DUST 15 – Interview with Federico Curradi

Federico Curradi is one of the most interesting and atypical young Italian designers. His first experience was with a Florentine tailor-shop, where he learned the elemental secrets of the craft. In his early 20s, he moved to New York, where he made a collection comprising of men’s trousers. In the early 2000s, he started producing small, atelier-made pieces by himself that continue to be stocked in different boutiques across the world. That’s how Toni Scervino first came upon his work, which later lead to his appointment as a developer of Ermanno Scervino’s menswear. After four years he became the head of menswear for Cavalli and then Artistic Director of menswear at Iceberg. After almost twenty years designing for large houses, Curradi developed his own line, which was acclaimed at the Fall 2017 shows in Milan. Last summer he joined Rochas, tasked with reinventing its menswear line.

Federico Curradi is mostly known for his artisanal and dressmaking prowess. His interest in a sustainable way of living, is not only a fundamental way for him to conceive fashion — he is known for working almost exclusively with biodegradable materials and prioritizing the natural theme — but for his way of life, as well: he lives and works from his country farm in Tuscany with cows, horses, hens, one bull and five wolves.

DUST met with him to talk about sustainability and the advantages of designing and producing a collection in Italy; the inauspicious and harmful effects of so-called ‘fast fashion’ and possible strategies to limit its spread, and how food and fashion are more interrelated than one would think.

 

 

MICHELE FOSSI – Federico, let me first introduce the reader to the scene where this interview is taking place. We are in the kitchen of your house, which is perched on a Tuscan hill not too far from Florence. Two of your five Czech wolves, perfectly tamed, torment each other in a corner, while providing us company. From the window, we see vineyards and other fenced fields, where animals are wandering freely: cows, a bull, and some hens. The interior of the kitchen has a traditional and rustic feel, featuring many typical elements of a Tuscan countryside house: copper pottery hanging from the walls, shiny, floral tiles and an unmissable fireplace. At the centre of the room sits a long wooden table that can comfortably seat at least twelve people, symbolising the central role food plays in the Tuscan countryside life. Far from being a mere act of nutrition, the food here in the Tuscan countryside is a pleasure that asks to be shared, and a major drive for social aggregation. Around this table, soon a dinner among friends will take place. What are you cooking for us tonight?

FEDERICO CURRADI – We’ll start with mozzarella di bufala and an artichoke carpaccio – which is artichokes sliced finely, seasoned with olive oil and flaked with parmesan cheese. We’ll continue with pork skewers cooked in the fireplace. And many more surprises!

M: I had been told that, unlike most fashion designers, who dwell in big cities, you live in an isolated house perched on a hill, owned by your family for generations. I was ready to meet with a countryside lover, but didn’t suspect you were a real cowboy!

F: (laughs) Am I?

M: You are! When I arrived here earlier, you said you were sorry that you were not done yet with some work, and that we’d have to wait half an hour approximately for our interview. I imagined you were busy drawing a piece for a future collection, but then you took me to one of the cultivated fields around the house. Here, you first politely introduced me to each of your fellow cows and horses, then you held a shovel and for the next half hour, you indefatigably dug a twenty-meter long furrow in the ground so that the rainwater can flow downhill. All this while cursing at wild-boars and talking about the latest economic trends in the fashion market!

F: (laughs)

M: Let’s go back to our Tuscan dinner tonight. Am I correct in assuming that most of these ingredients come from around here? That you possibly even know personally the farmers that produced them?

F: True. And a few of them were picked earlier today in our fields, actually!

M: Is it as important to you to ‘giving a name’ to the food that you eat, to know who produced it and where, as it is for most of the people I know who live in the Italian countryside?

F: Absolutely. I guess it has to do with the typical ‘autarchic’ mindset of the countryside. You try to buy as much food as possible directly from the people who produce it in the nearby area, and who you know personally. Food with a ‘face’ so to say.

M: I’m asking you this because I am drawing a correlation between the way you cook and the way you make fashion. When we met in Paris last January, and you introduced me to your first men’s collection for Rochas, I couldn’t help but notice how we spoke predominantly about the ‘ingredients’ of the collection — the experimental, sustainable materials you had used, and in many cases developed yourself. Do you think that having grown up as a countryside boy has played a role in making you develop such strong attention for materials?

