Interview with Slowear Managing Director Roberto Compagno
BY NADINE PELZER
Carefully designed details and an immaculate fit combined with top-quality material is the recipe for timeless items of clothing. For 60 years, the Italian Slowear Group, which consists of 4 brands, has been passionately devoted to manufacturing products which are beautiful, sustainable and reliable at once. Every single brand has kept its own identity and is specialised in what it can do best, which is the way to achieve excellence.
Roberto, please tell us the story of Slowear. How and when did your family come up with the idea to run a group of similarly craft-minded companies?
We weren’t born as we are now. So many years ago, in 1951, my father started the business just producing trousers. And in the beginning, the real beginning, he was producing uniforms for the army or for workers, and then he specialised in trousers. And we did that for 50 years. At the beginning of 2000, we decided to approach a retail business with our production and we needed to have some products to have a store with all the categories. At that time, we decided not to do what everybody else did, to use the brand and just to add some products. The thing for us at the time was Incotex, trousers, so the common way to do business is to combine the knitwear, Incotex trousers, and shirts for the store. We didn’t like it – too easy, too normal, too common. My wife and I didn’t like it because we had grown up with the mentality of a specialist. We just had one brand, one product, and we were very focused on one thing. Do what you are able to do, and do it better every day – this is our philosophy. So it was impossible for us to do something in which our company was not an expert. So we decided to buy some companies, and we started off by buying a knitwear company, which was Zanone. We selected it because it was very similar in terms of mentality; only knitwear, a very specific product, very good for us and complementary to our products. And we did the same for Montedoro for jackets, a company that was 30 years old. So we really joined and have a group with strong roots and knowledge about single products. Very consciously, we decided to maintain the single brands to respect the heritage, the tradition and the idea of specialised products in specialised brands in factories. That was how we began, and we needed to give the new stores a name. We decided to call it ‘Slowear’ because it is something that matches our mentality.
Which idea is the company name based on? What is unique about your brand?
We called it ‘Slowear’ because we want to be exactly the opposite of Fast Fashion. We don’t like Fast Fashion. I think it is a bad way to live and to consume. We need to start thinking of fashion in a sustainable way. We should buy things that are made in a good way, and I am talking about the environment, about workers’ protections and everything. But you also have to buy real things that can be in your wardrobe for longer because they are made to a high standard and also have a style and are modern in a way which is different from just being extremely fashionable. You have to use it longer – that’s the only way to be sustainable. Not just use it and throw it away. If you think of how much a product costs in terms of environment, people should start thinking about using products long-term. The fashion industry has to change this. I think in every single moment of our daily life we need ask: how can we behave in terms of environment? So I think it is part of our life how we buy and sell and use garments, we have to think more.
To what extent can clothes or fashion influence the way in which we live?
I don’t think that products can influence the way you live. It is the other way around. I think it is important to have products that fit well with your mood and your mentality. A truly elegant person wears clothing that matches not only the external look but also the kind of person he or she is. So the personality is very important. That’s why in our store I think people can select and have their single mix of products. To be well-dressed means to express personality and identity.
What consequences does your idea of ‘slow fashion’ for the fashion industry have worldwide? How may clients have to change their mind-set?
I hope that our mentality will have a big effect on people’s mentality. Of course, we are very strange in the fashion panorama because we are far from fast fashion, we are far from luxury fashion, and at the moment we are playing a championship by ourselves in a way. We are the only ones trying to combine this slow approach to fashion. Slow in the sense of durable. Not slow in the sense of relentless. And of course you know already this change has happened because if we open stores for and that is our 30th store, that means that already there is a target group of people, men of course, who understand and share this vision in their daily life. If you care about how to deal with your garbage or you if you eat vegetables instead of meat, then of course you must ask yourself the same question when you buy fashion, when you buy clothing. And if you ask the same question then you want to get a product which is well made and that will survive in your wardrobe in terms of style, colour, fabric and the way it is projected. So it is the other way around. We are appealing to those people who already have an elevated stage of understanding of the implications. There is a revolution going on, and we noticed this already in 2003. When fashion was dominated by H&M and Zara and everybody was buying Fast Fashion and mixing it with luxury brands. Back then we noticed that things needed to be changed.
Roberto, how did you recognize in 2003 that people might love your clothing philosophy?
I didn’t know. You never know. You just do what you think is correct. At the beginning you don’t know if this kind of approach will be good for the market, but I think if you start only doing what is good for the market, you don’t change anything. I think you have to try, and if you want to innovate, you have to take a risk. In the 80s, everybody did what was revolutionary: the total look. You needed to have all the products. We maintained our speciality with only trousers. We decided to approach the market in this way. You have to take a risk to innovate. At that time, maybe people looked at me and didn’t understand, but after years and years, you have to persist. If you believe in it, you try to do it in a better way and stay focused. We had many consultant companies interviewing us and asking: can you imagine having a company with five brands, you are spending a lot of money on communication, it is not going to work. Many years ago, we did the first Piti Fair, which is a very famous fair in Florence, Italy. We just had this big brand with Slowear and just four products, and I received a lot of negative feedback. We have strong credibility as Incotex the trousers-maker; you can say they are the world’s best trousers by definition. And of course it would have been easier, and this is the mind-set of most people working in fashion, to stretch this to other categories. Because if you stretch it you also stretch the quality, and this wouldn’t have been fair for the consumer. The customer knows that Incotex has been doing pants for over 30 years, so why all of a sudden are they doing shirts? So the credibility would fade a little bit. In the United States, where Incotex trousers are very, very successful and a very high level of product, many ask why you don’t add a jacket to Incotex? I would buy a lot of things if you sell shirts and we will give you a corner in Barneys or Neiman Marcus, and we just say no.
