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Jun 6, 2018
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Max Mara; the Silent Giant speaks

Jun 6, 2018

In Italy, they call Max Mara, Il Gigante Silenzioso, or the Silent Giant. One of those rare fashion houses that manage to combine both critical success and commercial growth. It’s a 1.558 billion-euro company still owned by the descendants of the founder, Achille Maramotti, and a great example of la famiglia italiana.

Luigi Maramotti Photo: FashionNetwork.com/ Godfrey Deeny - Foto: FashionNetwork.com/ Godfrey Deeny

A family, moreover, legendary for its discretion and reserve. One that prides itself on creating a creative company providing stimulating long-term employment for 4,700 employees worldwide, and especially in Reggio Emilia, the ancient Roman city that is today a pretty, yet sleepy, town smack in the center of the great northern plain of Italy.
On Monday night, Max Mara staged its first ever show in its hometown, the source of Italy’s most famous cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano. Indeed the locals are known as I Reggiani.

A collection inspired by much of the art on the walls of the justly famed contemporary art museum, Collezione Maramotti. The house's founder Achille Maramotti had a remarkable eye – quietly building – essentially on instinct and visceral feeling – a stunning collection that includes works by such modern legends as Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Eric Fischl, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Alex Katz, Jörg Immendorff, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, along with great modern Italians like Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente and Claudio Parmiggiani.
And, for once, the house’s CEO, and Achille’s son, Luigi Maramotti agreed to sit down for an interview inside the former office of his late father. After Achille passed, his children Luigi, Ignazio and Maria Ludovica inherited the company. Luigi speaks excellent English, the result of being a salesman aged just 19 for Evan Picone in the US, before returning there six years later to set up Max Mara North America.
We met within a one-time apparel manufacturing plant that is today this unique art museum. A 10-minute window, which turned into a 30-minute conversation where Luigi explained why the company has only ever developed its own brands (today they boast 19), and never acquired an outside label; why he dislikes the stock market and how he believes creative fashion brands should be managed.

Max Mara Cruise 2019 - Photo: Max Mara

Why did you stage this cruise show?
I didn’t decide. I was against it. I always refused to have a show in this place for many, many reasons. But this time I couldn’t deny my creative teams the opportunity. They actually know this place very well and come here some times for inspiration. And they developed this idea of the cruise based on Italian painters of the 60s connected to Arte Povera, and there was a strong connection with color and shape, and I said I couldn’t say no. Usually I am against fashion and art mixing when it is not rigorous enough. But this was a real tribute.
This region, like much of Italy, has had difficulties in the past decade. Why have you thrived in a difficult moment?
I believe in a difficult moment, true values come floating up – so brands that have a heritage and a real culture are better positioned to talk to consumers. The stories they tell are true and not invented. Like this building where we began. It is part of our history. When you walk the floors of the permanent collection you can still find the marks where sewing machines once where. Buildings keep memory and you don’t really know why but when you are in a building which has this history it becomes emotionally very strong. So, yes, this region has a great tradition. Here for instance in the 16th century they had silk worms and would make silk yarn and textiles. But then for some reason this all disappeared.
What you sell is Italian savoir-faire?
Personally I am slightly critical of this label Made in Italy, as I am an individualist and I believe in creativity and that is connected to individuals and networks of individuals and not a nation necessarily. And, moreover, in our company we have more than 100 different nationalities around the world, and many come here and spend time in this little town to work with archives. Creativity has no flag.
Though your brand is rather classical, your art collection is avant-garde and you often support iconoclastic young artists. Why?
Yes we work with talented architects, individuals or artists like in the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, of which we are very proud. But the star system is against our values. When the individual’s star becomes more important, and becomes a channel for marketing this is for us negative. Because it is against our idea of making a product that lives by itself. If the idea is that people buy the coat simply because they want to imitate the person wearing that coat then there is something wrong for us. I am not judgmental there are other companies that have that focus. But to be true to yourself is very important.
Your key brand remains Max Mara?
Probably 60% of turnover, but they are all connected to our know-how. The break down between wholesale and our own retail is not relevant. There are only good or bad executions. That’s the way I see it. Recipes are every dangerous in fashion. As a company we have only developed our own brands. Like Marina Rinaldi, the name of the grandmother of my grandmother.  She was a woman who lived in the mid-19th century and a widow, she sustained herself by being a seamstress and that is the beginning of our history.