F: For sure the love of beautiful things, in general, not just clothes, comes from my Italian blood. Being from the countryside has instilled this habit in me, of always asking myself where things come from. We tend to do it with virtually everything here. From the food we eat – the eggs come from Maria, the rabbit from Umberto – to the tools we use to cultivate the land itself. At the end of the day, the beauty of living in the countryside is that you live in a microcosm, where everyone knows and helps each other.

M: Could we say that you are one of those designers who need to have access to materials ‘with a face’ in order to enjoy creating a collection?

F: Totally. When you are used to thinking this way, a jacket will never be ‘just a jacket’. When I see one I immediately start asking myself what it is made of, where are the materials that compose it from and, most importantly, if this piece of fashion has some sort of value – artisanal, historical, aesthetic – or not. I feel like this way of looking at clothes, that I inherited from my parents, has ‘vaccinated’ me against the temptations of fast fashion.

M: What do you mean?

F: I mean I have never been interested in buying crap made out of nylon or polyester just because it’s from a cool brand. Never, even when I was a teenager.

M: We just mentioned nylon and polyester, one of the most polluting use of plastic we can think of. With each washing cycle, these fibres release countless fragments – the infamous ‘microplastic’ – into sewage, eventually reaching the oceans and from there entering the food chain. Last year, a number of brands announced that they would disrupt the use of these fibres in the near future. You are doing it already: your first collection for Rochas is proudly plastic-free. Which materials, do you think, have the potential to substitute plastic in the future?

F: The first, extraordinary material that comes up to my mind is paper.

M: Paper?

F: Yes. We could use it, for example, for the packaging of clothes. For my first Rochas collection, I developed clothing bags in recycled paper that can be zipped all around. The idea behind it is to make my pledge to disrupt plastic being immediately visible, right at the beginning when you buy the product.

M: Such use of paper is, by the way, nothing new. Isn’t it how brands used to package their clothes, until less than a century ago?

F: Exactly! And paper, let’s not forget, is just one example of the many more sustainable possibilities we can choose from today. What’s been missing, so far, is not the availability of cheap, sustainable materials, but rather the will to implement them.

M: Plastic is also ubiquitous, in the form of nylon and polyester fibres, in the sportswear sector.

F: Yes, and in this case, too, we have a wonderful natural material that has the potential to substitute them: silk. It’s an extraordinary fibre, possibly the most ‘high tech’ among the natural ones! The silkworms that produce it, happen to share many of their needs with athletes: they need a material that protects their chrysalides from wind, rain, heat and cold while granting good breathability inside.

M: I am sure that vegans and environmentalist will have something to say about that.

F: Now we know how to get silk without killing the worm, with animal cruelty-free certification! There are other interesting alternatives to synthetic fibres, besides silk, of course. Viscose, which is obtained from cellulose, is one of them.

M: On a more creative note, the ensemble of these natural materials, old and new, will provide designers with a new alphabet to express their visions.

F: Natural fibres are more beautiful, period. You cannot compare silk with polyester. Don’t ask me why, but natural materials will always look more beautiful to human eyes. These are also the fibres we tend to develop a long-term emotional attachment for. Which scarf do you think your mother is more likely to wear for decades, the silk or synthetic one? A point that is often neglected, is that these natural materials allow designers to play with a far richer and interesting colour palette than synthetic ones. Whenever I dye silk, I am astonished by the beauty of the colours you can play with. Forget about it on a polyester substrate.

M: Isn’t it too late to go back?

F: I don’t think it will be impossible to get rid of plastic. We’ll realize soon that it’s been around for only a few decades, and that before its introduction we were doing just fine without it. It’s a goal that I see within our reach. We just need to make an effort to remember that time.

M: Which other materials would you like to play with in the future?

F: For the spring/summer collection, I played with cotton mixed with silk and paper.

M: Paper again… This time used as yarn to produce the fabric of the clothes? Sorry for the naive question… Is it possible to wash them?

F: On a texture level, paper gives a soft feeling that reminds that of cotton. It can also be washed like cotton. Japanese people use it a lot. In fact, I am particularly fond of a paper yarn that I import from Japan.

M: Since you mention this, let’s talk about the geography of new materials for fashion. Which countries experiment more and work more actively at creating a plastic-free scenario for fashion?