You said once that quality is not just about what you see, it is also about what’s behind. Please reveal what you meant. What is behind?
Behind there is the company and the behaviour of the company, how you produce, how you treat your workers, how the factories are. It must be a nice place to live, the relationship with the people must be good and also respect all of the rules, pay the taxes, this is what I mean. People should think about how a price for a product comes about. When you have a hamburger at McDonalds and you pay 1-2 euros, you should ask yourself if this is possible. So the same thing applies for products. I think consumers in the market are very confused. You see a pair of trousers for 11 euros and some others for 1.000 euros. You have to recognise and be more informed to ask what is behind. Behind is a company that does things in a proper way, this is very important for me. This also makes the price, it is not just fabric and finish or advertising for the brand. It is also how you do things. If you just look for ways to pay less, to not do certain things, maybe you are more competitive. Of course we need to make money, we need to rest, I like to have money but who doesn’t? I am not just talking of the romantic point of view but there are many ways to make money. If you do it in a proper way it is better, if you appreciate it. When you tell customers that a certain pair of pants passes through the hands of 60 people and we sell it for 280 euros, then he thinks it is cheap and he should pay double. And then also the question is, again, what is the implication? So we appeal to this kind of consumer that is interested in this kind of topic. If you are that type of consumer, then the price thing is not an issue anymore.
What can details tell you – about the quality of a garment, for example, but also with respect to our environment?
The company looks after the details because we think about the implications. You mentioned the environment, and again, whatever we project, whatever we engineer, whatever we design is designed out of total respect for the social effects and the environment. We worry about social and environmental implications, so the products are rejected, and whatever we design is in that direction. If you do things in a good way and ethically, then everything is fine.
Which essential basics should be in every modern gentleman’s wardrobe?
All we have. We prefer to dress very comfortably; I think you should be informal and elegant in the same way. This is what we like. It depends on what you do and what life you lead. I think in your wardrobe you need dress trousers for sure as well as occasional trousers, because you use these in both ways. We have some wool trousers that are very well done, tailored trousers that are very good, you need a chino, you need a five-pocket, these are the basic items. Shirts are easier. When you have a white shirt and a fancy shirt, I think you’re ok; you don’t need any more. As for jackets, we are not keen on formal jackets, we prefer sports jackets. We have also particular jackets with nylon inside and you can use it as a blouson or outerwear, so it is protected against wind and you can wear it in winter. We like to mix things that are very comfortable and you can use it for travelling. Our products are specifically designed for people who live in big cities and travel at lot, this relates to special fabric, no stain, anti-wrinkle, very stretchy, very comfortable. Our products are multifunctional, deliver high performance and look elegant all at the same time.
What grooming accessory should never be missing when businessmen travel?
A toothbrush! It depends on where you travel. The things you need are different depending on whether you are going to Savannah or to New York. Whether I fly for one night or for ten nights or three months, I always take just one piece of hand luggage, because I hate to wait for luggage at the airport. I have a few essentials, and my special secret is the mixing and matching of those items. So I never wear the same exact outfit. Essential for me is my own aftershave. If I don’t have that with me I do not feel good. In any hotel you can have a grooming kit or survival kit, but the aftershave has to be my own, everything else can be different
What is your favourite kind of style apart from your company?
We really do what we like, so occasionally we do something I don’t like but we don’t do it anymore then. Honestly, I am not joking, we really do things that we like. We don’t do things to follow the requirements and we don’t do crazy things. We try to follow what we like; that is easier. It is a headache to do what the American market needs, what the Japanese market needs, what the German market needs. We like this and that’s ok and we try to sell it. It works in a way. If it is well done, it works. I always use what we do because I want to test it but also because I like it.
What vision do you have for your company in the future?
We need to grow, and we have a lot of projects and are opening nice stores. I think in Germany we should have up to 4 to 5 stores. I don’t want to have a lot of stores. This one here in Munich is our experiment, and we are very happy and think that Germany will be very important for us. We are as our name suggests, not very quick to grow. We like to open stores in a places we like, not just anywhere, not just because it is the fashion street. No, we want to open a store because we like the building, we like the payoff, and it is important to represent our brand. So this sometimes takes more time because we are not satisfied with what we find on the market, so we need to wait. But it will work. What I am very happy about is that people who know us and become our customers are very loyal to us, and they really like the brand. These people are very interested in what we are doing and appreciate it. This is my satisfaction. One third of the customers buy in different stores. So they consider the store as a point of reference. We have very strong contact with them; the consumers interact a lot with us, contrarily to other brands. They are part of our family, and they feel it. And they feel that this is right, and so they want to be part of the family. The loyalty is a very strong part of this brand. We don’t do the product for the need of the market; we just do the product for our clients and also for ourselves. We are certainly not a brand for everybody, not for the mass market. We know that we are a niche of the market, but we can find this kind of people everywhere in the world. We do not want to be for everybody. If you want everybody to like you, you will lose your identity. Sometimes people say you should do this. That would drive me crazy. I don’t like trends. This is a trend? Ok, we won’t do it.
Roberto Compagno is the owner of the Slowear group that controls four specialized brands: Incotex for trousers, Zanone for knitwear, Glanshirt for shirts and Montedoro for outerwear & accessories. In 1960 Roberto launched the idea of smart casual pants and converted the production unit into fashion clothes production. In 2010, Roberto decided to open the first mono-multibrand store with the 4 brands of the group and a selection of third brands that fit very well with the company brands. From store 1 in Milan in 2010, today the Slowear Group counts 39 stores worldwide in the most important capitals of the world.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2017. Picture credit © Slowear