The Business Times

Italy's hatmaker to the stars looks to roots for revival

Published Thu, Apr 7, 2016 · 03:41 AM
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[MILAN] From Humphrey Bogart's fedora in "Casablanca" to Harrison Ford's lucky headgear in the Indiana Jones series, Italy's Borsalino has been credited with producing some of the coolest hats in history.

Michael Jackson loved them, trend-setting music star Pharrel Williams is a contemporary fan and David Bowie opted for one of the Italian company's black fedoras for what was to prove his final photo shoot.

But even the endorsement of film and music royalty could not protect the historic milliner from the consequences of reckless management.

At this time last year, with debts mounting and its former boss Marco Marenco on the run from fraud and tax evasion charges, there were fears Borsalino could go out of business altogether.

New investors ensured that did not happen and, a year on, they are banking on a revival in the company's fortunes based on the values of craftsmanship that made the brand so successful in the first place.

A visit to the 159-year-old company's factory in Alessandria in northern Italy is like taking a trip back in time.

Two of the original machines installed by the Borsalino family in 1857 are still in use in the process of transforming Belgian rabbit fur into the smooth felt used for the fedoras immortalised by the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon in "Borsalino".

The 1970 gangster film's title was a nod to the company's hats' popularity with real-life mobsters like Al Capone.

The water and steam-based process of turning the rabbit fur into felt and then shaping the hats to their final form is long and labour-intensive.

But it is worth it, according to Edouard Burrus, vice-president of Haeres Equita, the investment fund that brought Borsalino back from the brink.

"We really believe in the world of artisanal luxury," he told AFP. "We are talking about real hand-made manufacturing and attention to detail."

Mr Burrus and his business partner Philippe Camperio began the process of acquiring Borsalino in May last year with the backing of other Italian and international investors.

A judge approved their proposals for repaying Borsalino's creditors last month, effectively issuing the green light for a new chapter in the history of a company that produced two million hats a year in the 1920s.

"We are on the final 100m," added Mr Burrus. "We are working flat out to turn around a brand that has gone through some difficult years.

"The goal is to return it to its former glory and ensure a stable future for what is one of the last independent luxury producers."

With suppliers reassured about the company's finances and once again delivering the high-quality raw materials, there is a palpable sense of relief among the Alessandria factory's 114 employees.

"I have been here for 30 years," said Giovanni Zamirri, whose job involves the final shaping of the hats.

"It is not a mechanical job like on an assembly line," he said. "Every hat needs attention, needs to be handled individually and that is a lovely thing for me."

In total there are 52 steps to the production of a hand-made fedora and the whole process takes seven weeks.

The company is still operating below its potential but things are looking brighter with the new owners anticipating sales of 17 million euros this year, up from 15.5 million in 2015.

"We currently make around 150,000 hats a year but we have demand for 220,000," said Mr Burrus.

An expansion of the workforce is in the pipline and there are plans to target the youth, women's and US markets while holding on to the company's traditional customers in Europe, Japan and in Orthodox Jewish communities, which account for around ten per cent of group sales.

"The product is known and sells all over the world but it is perhaps seen as a little 'old school'," Mr Burrus said. "We want to give it a more youthful edge."

All of which sounds like good news to Daniela Cona, one of the Borsalino employees who feared for her job.

"Happily I am still here," she told AFP. "It is a short-term contract for now but we hope the new investors will keep their promises and grow the business.

"When I started here, it was like walking on to the set of a film from the 1950s or 60s. The hats are created one step at a time. People sometimes ask why they cost so much and say it is just a hat like any other. But that is not true.

"There are about 80 of us in the production process and every hat goes through 80 pairs of hands."


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