F: Italy is undoubtedly one of the leading ones in this particular market. It’s not really something that surprises me. It’s always been in the spirit of Italy to produce good things. We are appreciated in the world for the quality, more than for the quantity, of what we produce. Different from other countries, where the market is concentrated in the hands of a bunch of big players, here you have a plethora of small companies, mostly family-run businesses driven by a true passion for their products. Such companies do not need

to produce big volumes: excellence is the goal. And the search for that excellence is something often associated with passion.

M: Is there a story you can tell us about this?

F: Finding a way to transform the paper yarn into a fabric that I liked was easier said than done. I quickly realized that there was no textile company able to deal with this unusual yarn properly. When I explained my needs as a designer to the owners of a small Tuscan textile company, not far from here, they immediately got excited and embraced this new challenge. Instead of sending me home, saying “Sorry, we can’t help you”, they immediately got excited at the idea of a new challenge. As a result, they worked for weeks on a series of mechanical modifications of their looms, so that they could handle my request. This is what I call ‘passion’.

M: Did they succeed?

F: Yes, they did! They delivered me a beautiful fabric made out of paper, perfect for the collection. This – I believe – is a very Italian story, where passion and creativity mix with another very Italian quality: flexibility. As you know, being Italian yourself, most of the time things don’t work as they should in this country. As a consequence, making a plan B is a national sport for Italians: we are trained since our childhood at developing fast solutions to problems.

M: The story you just told us also hints to the well-known ‘network of solidarity’ that links small Italian companies to each other.

F: Absolutely. Used to getting very little help from the big institutions, small companies here have a long tradition at helping each other. This continuous contact between factories working in the most disparate industrial sectors has proven extremely beneficial over the decades: it has helped Italian companies think outside of the box and has contributed to countless, millions-worth of eureka moments. Don’t business experts acknowledge nowadays that the most revolutionary ideas are more likely to arise at the intersection between different areas of knowledge?

M: It’s actually called ‘The Medici effect’, in honour of the Florentine family that by inviting intellectuals, mathematicians, philosophers and artists to court, ignited a cultural revolution called Renaissance.

F: Well, you see, this is common practice for a long time here! (laughs)

M: Let’s go back to silk and your wish to implement this material in the collection.

F: Sure! So, I went to Florence to an old company that produces silk. You have to know that Tuscany, and especially Florence, is one of the oldest silk districts in Italy. I asked them if they could help me produce a silk fabric with improved characteristics – mostly in terms of hydro-repellence, so as to make it comparable to nylon. He said that he was not able to produce such fabric. Then I was given the address of another small company in Prato, specialized in waxing textile fibres. I put these two companies in touch with each other and – magic! – they started collaborating! A couple of months later, I was given the first samples of the highly performative silk fabrics which I implemented in this first collection for Rochas. And once again I found myself thinking that – lost amongst these Tuscan hills – I couldn’t find myself in a more convenient place to do my job. In other countries, it would have been unimaginable to get two companies to collaborate so easily. If so many fashion houses are still producing in Italy, it’s not just because here there is a history of expertise and experience but also because it’s easier to innovate here.

M: What do you think led these two companies to collaborate with each other?

F: Again… it was passion! Believe me, It’s an attitude here. In other countries numbers count more than passion. It’s actually a general trend in our field that drives me nuts. We are not producing screws or nails! When you try to do something as unique and special as a luxury item, you need this passion and you need it in the people and the companies you collaborate with. The journey toward the making of a new, excellent product can be a very adventurous one. It’s so sad to see ‘numbers’ today kill all sort of enthusiasm. Of course, numbers count, and you have to deliver them too at the end. But they cannot be the only parameter.

M: How do you see the country change: have many of these small companies closed, as it has happened in other major economic sectors, especially after the 2008 crisis?

F: Many have closed. But why? Some chose the wrong partners and engaged with them in a risky game. Others didn’t know how to innovate.

M: Has the spread of Fast Fashion also played a role?

F: Fast fashion has corrupted the ‘Made in Italy’ – by disrupting it: only the bigger companies have the resources to continue producing high-quality stuff, besides the low-quality ones requested by the fast fashion market. The small ones – I could name tens of examples with just restricting the radius to the province of Florence – had to start gaming down, producing only crap, which is very dangerous, because by doing so they renounce the most precious things they have: their history and their identity. On top of this, the economic situation is not very good now for the luxury market. One of the reasons is that consumers currently care more about the image than the true quality of what they buy.

