For many of us it’s a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. For Italy it was more not being able to spot the opportunity for the chairs at this year’s Milan furniture fair.
While retailers, designers, students, journalists, plagiarists and groupies darted around exhibitions in the city centre and dragged themselves through the fiera, Italy Inc was missing one of the biggest commercial and PR opportunities of the century. In late March I outlined the possibilities for a beautiful marriage between some of Italy’s more astute business magnates and Alitalia in my Saturday column in the International Herald Tribune. The main thrust of the article was summed up in paragraph six:
“While Alitalia has continued to stumble and lose passengers to more aggressive hub/carrier combos like Munich/Lufthansa, Italy’s luxury goods sector has continued to steam ahead with brands ranging from Loro Piana to Bottega Veneta rolling out shops around the world. Where Alitalia ticket offices used to fly the flag for Italy on the world’s most recognisable boulevards, the ‘tricolore’ has been picked up by the likes of Tod’s, Zegna and Poltrona Frau. Imagine if all corners of Italy’s premium businesses banded together to mount a rescue.” The good news is that it’s happening – up to a point. With some bidding consortiums boasting Italy’s most well known and respected business minds, there’s a real chance that Italy could close the circle and be the only country to offer everything from luxury vehicles to accessories to an airline.
Days later the world was stunned when Aeroflot announced it was joining the race for Alitalia and would team up with one of Italy’s biggest banks to mount a bid. Was this some kind of April fool’s joke? Could the Italian government take such a bid seriously? Russia may be a growing market for Italian luxury goods but Aeroflot is hardly the right brand to bring about any type of renaissance at Italy’s flag carrier.
With the world’s most important designers and lifestyle media on hand at the Salone, I thought, or perhaps hoped, that some gifted communications guru in Rome was going to pull off a massive pr coup and announce that a deal had been struck and a consortium consisting of a smart bank, a good airline (Lufthansa?) and the country’s biggest design brands were going to take over the carrier and give Italy a fleet of flying consulates. In PR dream sequence I saw special bleachers erected at Linate overnight, I saw a secret hangar somewhere in Piemonte where a subtly redesigned livery would be applied to a gleaming new Airbus a340-600, I saw the press being shuttled out to the airport for a tasting menu for the next-generation Alitalia and then I saw everyone climbing the stairs for a spectacular, roaring flypast from the new aircraft. In the stands, the great and the good of Italy’s design and commercial establishment were on the edge of their seats like giddy school children. When the aircraft passed low across the airfield Mr Armani was cheering, the Fendi sisters were crying and Mr Valentino was holding onto his hair. On board Mr Diego della Valle was leaning back in one of the first-class seats made from the same leather used for his loafers and in business Mr Aspesi was inspecting the new uniforms he’d supplied for the crew. Everyone was a winner – Italian business, Italian design and passengers, both domestic and international.
Sadly, none of this happened at the furniture fair and by the time I left, Aeroflot was still in the running and there were no murmurs from the design establishment that they’d been crafting new seats for economy class or developing bespoke furniture for new business class lounges. All should be decided some time during the month of June and Alitalia will eventually come under new management. Italy has a real and unique chance to re-ignite its image by leveraging both its glorious transport heritage and its expertise in marketing premium brands. It’s also its last chance.