The Daily recently sat down with Antonino Laspina, the newly appointed U.S. trade commissioner and executive director of the Italian Trade Agency, at his Upper East Side office to learn how ITA is making a huge push to bring Italian brands to the forefront in the American market.
What is the Italian Trade Agency’s mission?
It’s a government agency in charge of promoting Italy abroad. We were under the guidance of the Ministry of Economic Development until last year, but now we are under the guidance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Economic Corporation. This is important for us because the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) will now be more effective, have more support, and be put into a system of economic diplomacy.
The Italian economic system is based on 93 to 94 percent small- and medium-size corporations; we have big companies, but they’re limited in number and influence. We were founded in 1926 and are probably the oldest government agency in charge of promoting economic trade. It’s an important task for us because out of the worldwide exports, Italian exports to the U.S. are approximately 30 percent. We are growing near 40 percent, so we need to identify new markets for Italian companies.
How will you accomplish this?
We have to identify suitable tools and new sectors where these Italian companies can be competitive. Other countries have been able to maintain their creative industry but have been forced to transfer the manufacturing to other countries. We’re unique because we have a creative system among designers, schools, training centers, and companies. Some of these production houses are 100 years old, so they can take advantage of different experiences accumulated in decades, related to fabrics, but also to something like leather. We have full control of the whole process, from the tanneries to the working process when defining the leather. We can move into every single sector — for instance, shoes and jewelry. We’re manufacturing top-quality shoes where the obsession is quality, not quantity.
That’s so important. How are Italian brands achieving this?
We have companies still maintaining an artisanal approach, while increasing income. Manufacturing huge quantity of goods is not their key for success. They’re cautious to not expand too much, because otherwise, they don’t have enough people to properly control product quality. So every single sector is fully controlled by the Italian system. That makes the system even stronger, and it can offer every guarantee that you’d want, including sustainability. We are trying to explain to Italian companies that from the outside the U.S. system is difficult in terms of penetration, but not impossible. The market also needs to be informed about the Italian system’s particularity.
Many traders and consumers have a general idea that, in Europe, almost all manufacturing has moved to other parts of the world. Big brands in the States are always “made in China,” and a small quantity are made in Italy, because they’re continuing to use Italian production as a private label. But our idea is that there are some dynamics in the U.S. market that are going to reopen [import opportunities] for some Italian products due to these particularities. The tannery industry has made an incredible transformation. It’s changed so much from just three decades ago, becoming more and more green. Due to American consumers’ attitudes, Italy is looked up to as the place where you can get top-quality products. But even in the big department stores on Fifth Avenue in New York, you won’t find anything competing with the quality of top Italian brands.
So how do you hope to change stateside interest in Italian goods?
Our task is to demystify any preconceived perceptions of Italian products, and also operate education and training for Italian companies to show that there are regulations, but here’s the market. Education, metropolitan areas, and per capita income are not only in New York and Los Angeles, and if [a city or region] has those three elements, it’s time for us to go there!
Any specific cities or states you’re focusing on?
In Miami and Chicago, or Texas, we don’t have the same amount of penetration that we do in other big cities around the world. This is the time for us to move in. We’re also going to train and educate Italian companies about the American market. We want them to be more aware about intellectual property rights, for instance, because if they start protecting their ideas and brands, they’ll come [to the U.S.] and find people are more trusting and wanting to strategize together. We want them to be more aware of the fact that there are rules, but this market is open to them.
How are you educating Italian companies and American consumers?
With the fair and exhibition, which some people would call a traditional way. But inside the exhibition is a new concept; it’s an occasion to put people together, but also to have a selection and introduction to the market. Also, we’re organizing some fashion shows within the Italian pavilion, and using a digital system to make it possible for people to contact one another even before the exhibition. It’s important and indispensable, especially for small- and medium-size companies to talk [to the U.S. market] about how important quality is, and then show them the quality of the stitching, finishing, and materials.
Do you have any plans to offer this in-person immersion elsewhere in the country?
By coming to New York, I think Italian companies have to understand what direction they want to go in, and what products to emphasize in their collections. But we’re not excluding the idea of using New York as a trampoline; the market in Chicago is not the same as Miami or Los Angeles. There are different lifestyles, weather, and traditions in the U.S. population [in different cities].
We are also aware of the fact that we have to help buyers understand what Italian fashion is today. Any kind of exhibition in Italy in now registering an incredible number of buyers invited by ITA and paid for by the government. They could come on their own, of course, but ITA is also providing them with assistance, a clear vision of what Italy offers, and making things possible for them after the exhibition. We help them be confident when discussing things with a new potential trade partner.
Why is Coterie important for ITA, and what does that tell us about the relevance of trade shows in 2020?
For a small- and medium-size company, Coterie is a real, not digital, material event, which is indispensable. Fairs are really important, not only in the States. There are still huge exhibitions in China for trade; we have more than 150 companies in China. Everyone thought exhibitions would be over 20 years ago, but they are still here. If people can’t see your product, they’ll never trust it or buy it. I can tell you, every single fair in the world is growing, growing, growing, which confirms they’re still important.
Finally, what are your thoughts on Italian restaurants in NYC?
I’ve explored a lot, and there are many restaurants doing really well. They’ve been able to remove what we call the “mama’s kitchen” concept and give a better representation of Italian cuisine. They even use authentic Italian products, which is one of the big problems — in Europe you would say “Italian style,” and in the States you say “Italian.” There’s a big difference! There are lots of Italian-style restaurants, but they don’t use Italian products. Even if you’re using Italian products, the style of cooking is important, too. The process is simple.
Any places here that excel at great ingredients in straightforward preparations?
I’ve tried several and I think that Gattopardo in Midtown is a good Italian restaurant, because I have found this kind of coherence. Simple cooking! And I know for a fact that they use Italian ingredients.