Why not buy another company?
Never say never, but it looks like our cup of tea. We are not marketers in the pure sense, more interested in what we can do by developing our own ideas. There are people who are very good at revamping brands but we are not very good at that.

Man Eating a Leg of Chicken (1952) - Francis Bacon - Photo:Collezione Maramotti/ Godfrey Deeny

How did your father Achille build the art collection?
He started in his late 30s when he began to have a little bit of money. There is a great anecdote about one evening in mid 60s Milan, at an event he was offered a painting by Bacon, whose art he always loved. And he liked this piece a lot and he had to make a decision to buy the Bacon or a special trimming machine, and he bought the machine.  I can only imagine that Bacon today would probably buy a few companies. Nevertheless that story tells us that you have to be focused, even if he eventually bought a Bacon later on.
To me being in fashion means to be like an Anthropologist or an explorer. Breaking new frontiers. So the people in fashion are always interested in the dialogue with art. Because artists know before designers what is going to be next. But they are very close. Then other people come much after. So this excited my father and he would buy and hang works of art throughout this place as he felt that the people working in fashion really had to understand this dialogue. He was not assembling a showcase collection.
How has America influenced you?
In 1986, when I went back to start up Max Mara USA, New York was very tough. This raises a question: even if the town was difficult with a lot of criminality the energy was incredibly great, even with not too much money. And you could still live in Manhattan!
Will you ever go on the Stock Market?

I am not a fan in general. If you work in this field and you really want to be free to achieve your goals and be a creative company it is better that top management focus on that. And the stock market is very demanding in terms of short-term strategies and results. Lots of volatility and hence not ideal for what we do.
What plans have you for succession at Max Mara?

We are hands on in the company. This is a very fascinating business if you love it. So, if members of our family show love and determination there is always room. I believe that family companies have an additional value if you go back through Italian history and you have le botteghe or workshops of the great painters – you have this transfer from father to son of culture, knowledge, ability and also this motivation of people working in a family business who overcome a lot of issues.

Max Mara Cruise 2019 - Photo: Max Mara

A graduate of nearby Parma University, Luigi lives in a villa in the hills above Reggio Emilia; married with two children to a wife who is an expert on the great French political philosopher Alexis de Toqueville.

When not working what do you do for vacations?
My last holiday was to Ascoli Piceno, in the mountains, where there was an earthquake. Hiking to see this beautiful city that nobody knows. You should go. Before that I went to the Alaskan wilderness to ski at a camp. One of my best trips was a delayed honeymoon 35 years ago driving around the west coast of Ireland; Cork, Dingle and Connemara. Not a very popular choice but great colors, light and people.
I like to be in places where I get away from all this... The problem that we have in fashion is the pace. And we cannot change that but if you manage a company you should have the wisdom to look at a distance and see directions and trends that are more important than just resort 2019. I think human beings today have an issue with superficiality. In general in our world, we have been very fast and very open to change. But the change now has become the scope. You don’t know where you are heading – in politics and management and the ecosystem too.
If you are an entrepreneur you are a politician in the pure sense. You are doing political things every day. You have a political responsibility. So to change your point of observation is vital. Why sometimes why I feel the necessity to physically be in places that are very distant.
Which other fashion brands do you admire?
Companies where someone embodies the values that eventually become a heritage – like Japanese designers back in the 70s and 80s. What they were doing was very honest, very original and very influential. That was a very happy period when you had very inventive designers and the chance of surviving successfully – Yohji, Issey, Comme and even before Kenzo.
What’s your view of the current political situation in Italy, which seems chaotic to many people on the outside?
Well in Italy we talk a lot. So, I prefer to see what people actually do, not what they say they are going to do. So, let’s see what this new government really does.

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