Four years ago we interviewed Antonella Arpaia, the co-founder of Manto, a small luxury outerwear brand based in Mantua, Italy, whose biggest market was the U.S. FashionUnited caught up with her again this month while she was here for sales meetings to learn how a purveyor of coats and weatherproofed jackets at an elevated price point has fared during a pandemic which forced everyone indoors.
“Who needed a cashmere car coat?” jokes Arpaia. Yet her accounts have only increased during the pandemic, and while summer 2020 was slow, Manto outperformed itself for winter. Arpaia and her team chose a time of immense global change to implement critical changes internally. Large luxury companies can make multi-pronged investments, in extra sampling, ad campaigns, high-profile designer collabs, but, says Arpaia “As a small company, we need to make choices.”
They swapped out their US distributor for an agent and elected to engage a Milan showroom right in the heart of the pandemic. “That was a big step, everyone was telling us we were crazy, no one was traveling, no one was coming to Milan.” But the importance of a space which truly reflected brand identity where the range could be presented in its entirety demonstrated a belief in long-term strategizing at a time when other brands were huddling down, leading with caution. “It was a valuable commitment,” says Arpaia.
Small business takes strategic risks during pandemic to grow business
“We have always been product-oriented more than collection focused,” she says, but for summer they brought in external designers to create mini capsules within the range. They focused on innovation and expanding their aesthetic at a time when other brands were repurposing old styles and taking few risks. “No-one was doing anything new. But we thought, this is not a time to relax,” says Arpaia. “Everyone was taking a step backwards, we wanted to be moving forward.”
For summer, prints with motifs of leaves, ivy, camouflage adorned packable unlined hoodies, which, despite being niche, were intended to make buyers stop and look. And for winter, they introduced a range of garment dyed cashmere which has proved globally successful.
Since our last conversation, Manto suffered a blow experienced by many luxury brands, the February 2020 closure of Barneys. It was a prestigious and regular account for Manto which Arpaia describes as being based on mutual respect. “The loss of Barneys was a disaster, personally and also business-wise, it was very hard,” she says. “Barneys was a really special store, a reference point.” The sense of ease she experienced with the retailer, its superior staff, and the accessibility of how it presented luxury are irreplaceable.
A significant private label business in the UK and Europe maintains Manto’s coffers while their eponymous brand appeals to the US market. Manto retailers in resort locations like Aspen, Charlotte, or the Hamptons are experiencing one of their strongest seasons for sales while tourist-heavy cities like NYC, LA or Chicago have not yet rebounded from the pandemic.
Made in Italy expertise proves important to US luxury market
This is Arpaia’s second US trip this year despite pandemic restrictions which have forbidden bigger businesses with huge legal teams from sending personnel here. Arpaia was awarded NIE authorization, much to the consternation of peers who have been contacting her to ask how she did it. “I didn’t use lawyers, or intermediaries. I was just very honest in my communications with the American embassy,” she explains. “You are applying for a National Interest Exception which means that you must tell them why it is important for American business to have me there, not why it is important for my business.” Arpaia’s visits are about bringing Italian expertise and knowledge to the sales staff. She describes it in teaching terminology, uses the word “seminar” which she believes helps those who sell the clothes to convey the special properties of each item to the customer.
“Manto is not Gucci, so when someone buys a coat of ours at 1000 dollars, the customer is not buying a brand, they are interested in the intrinsic value of the garment.” While Arpaia is here, another co-founder is in Germany and Holland performing the same duties while the third is managing operations at home. A personal connection, the ability to touch and experience the fabrics and yarns, an understanding of the work of the craftspeople behind each creation are at the heart of Manto’s philosophy. Arpaia believe you can’t do all this via zoom. Her business doesn’t rely on huge department stores, but instead on small boutiques and independent retailers which reciprocally rely on her. Her visa approval rested on her ability to explain this two way relationship and after her February trip she received emails from those she had met thanking her for making the trip, describing her presence as “priceless.”
Arpaia is leaving next for Dallas, where she will visit a trade show and stores. Her combination of passion, energy and commitment to the brand she has birthed with her co-founders are evident in her two parting comments. “We love what we do. We love the Made in Italy,” she says. “But it’s something I really need to nourish and to grow, I cannot leave it by itself.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry