Why can’t we have August-long vacations like Italians?
A look at U.S. vacation habits compared to those enjoyed by our
counterparts in other countries with important fashion capitals can prompt
cubicle disgruntlement and serious crises about our work-life balance
around this time of year.
The European summer shutdown
The great summer shutdown that sweeps across Europe somewhere between
Bastille Day and Labor Day is something of an alien concept to us in the
U.S., viewed as anything from quirky to enviable to slacking off. But this
sacrosanct tradition is long-standing in Madrid, Paris, or Milan––where it
dates back to 18 BC when Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the
decision to link up various holidays during the month of August––and even
across the English Channel when during the Industrial Revolution all the
workers of a factory in the North of England might set off together for an
Italian beach resort because one missing worker meant the whole assembly
line ceased to function.
La bella Vita
Italy’s shutdown is perhaps the one most linked to the fashion industry,
formed around Ferragosto, a public holiday celebrated on 15 August which
also honors the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary. With the sun at
its hottest and the coastline beckoning, manufacturers from the hills of
Tuscany to landlocked Milan down tools for the entire month. Overseas
clients awaiting delivery of samples must manage their expectations during
this month (similarly to how those working with Chinese production must
factor Chinese New Year into 2 weeks straddling January and February),
and American designers must simply apply blind faith that their collections
will arrive in time for New York Fashion Week’s September runway.
Italian vacation habits, just like their leather craftsmanship or
cashmere production, are ingrained in global fashion culture, built into
the bedrock of the industry, with names like Armani, Prada, Gucci, and
Versace forming its pillars. These global tastemakers of the late twentieth
century efficiently acquired factories of their own so that while Signor
Armani sunbathed on the island of Pantelleria his workers could set off for
their chosen tanning spots and everyone’s schedules aligned.
So if Italy can have a month-long summer vacation, why can’t we in the
U.S.? We worked equally hard to establish and promote American style around
the world. Where are we going wrong?
An integrated system
Stefano Tonchi, editor of W and curator of this year’s
exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Reale “Italiana: Italy Through the Lens of
Fashion” told the New York Times that unlike French or American
fashion, “From its beginnings, Italian fashion benefited from a very
integrated system, starting with the fabrics and continuing to the
designers and manufacturers.” Niche artisanal workshops functioned on an
industrial scale, with designers from all over the world descending on
small out-of-the-way hillside workshops to realize their visions. Italy’s
pride and national identity came to be defined by the success of its
fashion and manufacturing. “Italians are industrially nimble,” Tonchi
continued, “they’re intuitive and good at finding solutions. Say a designer
says, ‘I want to put a ton of Swarovski crystals on a see-through shirt.’ In
the United States, manufacturers would just say, ‘What?’ In Italy, they
would never say, ‘No, this is crazy!’ There is a maybe. There is never a
Productivity over tradition
A glance at the 2017 data from industry analysis firm Expert Market
which lists every country’s productivity reveals facts worth
you approach your boss with a request for an extended vacation. According
to its criteria, the most productive country, Luxembourg, asks its citizens
to only work a 29-hour week, but it’s perhaps more notable that Norway,
which comes in second on Expert Market’s list with a 27-hour work week tops
the ranks of another list altogether: the World Happiness Report.
Switzerland, Denmark and Iceland also rank as more productive than the U.S.
which comes in at #6 with the American workforce putting in on average a
47-hour week. Italy, however, ranks #20.
End of Italy’s Roman holiday?
Italy’s fashion manufacturing started to diminish in the late 90s with
the emergence of overseas lower-cost production facilities and supply
chains in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Asia. China’s focus on creating
its own infrastructure and education made it a manufacturing competitor,
and stories of Chinese setting up factories in the luxury textiles and
manufacturing hub of Prato, outside Florence, running sweatshops, and
stitching the Made in Italy label on their goods made international
headlines in the early aughts. Italy’s business model, established after
the second world war and elevated in the latter decades of the twentieth
century, was in peril. In April, the New Yorker reported some 6000
Prato businesses were registered to Chinese citizens, and the area is now
known as much for pronto moda (fast fashion) as it is for
Made in Italy
As the nation’s industry suffered, laws were passed which allowed the
Made in Italy label to be displayed on goods if only 2 of the 4 stages of
production occurred within the country, a development which would have been
an outrage to past generations. Between 2007-12 Italy’s production of
leather and clothing segments together dropped by 35 percent, according to the
country’s leading business federation Confindustria. In the foothills of
the Alps, the town of Biella, once an artisan’s haven for wool and cashmere
experienced hundreds of its businesses closing. Small leather tannery G
Tosi which supplied Gucci and Prada went bankrupt in 2012 while larger
factories like Ittierre Spa, which produced collections for Roberto
Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, and John Galliano, had suffered the same fate in
2009. However the latter’s 2016 relaunch under the new name Le Fabbriche Riunite aided by outside investment, and with a portfolio of emerging
designers, is perhaps a symbol of an Italian industry ready to rise from
the ashes amid reports of an uptick in production and encouraging talks of
government initiatives in collaboration with Confindustria.
Challenging the traditions
Questions remain around how long Italy’s extended vacation ritual will
withstand the ongoing forces of globalism which have shaken one of its core
industries. Perhaps the growing “slow fashion” movement will applaud the
nation’s defiant resistance to profit over play, and even encourage other
nations to emulate it as a model for moderation. Or will Sewbots, initially
considered a threat to emerging economies, conspire to be a modern threat
to Italy’s re-emerging one?
One thing is certain, here in the States, most employers would balk at
the prospect of setting their workers free for an entire month. Despite all
evidence showing the positive effects of time off on both personal
well-being and professional performance, data from Project: Time Off,
examining the state of the American vacation 2018, reveals that the
American workforce gave up 705 million vacation days last year alone. The
biggest reason those interviewed gave for this behavior? Fear that they
would seem replaceable in the eyes of their employers.
So, maybe before we submit that month-long vacation request, we might
consider petitioning instead for a version of France’s 2017 “Right to
Disconnect” law which protects employees from having to respond to work
emails in their own time. That might be just enough to make those Summer
Fridays seem like a staycation.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for
the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Su Giudeu, Chia, Sardinia, Italy, 25 May
2011, Emmaquadro61; Roman Holiday movie poster 1953
screenshot of Audrey Hepburn from the trailer for the film Roman Holiday.