there is a lot of opportunity from a creative point of view, and from an action, evolution and communication point of view.

How does the Pitti show support the evolution of the industry?
We deliver a very important experience. The next edition is the 75th edition—which means we’ve been producing shows for more than 37 years. The way to help the industry today is first with the selection of the participating companies. We look for companies that season after season really renew their collections. We do a lot of research and we do a lot of scouting. We offer very small companies the opportunity to come to Pitti, to be part of the New View section. Finally, and I think this is the key point, we work to be as international as we can. Pitti Immagine Bimbo has a very global audience. From an exhibiting point of view we have 40 percent of the visitors coming from abroad and the same holds true in regard to buyers.

Are there certain regions that participate more or are trending?
Russia, Japan and some Middle Eastern countries are very interested in childrenswear because the culture in these countries includes dressing children very well. We are working to grow their attendance.

And do you think children’s has truly now become a global marketplace?
It’s now a global market like men’s and women’s, but it’s a different kind of maturity. For example, the shoe business in childrenswear is different from the shoe business in menswear and women’s wear. In children’s, we cover sizes from newborn to 16 years old. The goods are related to the age of the consumers. If you walk down Madison or Fifth Avenue there are many more shops related to men or women. The turnover in Italy of the children’s industry is one-fifth of the women’s turnover and one-quarter of the men’s turnover. But this is normal. If you are catering to newborns through 16-year-olds and the rest of the market caters to 16-year-olds through 80-year-olds, of course [the adult market] is much bigger.

What trends do you see in consumer behavior?
The tendencies of childrenswear are different than what is happening with women and men. In the past, childrenswear was a reduction of men’s and women’s apparel. Now the children’s industry has its own tides, its own main direction to follow.

Of course you still have mainstreams that are very influential for all of the fashion industry—whether they influence in the use of technical fabrics, choice of raw materials, user function, etcetera.

With all that’s been going on in Europe—in Greece, Portugal, Spain—how is the market dealing with these challenges?
These are very important challenges and the countries you mentioned are really good consumers in childrenswear, and are in very bad shape. It’s a difficult situation, but fortunately now you have new countries with spending power that are very interesting, like the Russian and Chinese markets. They are really balancing what is happening. The Brazilian market is also growing very fast in the children’s businesses. To be global today has many more advantages than disadvantages. Childrenswear can benefit from these changes.

Is that what you see—that globalization and being able to tap into markets of strength in any given time as great opportunities in childrenswear?
Yes, and Pitti Immagine Bimbo plays a major role in this. If you want to meet the international market, you have to be here. We are the most important international show in the children’s business.

Tell us about how you approach Pitti every year. How do you put all of the pieces together?
We are a good team. A few hours after the closing of a trade show, we meet and speak about the strengths and weaknesses of each Pitti edition. Within the next few days after the show we start thinking about the coming edition. And during these meetings we speak about the options we have and new ideas to apply. We are really working day by day carefully detecting what’s going on in the market. Of course, we have our technical committee that helps us to make the right choices.

To be in the trade show business is very interesting because we’re really influential about the choices in the industry. We’re able to launch new sections of the show, and we’re the only show in which runway shows are organized. At Pitti, buyers can also decide to catch an event in the town or in the fortress—all of these opportunities mean something for the industry. We are really in the belly button of the childrenswear industry.

The fashion shows really stand out, as most other shows don’t have such an extensive line up and high-hand production. What is the response to those?
The feedback has been that including a fashion show adds something very professional and useful for companies, and it’s a good way to put value on the season and the new collection. Manufacturers can provide images to retailers and they can then transmit them in the shops or shop-in-shops if it’s a licensed property. It’s one of the opportunities to promote a label and a new collection, so it’s an important part of the business.

How has the job of a buyer changed?
Like all the very interesting jobs, fashion has changed in that it has to deal with society—it has to do with the evolution of the culture of the country and the way of buying, conceiving and perceiving business. If you want to be successful as a buyer, you have to be really curious; you have to travel a lot and research online as much as you can. You have to be informed. If you are passionate about what you do, you will be successful.

Is there something that you personally enjoy the most about putting the Pitti Bimbo show together?
What has been very interesting for us with regard to the next edition is the effort of looking for more international exhibitors to attend the show. To be successful, one needs to improve the participation of international exhibitors, and this will help improve the international buyers from the show. It opens or widens the opportunities of the market while being at the fortress in Florence.

How do you find these new exhibitors?
Traveling, attending the other trade shows and answering the application forms. We receive at least 100 new application forms [each show]. We check the lines by asking the companies to send us items from each collection so we can decide if it’s a good and interesting fit for the show.

What has the response been to your online trade show platform ePitti? How has it evolved?
We are very passionate about the ePitti project. Developed as a service for all Pitti Immagine certified buyers, it offers a chance to relive the fair experience online for a whole month after the show closes. Buyers can go back to the stands and look at the exhibitors’ top collections, discovering new brands and trends for next season. We started 12 months ago and today we have an average of 260,000 page views in childrenswear—it’s a huge number. There are 120,000 photos, 2,000 videos and a catalog of over 10,000 products. The Pitti Immagine Bimbo community is made up of 11,000 to 12,000 buyers. The service we’re bringing to the exhibitors and the visitors is still very new, but we’ve been able to cull important information that can help the development of the show. For example, we are capturing the words that buyers and manufacturers use to enter the site, their search terms on the site and where they’re clicking.

We’re able to segment where the audience is coming from and what keywords they are using, so we understand what people are looking for per region. The most popular terms for Italians searching the site are often different than the most popular terms for other regions.

This is really interesting because we can, in the way we consider the show, give attention to something more than something else at the show. Based upon the words that people use to get into the site, and what they’re searching for on the site, we can reconsider how we lay out the show and how we segment the different needs of buyers. It’s also significant for the exhibitors–to know what is interesting for the buyers.

What does the future hold for the ePitti platform?
What we are working on is a showroom area where the manufacturer can deal with the distributor. We started at the end of September 2011, and last January we had the first real edition. We’ll see in the next 18 months if this new part of the platform will obtain the results we are expecting. We are taking it step by step. It has been a huge investment.

Is there anything that strikes you that you would want to change about the business?
In my opinion, the way the companies are operating now is the right way—more professional. But what I would like is a much deeper interest in the education system about the children’s business. There is a lot of opportunity here. I’m one of the founders of the Polimoda School in Florence. We started more than 20 years ago with FIT in New York (which has a specific childrenswear program). Also, with regard to education, two seasons ago we began the “Who’s On Next” award during Pitti to improve the presence of new designers in the children’s industry at the show.

What’s the key to trade show success?
If you follow, and at times if you are much quicker than the evolution of the market, you will continue to be successful. It’s just a question of being on top of the changes season after season as they occur in the market.

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