As Etro turns 50, Jacopo Etro reflects on his family legacy, the world without paisley, and the power of touch
Five decades of paisley
Italian fashion house Etro celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and while the face of luxury has changed a great deal during that time, Etro's core values of family and exploration remain reassuringly consistent. While in town to celebrate the brand's revamped Paragon boutique, as well as the launch of the Etro 50 anniversary capsule collection, Jacopo Etro — creative director of accessories, leather goods, home furnishings and textiles — chatted with us about his childhood passions, ancient crafts and how to (successfully) work with one's family and loved ones.
You've professed a love for archaeology, which, like your work researching textiles from around the world, is all about surprise and discovery. If you had been an archaeologist instead of a designer, what notable artefacts or sites would you have liked to discover?
I enjoyed studying history and archaeology at school, before my father roped me into the family and put an end any dreams of pursuing that as a career (laughs). But to me, textiles are part of the archaeological record, because the art of weaving goes back millennia. So I see my work as archaeology-adjacent. [Laughs] I've always been attracted to Egyptian and Cambodian design. Angkor Wat is such a beautiful example of ancient Asian architecture. Indonesia, too, is home to many beautiful sites. There is still so much to uncover in Central America, especially in places like Honduras and Guatemala.
Which culture or nation do you think hasn't received enough attention for its textiles?
African design has always been underappreciated, with the possible exception of Moroccan art. Central Africa, for example, produces beautiful textiles and patterns that just aren't as popular with westerners as those from Asia. That's also true of South America to an extent.
In a parallel universe where paisley wasn't the Etro signature, what would take its place instead?
Tapestry designs have developed such a rich history through the ages. They reflected whatever went on in their era. If paisley didn't exist, those tapestry motifs would have been a good foundation for the Etro vocabulary. Or maybe I'd choose batik, or some form of wax-resist dying. Both of these arts are so ancient and have appeared in so many civilisations. It's amazing to see the parallels between what each of them produced within those mediums, despite not having direct contact with each other.
What is it like working alongside your siblings? Do you have any tips or interesting insights for those who work closely with their loved ones?
Diplomacy is key. [Laughs] If you want to be heard, be very careful with your words. When people's feelings are hurt, their ability to listen vanishes, so one needs to be sensitive. How you say something often becomes as important as what you're saying. I've learned from my mistakes. [Laughs]
Yes, I've read interviews in which you've praised your siblings (Veronica and Kean, creative directors for womenswear and menswear respectively) for their creativity, then criticised their sales figures in the same breath!
Yes, that didn't go over well. [Laughs] But it's normal for families to fight; what's important is knowing when to stop.
What do you think is the future of the independent, family-run company, which as a business model dominated Italian fashion in the 20th century?
First of all, Italy, unlike the USA or the UK, is a country where family ties are still incredibly important. Traditionally, you brought their family members on board in the early stages of building a business. I mean, take Versace as an example: yes, it's been sold to Michael Kors now, but Donatella and Santo were a huge part of the brand's success in the early days.
The problem for family businesses going forward is that cracking the big leagues, which most companies want to do, is hard to pull off independently. When you're part of a conglomerate of eight or ten companies, it's easier to negotiate for prime real estate in malls or magazine pages. Etro is a medium-sized business, and very content to be so. But those who want to reach that top tier of fashion on their own really have to fight for it.
On the other hand, there many houses that want to stay small and lean, who say "we don't want to grow too much, or we don't want to hire more people". But I think nowadays, it's difficult to survive when your ambitions are smaller.
Italian fashion has been criticised in recent years for its lack of innovation and fresh blood. As a board member of the Italian Fashion Council, what are you most heartened by in the local industry?
Luxury manufacturing mostly takes place in Italy. If you want to make a fine pair of shoes, you do it in Italy. If you want to make a quality handbag, you do it in Italy. Even big French brands like Chanel produce in Italy. Our know-how is untouchable. A lot of brands like Gucci — which now belongs to a French conglomerate — may not be wholly Italian anymore, but they retain their Italian flavour and savoir-faire. I don't think our fashion has lost any of its power or appeal. I do think, however, that fashion in general has lost its appeal.
Why do you think that is? And what do you see as the solution to that?
Two reasons: fast fashion, and the dressing down of society. To make fashion "hot" again, brands are focusing on certain activities, like image-building. It's something the French houses are very good at, but sometimes I think that produces results that are more style than substance. "Tutto fumo e niente arrosto" ("all smoke and no roast"), as we say in Italian.
As a person of culture and a businessman, what does Italy's seeming shift towards Eurosceptic and protectionist politics mean to you?
It's not just Italy. Protectionism is rising everywhere now, unfortunately. I don't think that it's going to take us anywhere better. In Italy, we don't have very high taxes or restrictive quotas on imported goods, which is good for business, because the modern consumer can choose to shop online, and has access to products from all over the world. The internet has changed everything, which is why retailers and brands must work hard to offer clients an in-store experience that online shopping can't replicate.
Speaking of the in-store experience, what do you think about or hope to achieve with this revamped boutique?
You can touch and feel everything here, which I think is something we're losing in the current time, whether it comes to clothes or people. In the 30s and 40s people slow-danced closely to each other. In the 60s dances were more physically disconnected, but you still sustained eye contact with your partner. Now, apparently, people are just one-man islands on the dance floor. What's missing in the modern world is touch; it's one of society's biggest losses, and not much good will come of it, I think.