Napoli, resplendent in its wonderful bay under the brooding Vesuvius, is both Italy’s spirit and bogeyman. Ask any Italian to describe Naples and invariably there will be a wry, cautionary response – something along the lines of “It’s beautiful but watch out!”. Images of urban mismanagement (think burning rubbish heaps), intransigent government authorities and the menacing presence of organised crime appear to have been some of Naples’ main exports over the past few decades. Yet the city is – and always was – one of Italy’s industrial capitals. Carpentry, tailoring but also high-spec manufacturing are Neapolitan specialities that are too often overshadowed by the city’s culinary delights.
Naples’ economy is inextricably linked to the figure of the craftsman, or artigiano. Mario Talarico, an 84-year-old umbrella maker, has been busy in his tiny workshop since he was 11. Started by his great-grandmother, now, together with his grandson (who is also called Mario), he makes and sells umbrellas out of this small space just off the Via Toledo in the commercial heart of the city. Working at a 200-year-old gnarled table the smiling octogenarian uses rare, primed and seasoned wooden sticks, which he gradually curves and attaches to a strong umbrella structure. His clients include the Vatican and the two Marios are planning their trip to present a white-and-gold umbrella to Pope Francis. Despite this celebrity, Mario is unshakeably humble. “I’m happy. I don’t care about profit or expanding this place,” he says.
Over the decades, Mario’s most extraordinary commission was an intricately embossed silver handle and stick, a gift destined for a famous Neapolitan actor. “It was difficult,” he laughs, recalling the €20,000 project. “I don’t believe people when they say ‘I can’t do that’,” interjects Mario (Junior). “What they mean to say is they don’t want to do that.”
Across town, at the more salubrious shore-side address of number 287 Riviera di Chiaia, Maurizio Marinella keeps another family tradition alive. Marinella has become renowned as Naples’ – if not Italy’s – premier supplier of neckties. Started by Marinella’s grandfather in 1914 the outfit’s beautiful silk ties are sewn together by hand in a bright and spacious workshop just down the road from the shop. With an annual turnover of €11m this small, elegant business has spawned retail shops in Milan, Lugano, London and Tokyo, although Marinella insists he has never had a plan. “You know, I don’t believe in strategies,” says Marinella, a tall and likeable man with an imposing presence. “I was recently invited to speak to students at Milan’s Bocconi Business School. I told them that we don’t do e-commerce, we ask our customers to call us if they can’t come in. And it helps if they are simpatico on the phone too.”
The craftsmen in this city go about their work in an indefinable Neapolitan manner – an idiosyncratic taste for quality fused with a deep respect for tradition. There is also a strong sartorial identity and Naples is home to some of the world’s most expensive suits. In a storeroom at the Kiton factory in the city’s suburban district of Arzano, Maria Giovanna Paone unrolls some very special fabric: a soft vicuña wool – the last in stock – and a yarn the vice-president says is becoming increasingly rare. A hand-tailored vicuña coat would cost something in the region of €40,000. “We are devoted to the research of lightness,” she says as she lovingly strokes the soft weave. “When it’s this fine, wool is like a second skin.” Despite the luxury and exclusivity of the brand, started by her father Ciro Paone in 1956, Maria Giovanna is candid and easy-going, the quintessential Neapolitan. On the factory floor around 300 tailors cut, stitch, mend and alter to the spluttering stop-start of sewing machines.
Even for the likes of Kiton, doing business in the city has its challenges. Casually, Paone asks one female machinist: “Remind me, what do you get paid?” “I take home €1,400 a month,” the worker replies with a shrug. That net salary constitutes a fraction of what Kiton must pay in tax contributions per employee (€2,800 gross in this case). Despite these heavy taxes, Kiton remains committed to its city; it has even set up a tailoring academy where youngsters learn all the trade secrets from some of the masters. “Naples has the best tailors in Italy,” says a resolute Paone. “Neapolitans are all artisans, it’s in our blood.”
Life for many independent craftsmen in Naples is tough. “I won’t lie,” says Enrico Inferrera, cigarette in hand, at his office on the central Via Medina. “Things are very difficult.” Inferrera is president of the Naples branch of Confartigianato – a state-backed membership body that represents some 4,000 craftsmen in the city. In 2012, Inferrera and his team launched the “anti-crisis” help-centre where craftsmen can seek advice and apply for micro-credit guaranteed by the Chamber of Commerce. To date Confartigianato has made €15m worth of loans possible. “Some of the people we represent are real artists – masters even,” explains Inferrera. “But there are no lines of credit or support – the banks are useless.”
Bureaucracy, over-taxation (with little visible investment in services) and pollution are among the many problems that blight the Neapolitan economy. But the craftsmen and entrepreneurs who work here say they would not relocate. “The carpentry skills you find here are unique,” says Ugo Pellegrino, who runs the Arcadia boatyard just between the ruins of Pompeii and Sorrento on the Amalfi coast. “Even if they are working with fibreglass as well as wood, there is an absolute attention to detail.”
With its port and great maritime history Naples is very rich in boat-making skills. Pellegrino’s yard is an enormous outfit. Here 100 artigiani work on a 35-metre-long superyacht that will feature Arcadia’s signature photovoltaic roof. The client is a Polish businessman who paid some €11.8m for the project. Arcadia is in fact flush with enough orders to keep the yard busy for the next two years at least. “Maybe it wasn’t so crazy to open a boatyard, in Naples, during a recession,” laughs Ugo.
Naples has a host of specialist manufacturers in some very varied fields. Gay-Odin has been making chocolate since 1894. Sveva Maglietta runs the factory and its 10 branches (eight in Naples, one in Milan and Rome) with her brothers Davide and Dimitri, and mother Marisa. “We only use the finest ingredients,” Sveva says as she strolls around the suitably aromatic factory floor.
Gay-Odin has preserved its old-world charm with techniques that have remained unchanged and has a non-existent marketing strategy. “We opened the Milan and Rome branches mainly to serve the Neapolitans stuck there,” Sveva says. As well as small workshops focused on luxury goods, large-scale manufacturing is still vital to Naples, representing 18 per cent of the economy. One important regional player is Kimbo, Italy’s second biggest coffee company. “Being Neapolitan defines our brand,” says managing director Simone Cavallo, who goes on to divulge the latest marketing line of the business: “It’s not just from Italy; it’s from Naples.”
Cavallo admits that he could easily move production to Tunisia or Romania to cut costs but says the company’s Naples base shows a positive commitment to Italy and appeals to emerging markets too – Napoli, with its vibrant connotations, is a brand synonymous with coffee. What’s more, Kimbo’s profits are growing both home and abroad (the company’s sales rose 7.6 per cent in 2013). Little wonder then, that Cavallo seems so upbeat.
Would he envisage moving from Naples? Definitely not: “This site actually has limitations; it’s not an industrial area so logistics are a challenge,” he admits. “But it’s worth it so we can still be made in Naples. After all, there’s something Neapolitan about caffè.” Many businessmen talk emotionally about this city. But Kimbo’s continued success, largely based on Brand Naples, shows the tenacity of the city’s manufacturing sector and the deep connection that Naples seems to invoke in customers. An illogical, impractical business capital it may be but Naples is relentlessly crafting its way out of trouble.