M: What worries you the most about the spread of Fast Fashion?

F: The pernicious effect it is having on the ‘Made in Italy’. Fast Fashion is destroying its integrity, slowly eating it from the inside like wood borers inside a piece of wood. The biggest players of fast fashion expect small companies to produce for them at lower prices in the name of the acquisition of larger volumes. As a result, such companies start buying products of the lowest quality abroad, make a couple of cosmetic interventions in Italy, and put it on the market as ‘Made in Italy’. However, this has very little to do with the excellence Italian products are known for. Day after day, Fast Fashion is destroying the good name our industry has built over decades of passionate work.

M: Earlier, talking about Fast Fashion, you used the word ‘vaccinated’, as if it was a sort of virus that has infected our world…

F: Fast fashion has become very good at selling crap now. The aesthetics of the clothes – at least what one sees at first glance or on a picture on social media – has become the only thing that matters. People don’t seem to care that much about the quality of the clothes they buy, as long as ‘the lines and the colours’ are cool. Even if I try hard, I don’t see anything positive in this trend. Let’s also not forget, that it is a pretty recent one: twenty years ago, consumers would buy this crap — mostly made out of polluting synthetic fibres — in street markets, not in shops!

 

 

M: What can be done?

F: Now we know that a radical paradigm shift is necessary. In fashion, this means to transition from fast fashion to slower approaches to fashion, where clothes gain their lost status of items we develop an emotional relationship with, an attachment that prevents us from throwing them away a few weeks, if not days, after having bought them, as is the case for most apparel items sold nowadays. We don’t have time left. We don’t have – as we have been thinking for decades – infinite natural resources on tap. It’s a general principle. We have to educate ourselves again to understand that every action ultimately has an effect. The time frame for this transition is very narrow. We must realize that it must happen today, not sometime tomorrow. The time is now.

M: Some would argue, that it’s a question of budget. Most people do not have the money to buy sustainable ‘slow fashion’. This makes me think of what Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, used to answer to the many detractors of the movement, who similarly accused it of being elitist, promoting a shift towards better food, yes, but also more expensive and therefore for rich people only. He would say: “Come and talk to me when people have stopped throwing away food. Most people have enough money to buy better food – food that is ‘good, fair and clean’ – but prefer to spend their money on other things. It’s a question of priorities”. Do you agree?

F: Absolutely, it’s a question of mindset more than of budget restriction. A lot of people actually spend more money on fast fashion now than they used to spend in the past when fast fashion was not so widespread in our society. A new outfit every week. But you also throw away a lot of money. People buy an image they see on Instagram or in a newspaper, but it’s a pretty cheap one. With the same budget, you can do a much better job at defining your own identity with clothes.

M: Talking about Instagram, I have the feeling this social network — for sure the most fashionable one — is contributing no little to the success of fast fashion. Until a few years ago, only celebrities had the (luxury) ‘problem’ of having to change outfit for each new public event, so as to avoid photographers catching them in the same clothes they had already worn. With Instagram now, people use it as a way to define their public image through a collection of images. Since these images are displayed all together, a perverse effect is generated that urges people to portray themselves with different outfits, so as to avoid their Instagram image looking monotonous and repetitive.

F: We do not live on Instagram. We have a social life, we have dinners with our friends, we have business lunches, other times we go out at night. In all these occasions – as important as our digital image may have become – we are going to show what we were for real. It’s important to remember it, and remind those who have forgotten it, because otherwise, we have no hope in stemming the phenomenon of fast fashion. The clothing, obviously, should play a moderate role in defining who we are. Other aspects such as education, how we treat other human beings, our passions, where we choose to live, what we choose to eat, our relationship to the community, the attention for the environment or social justice, are to my eyes far more important.

M: Do you see hope somewhere?

