Fendi attempts to address the Italian national youth unemployment crisis by luring a new generation into becoming traditional artisans.
Recent generations of Italian youth have shied away from traditional handwork. But Fendi sees craftsmanship as an answer to the country's youth unemployment crisis.CreditCreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times
ROME — One unseasonably warm recent October morning, a steady stream of Roman high school students clad in the uniform of teenagers around the world — T-shirts over leggings or jeans — moseyed through the ground floor of the grand Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, the onetime monument to Mussolini’s dreams and now the Fendi headquarters.
They were there for an accelerated lesson in the newfangled employment potential of old-fashioned craftsmanship.
Moving from workstation to workstation, the teenagers watched as Fendi artisans painstakingly made leather bags, shoes, couture gowns, furs, furniture and watches.
In one hall they saw the step-by-step minutiae that goes into fashioning of one of Fendi’s signature Peekaboo handbags, a multiweek production from pelt selection to final assembly and quality control, which helps to account for price tags that can easily reach 20,000 euros (about $23,000) per bag, depending on the materials used.
“If I made just one of those bags I’d be set for the year,” one teenage boy with short-cropped hair and trendy plucked eyebrows said.
A youth crisis has been brewing in Italy for a while now. The unemployment rate for youth in Italy between 15 and 24 years old was just over 30 percent in August, according to the national statistics agency, Istat.
Also in August, Eurostat, its European equivalent, noted that the portion of young people between 20 and 34 neither in education nor training (the so-called NEETs) in 2017 was 29.5 percent in Italy (compared to 7.8 percent in Sweden).
But it’s not as though jobs don’t exist.
A report by Altagamma, the Italian luxury goods association, estimated that some 50,000 people working in the luxury goods industry in Italy are close to retirement and that it will be a struggle to find qualified personnel to fill those jobs.
The problem is, recent generations of Italian youth have increasingly shied away from traditional handwork, opting instead for seemingly more contemporary sectors like engineering, and cooking.
“Someone said to me, ‘Everybody now in Italy, they all want to be a chef,’” because of the popularity of television programs like “MasterChef,” said Serge Brunschwig, the chief executive of Fendi.
That was frustrating until he realized: “O.K. We’re not far from that.” So while the rest of the visitors in the room might have seen the boy as a skate kid, Mr. Brunschwig looked at him and saw a potential future employee.
Hence the initiative for Italian high schools hosted by Fendi as part of its Journées Particulières, the event organized by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (its parent company) to showcase the inner workings of its many brands, which took place last weekend in 76 sites on four continents. For Fendi, it wasn’t just about letting people in, however: It was about convincing young people that they should think about job applications.
And it’s not entirely selfless. If Italy’s luxury goods sector continues to prosper, there won’t be enough highly skilled craftspeople to satisfy demand for their products.
“It’s a gap that is our responsibility to fill, and I feel it very strongly,” Mr. Brunschwig said. “Sustainability of work is a first priority we all have.”
Craftspeople have become such a valued commodity that Mr. Brunschwig asked that none of the last names of those who were part of the Open Days program be used for fear that they would be poached by his competitors.
“Voilà: These are expert people, and I would prefer that they work for Fendi,” said Mr. Brunschwig, who is French and came to Fendi in February from Dior Men’s.
Gaetana Gianotti, a teacher at the Livia Bottardi Technical Institute for Tourism, said her class was visiting Fendi as part of an alternate training program mandatory to all Italian high schools that aims to give students a taste of the workplace under many guises.
The problem is that while the alternative training program has value as an educational tool, it can vary wildly in quality from Italian region to region, and doesn’t come close to an apprenticeship.
Things aren’t much better after students graduate from high school. Italy doesn’t have a network of community colleges, so professional vocational training is available through regional initiatives, or through private schools, where tuition can be steep. A 2013 law introduced eight postsecondary schools in Italy that offer fashion-related diplomas.
Several fashion houses have bridged the growing gap with in-house training programs or more formal academies, including Tod’s, Brunello Cucinelli, Prada and Fendi.
During the Open Days, one such graduate, Caterina, a 21-year-tailor in Fendi’s ready-to-wear atelier, sewed microscopic bits of fur onto delicate tulle. She is also a recent graduate of the Accademia Massoli, a joint dressmaking project of Fendi and the couture workshop Sartoria Massoli.
“I wanted to learn this craft because it’s disappearing, unfortunately, and needs a generational turnover,” said Caterina, who is looking forward to the day when she would be experienced enough to travel to fashion shows to see her creations on the runway. “Nothing is made by just one person. It’s a team effort, passing through many hands.”
Next to her, another young artisan showed students how fur could be sewn together to create a multicolored intarsia effect. For the event, Fendi’s fur atelier used discarded material from garments to create panels designed by eight Roman street artists in order to make the work seem more relevant to the young audience.
Mr. Brunschwig said that if the work displayed captures the imagination of even a tiny percentage of the hundreds of student visitors to the Journées Particulières, which lasts until Nov. 4 in Rome, then it will have been successful. “Maybe it will open for some a door that was not existing before,” he said.
Like Elisa Frascadore, 18, a tall, lanky, student from one of Rome’s technical high schools. “I think I’d like to continue in this very beautiful dream,” she said.