Anno III - Numero 24
Nella società agricola il vecchio è il saggio, in quella industriale è un relitto.
Carlo Maria Cipolla

giovedì 19 aprile 2018

The Chinese Workers Who Assemble Designer Bags in Tuscany

Many companies are using inexpensive immigrant labor to manufacture handbags that bear the coveted “Made in Italy” label. The Chinese residents of Prato have arguably revived the fading manufacturing city, which has the highest proportion of immigrants in Italy

di D. T. Max

The first significant wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the industrial zone around Prato, a city fifteen miles northwest of Florence, in the nineteen-nineties. Nearly all of them came from Wenzhou, a port city south of Shanghai. For the Chinese, the culture shock was more modest than one might have expected. “The Italians were friendly,” one early arrival remembered. “Like the Chinese, they called one another Uncle. They liked family.” In Tuscany, business life revolved around small, interconnected firms, just as it did in Wenzhou, a city so resolutely entrepreneurial that it had resisted Mao’s collectivization campaign. The Prato area was a hub for mills and workshops, some of which made clothes and leather goods for the great fashion houses. If you were willing to be paid off the books, and by the piece, Prato offered plenty of opportunities. Many Wenzhouans found jobs there. “The Italians, being canny, would subcontract out their work to the Chinese,” Don Giovanni Momigli, a priest whose parish, near Prato, included an early influx of Chinese, told me. “Then they were surprised when the Chinese began to do the work on their own.”

By the mid-nineties, Wenzhouans were setting up textile businesses in small garages, where they often also lived. Soon, they began renting empty workshops, paying with cash. The authorities didn’t ask too many questions. Prato’s business model was falling apart under the pressures of globalization. As it became harder for Italians to make a living in manufacturing, some of them welcomed the money that the Chinese workers brought into the local economy. If you could no longer be an artisan, you could still be a landlord.

Throughout the aughts, Chinese continued to show up in Tuscany. A non-stop flight was established between Wenzhou and Rome. Some migrants came with tourist visas and stayed on. Others paid smugglers huge fees, which they then had to work off, a form of indentured servitude that was enforced by the threat of violence. The long hours that the Chinese worked astonished many Italians, who were used to several weeks of paid vacation a year and five months of maternity leave. In 1989, the newspaper Corriere della Sera, using racist language still common among some Italians, published an article about a Chinese worker under the headline “yellow stakhanovite on the arno.”

While Florence was celebrated for its premium leatherwork, Prato was best known for the production of textiles. The Wenzhou workers tacked in a third direction. They imported cheap cloth from China and turned it into what is now called pronto moda, or “fast fashion”: polyester shirts, plasticky pants, insignia jackets. These items sold briskly to low-end retailers and in open-air markets throughout the world.

The Chinese firms gradually expanded their niche, making clothes for middle-tier brands, like Guess and American Eagle Outfitters. And in the past decade they have become manufacturers for Gucci, Prada, and other luxury-fashion houses, which use often inexpensive Chinese-immigrant labor to create accessories and expensive handbags that bear the coveted “Made in Italy” label. Many of them are then sold to prosperous consumers in Shanghai and Beijing. It’s not just Italian brands that have profited from this cross-cultural arrangement: a Chinese leather-goods entrepreneur I recently met with just outside Prato was wearing a forty-thousand-dollar Bulgari watch.


More than ten per cent of Prato’s two hundred thousand legal residents are Chinese. According to Francesco Nannucci, the head of the police’s investigative unit in Prato, the city is also home to some ten thousand Chinese people who are there illegally. Prato is believed to have the second-largest Chinese population of any European city, after Paris, and it has the highest proportion of immigrants in Italy, including a large North African population.

Many locals who worked in the textile and leather industries resented the Chinese immigrants, complaining that they cared only about costs and speed, not about aesthetics, and would have had no idea how to make fine clothes and accessories if not for the local craftsmen who taught them. Simona Innocenti, a leather artisan, told me that her husband was forced out of bag-making by cheaper Chinese competitors. She said of the newcomers, “They copy, they imitate. They don’t do anything original. They’re like monkeys.”


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