F: Our sector has to start a communication offensive, that aims to ignite a cultural revolution, not dissimilar to that which revolutionized the dining scene in the 90s. Back then, there was no hype associated with going to restaurants, at least here in Italy anyway. Only a few people would have been happy to spend 100€ in order to get a dinner cooked with organic, local ingredients, and even fewer would ask questions regarding the fairness and environmental impact related to their production. Today, to spend 100€ on an order to get ‘slower’ food is normal, even for people who are not particularly rich. Over the last twenty years, the key players in this economic sector, with the help of organizations that fight for a less industrialized agriculture, have made the miracle: to explain to the final consumer why it’s worth spending more money for better, fairer and cleaner food.

M: In other words, you are saying that it’s time to start a ‘Slow Fashion’ revolution, the same way Slow Food and other environmental movements have reshaped the way we look at food today.

F: Yes, we have to start a cultural revolution that helps us re-assign value to what Fast Fashion is really worth. Wine is another good and inspiring example. Think of one of the trendiest products in the world today: Chianti, the wine produced on these hills. In the 70s, it was as extraordinary as it is today, but no one was ready to spend a penny on it. Chianti was only produced locally, enjoyed only by locals, who would use it as regular table wine. No one suspected back then that they were drinking one of the best wines in the world.

M: How did the change of perception come into place? How did they do it? Maybe the fashion sector can find inspiration here.

F: The main reason for this tremendous commercial success was by directing the communication efforts to the final client, the one that would actually drink the wine. In high fashion now I see a huge communication gap between the brands and the final consumers, as far as the quality and the virtuosity – environmental, social – of the clothes is concerned. Fashion brands talk about these topics with the middlemen, the buyers or sometimes directly with shop owners, hoping naively that they would transfer the message to the consumers.

M: But that’s not happening.

F: Of course it’s not happening. These people are businessmen, not the high-profiled communication experts the brand would need in order to address such issues with the final consumer.

M: You mean, we shouldn’t leave this in the hands of people trained to deal with ‘numbers’.

F: Exactly! We are talking about a cultural revolution here, not something everyone can do. We have to make people appreciate the hidden qualities of a product again so that they fall in love with it. Passion, once again, is the key. We have to make people passionate about the fashion items they buy. To convince them that buying a quality product is a better investment than buying three pieces of crap that you will eventually throw away within a year. The goal is to vaccinate people against the temptations of fast fashion.

M: Since you see hope in the communication, how would you shape such a communication offensive?

F: I am not a marketing expert. But look, it doesn’t take much to understand that fashion now suffers from self-referentiality and elitism. It is an exclusive clan open only to a happy few. Think of its major rituals like runway shows: only insiders, such as buyers and the press, have access to these events.

M: Are you suggesting to open fashion rituals to everyone?

F: Yes, this is a really important issue. A vital one, I would dare to say. We talk so much about inclusiveness in the fashion discourse now, and then we forget to include one of the major protagonists: the final client. Why not organize happenings, gigs, where everyone who is interested in knowing more about a collection, is welcome? Events that aim at filling the gap between brands and final clients. I think we take for granted that fashion consumers have clear ideas about the values brands stand for, what their DNA is, which materials they use, and so on. If we figure out how to fill this communicative gap, we’ll have taken a step in the right direction. The offensive against fast fashion starts there.

M: I am trying to figure out what you have in mind. A static show organized in a showroom, like the one you conceived for the presentation of your collection in Paris, last January? I truly loved the atmosphere, inspired by an iconic photography book, portraying Parisian artists in cafés: Dutch photographer Ed van der Elksen’s Love On The Left Bank. And even more so, I appreciated the openness and fluidity of the event, with people being able to come and go, have a closer look at the clothes, even touch them.

F: Yes, static presentations with models standing in a room, could certainly allow more people to enjoy the collection, and discover it in a more intimate, less superficial way. Social media could be a powerful ally to meet this challenge too. Utilised properly, as ambassadors of slow fashion, Instagram and other social media networks could play a beneficial role in reshaping the mindset of consumers, instilling the love for better, longer-lasting, more meaningful fashion. It would be a precious tool in the hand of fashion designers to explain the real value of a collection, that we are far from exploiting at its full potential right now. I am sure that there is no way around this – soon every fashion brand will use it for this purpose. Here, I see hope. And now, I am afraid we have to interrupt our conversation, it’s time to call the others to sit at the table. Dinner is ready!

A tavolaaaaaa!

 

Published on May 2019 in DUST 15 – MAMMA ITALIA

Photo: Amit Israeli

 

 

 

 

 

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