It seems that not a day goes by without an Italian fashion executive announcing his or her patronage of a landmark in major need of repair. Luxury brands trying to burnish their images have become the unofficial saviours of their country’s cultural heritage, whether it’s Tod’s and the Colosseum, Bulgari and the Spanish Steps, or Fendi and the Trevi Fountain (this is just in Rome, by the way – the list would be interminable if we were to mention all the preservation projects supported by luxury houses, from Venice to Florence all the way to Umbria and the Alps).
Some see this recent phenomenon as a jarring example of the Italian government’s inability to take care of its monuments, from faded ancient Roman, Etruscan and Greek ruins to decaying Renaissance palaces and crumbling baroque churches. However, given the number of remarkable sites located in such a small country, it’s understandable that the effort of preserving them would be daunting, even in a fully functional Western nation, which with all due respect Italy is definitely not.
Since Tod’s Diego Della Valle announced his plans to restore the Colosseum in 2011, it didn’t take long for fellow luxury titans to follow suit as they recognised that along with Italy’s art and food, its labels represent the country to the world.
While so far this kind of patronage has mainly been in the realm of high-end players, the latest company to undertake a project of this kind is the Calzedonia Group, the Verona-based hosiery and underwear giant that besides its namesake brand also owns labels such as Intimissimi.
The man behind this new initiative is Sandro Veronesi, a relatively young CEO – at least when compared with a typical Italian company head – who has transformed the group, especially its flagship brands of Calzedonia and Intimissimi, into a juggernaut of affordable fashion that’s as ubiquitous in Europe as Starbucks is in the United States.
Early last spring, Veronesi announced that the group would support an international architectural contest to cover Verona’s most iconic site, the Arena, a Roman amphitheatre, with a movable roof. The Arena, which every summer hosts public events ranging from operas and ballets to pop concerts, is very important to the group, given that its most hyped-up event, Intimissimi on Ice, an extravaganza mixing opera, pop music and ice-skating, takes place inside its walls every autumn, drawing top performers such as Pharrell Williams.
“Nemo propheta in patria sua” (nobody is a prophet in his own country), says Veronesi in Latin when asked about the significance of this project for someone who hails from the area and whose company is still based a short drive from the Arena. “I’m saying this as, just because we’re from here, from Verona, it doesn’t mean that it was easy to start organising events at the Arena, such as Intimissimi on Ice.”
We’re sitting in Calzedonia’s recently inaugurated showroom in the company’s headquarters, where the label has just hosted a bacchanalia-type show of its colourful swimwear and fitness gear on a bunch of perfectly toned models such as Cindy Bruna and Emi Ogata. Admitting that even offers of help in Italy are not always well received, Veronesi jokes that he’s not actually sure about the feasibility of his idea, recalling his past experiences with the local administration. “Convincing the government to have access to the Arena was hard and I’m not sure that they will let us complete this new project, but we’ll see. In Italy you never know,” he says. “It all started because the Arena is used a lot, especially in the summer, for concerts. However, there’s always the problem of the possibility of rain so companies like mine, which invest a lot of money on a show, may have to cancel it last minute because of the weather, losing lots of money. So by providing a roof, we can prevent that from happening and make sure that shows are not cancelled last minute.
“It’s also because it’s a public monument and the pollution, the bad weather and all the elements little by little ruin its appearance. If it’s covered, it can be preserved forever. It’s also a way for us to say thank you, but to be honest with you, who knows if they’ll ever let us do this? Italy is a country for old people. Anything new is seen with suspicion and scepticism, but maybe they’ll let me do it. I really hope so.”
When countered with the list of successful restoration projects sponsored by other Italian brands, Veronesi points out that although it’s true that other big brands have done similar things all over Italy in the last few years, “it was always amid a lot of controversy; it was never smooth”.
Whether he’s just managing expectations or speaking the truth about a country known for incredible amounts of red tape, Veronesi is clearly proud of what he’s accomplished as a businessman, building a hugely successful high-street group in a nation that’s all about savoir faire and old-school notions of luxury.
But it’s not just socks and bikinis for the driven entrepreneur. A short walk from Calzedonia Group’s headquarters on the outskirts of Verona stands a 16th-century former convent, now Hotel La Torre Veronesi, which Veronesi opened in 2008 and which features a wellness centre and a gourmet restaurant. He’s also dipped his toes into the food and beverage business with an extremely popular wine bar and restaurant, Signorvino, which has two locations in Verona and has expanded all over Italy. Although these side activities may come across as the typical vanity projects of a well-established CEO, they’re far from that. With Signorvino, for instance, Veronesi has introduced the concept of a high-quality and affordable restaurant chain, a rarity in Italy, where mum-and-dad trattorias or cheap fast-food outlets are usually the only options for an affordable eat.
“The common thread between all my projects, such as Signorvino, the Hotel La Torre and so on, is to create products with taste, quality and a beautiful image but at an affordable price,” Veronesi explains. “Signorvino was born with the idea of promoting the products of small Italian vineyards that make only 50,000 to 100,000 bottles a year and don’t have the resources to expand in Italy, let alone overseas. So we give them exposure and offer a beautiful product at a price that is not super high. You can have a bottle of wine that’s €10-12 but that’s comparable with an expensive one. We want to promote the idea of a young Italy, an Italy that’s not just about stuffy and old-fashioned luxury and that’s not intimidating. It’s a formula for young people and is run by young people. You don’t need a sommelier who has a degree in oenology to work at Signorvino; it’s a more approachable atmosphere.”
Given his record, it would be surprising if Veronesi weren’t able to complete his mission of preserving his beloved Arena, where, he reveals, as a teenager he acted as an extra in operatic productions such Aida, Il Trovatore and Nabucco. It may take a little longer than it did to build an empire founded on colourful socks and now spanning cashmere sweaters and smallbatch wines, but then again this is part of the beauty of Italy, a country where things may be slow to change but also where a new generation of industry leaders such as Veronesi is giving a much-needed shake-up to the status quo.