Britain's love affair with Italy has been a long seduction. Impressed by its climate and food and the beauty of its countryside, architecture and people, British travellers have for centuries sought to emulate the Italian way of living. La bella figura – the Italian preoccupation with appearance – has left its indelible stamp the world over. Where would we be without Italian style? No Armani or Prada; no Ferrari or Ducati. La dolce vita works for Italians and it sells abroad.
In Britain, Italian style is once again in the ascendant. After 40 years of America and France leading the world style stakes, Italy is back. Although it has been a long time in the making, Brand Italia has finally hit the British mainstream. The sweet life and everything that goes with it can now be consumed in cities, towns and suburbs across Britain – and we can't get enough of it.
According to the Office for National Statistics, £12 billion worth of Italian goods were exported to the UK last year compared with £10 billion in 2001. UK exports to Italy were worth just £8.3 billion in 2004. A 2004 survey by the Italian Chamber of Commerce & Industry for the UK reported that in the two years to the end of 2002, the turnover of direct Italian investments in the UK rose by 66% to £12 billion. The UK has more than 600 Italian subsidiaries or partnerships, employing nearly 52,000 people. The biggest Italian organisations here, incidentally, aren't big fashion designers but defence companies – testament to Italy's impressive engineering heritage.
'Despite its relatively high labour costs, the UK has many advantages for investment, including its efficiency, location and stability,' says Leonardo Simonelli, president of the Chamber. According to its survey, 'the UK seems to represent the new frontier of Italian investments, which in the past have invested almost exclusively in continental Europe'.
So who are these brave Italian frontiersmen anxious to maintain a stake in the British market? Piaggio, maker of the Vespa, is one. Its iconic scooters have been imported into the UK since the 1950s, gaining fame during the 1960s when the Mods made scooters, along with fur-trimmed Parkas, cool. Piaggio's British subsidiary opened in 1992, and in its first year sold just 600 scooters.
Ten years later, and with the help of Jamie Oliver and Liam Gallagher, a niche product had become mainstream. In 2002, Piaggio sold 30,000 vehicles, and it now commands 33% of the market. Explains Massimo Mirosi, the company's European vice-president: 'The UK market is very important to Piaggio SpA. Although traditionally a non-two-wheel culture in comparison with other European countries, the link between lifestyle and scooters has been most successfully established in the UK, and sets an example for other markets.'
He attributes Piaggio's success to a changing city lifestyle – commuters choosing to ride to work to avoid congested traffic or crowded public transport. But the company's Italian history is all-important too. 'The British are in love with the Italian lifestyle – the passion, café culture, the style – and the UK market very much associates scooters with this.'
What is it about Italy that has made its products so popular? Italian journalist Luigi Barzini wrote in his 1964 classic The Italians: 'In the heart of every man, wherever he is born, whatever his education and tastes, there is one small corner which is Italian.'
Stephen Bayley, design commentator and Italophile, feels the pull of Italy on his heartstrings. 'Barzini is absolutely right,' he says. 'I adore Italy and have spent large amounts of emotional effort trying to look like a Milanese architect. I enjoy the language and always think Alfa Romeo sounds more like an imprecation to make love than the name of a car.'
High fashion remains Italy's most famous export and one of the country's most important industries – Armani, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Prada dominate the market. But the idea of la bella figura is so intrinsic to Italian life and design that even Iveco trucks (owned by Fiat) have their cabs designed by Italian styling house Giugiaro. After all, the beauty of a Maserati or Alfa Romeo comes not only from their high-tech engineering but also from an identifiably Italian tradition of styling.
La bella figura informs the Italian diet too. Says Priscilla Carluccio, co-founder of food shop and restaurant chain Carluccio's and sister of Francophile Terence Conran: 'Italians are awfully aware of how they look, and the bella figura is extremely important.' Simple and 'authentic' Italian food has usurped French haute cuisine to become the fashionable British food du jour. 'Italian food has become more and more popular over the past 10 years – it is very simple to prepare and it is healthy,' she adds.
Coffee-machine maker Gaggia of Robecco, northern Italy, has capitalised on the British appetite for things Italian. The company has been exporting to the UK for 50 years – Bar Italia in London's Soho still uses a 1950s Gaggia machine – and opened its office here in 2001. Gaggia's strategy was to educate the British in how to make good coffee, holding demonstrations in department stores across the country. Now Britain is Gaggia's biggest market outside Italy. Retail sales of domestic machines have risen from £300,000 in 1992 to an estimated £10 million today. 'Younger people are buying our machines for design and the quality of the coffee,' explains UK MD Raj Beadle. 'The Italian lifestyle is something that people aspire to, and coffee means Italian.'
Italian style and diet represent only two aspects of a broader admiration for the Italian way of living. 'Our forte is lifestyle,' says Nerio Alessandri, founder of Europe's leading gym equipment manufacturer Technogym and winner of Italy's 2004 Leonardo da Vinci award for promoting the Italian image abroad. 'The combination of culture and social and family life creates a balance unmatched. Italians live with a flair for feel-good things. All I have to say is "climate, food, clothing, style, culture, architecture, history, art", and non-Italians will nod knowingly. These are the ingredients of a unique lifestyle, which is the soul of what Italians produce, from Vespas to fashion.'
It's a lifestyle that easily seduces those living in harassed, time-pressured British cities. The Italian way of life, sunny and relaxed and with an emphasis on doing things slowly, appears like a paradisiacal dream. It is this aspirational link that makes the 'Made in Italy' label so seductive, whether it's attached to a Maserati Quattroporte, an Armani tie or a bottle of San Pellegrino. It's a strong statement of values.
'Very few countries can package themselves to sell something as small as an espresso or as expensive as a Ferrari,' says Chris Taylor, SAB Miller's international brands director for Peroni Nastro Azzurro beer. 'Great design, attention to detail, taste or functionality is what Italian brands are about.'
Italy surpasses itself when it comes to premium goods, and its association with luxury is one promoted by many Italian companies. What better exemplars for these qualities than Italian furniture and interior design? B&B Italia, the upmarket furniture store in central London, is a showcase for the cool Italian look. Even the Italian government is in on it. During his state visit to London in March, Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi extolled the 'prestige, reliability and quality' of the Made in Italy label.
But the association of Italian products with a premium market is a recent development, says Richard Gadeselli, a former Fiat UK chief executive and now head of Fiat Auto Worldwide's PR, who divides his time equally between Italy and the UK. 'The image of Made in Italy has changed in the last decade. It has gone more upmarket. The stereotypical image of an impeccably dressed Italian wearing shades, sitting on a Vespa outside a trattoria persists, but even the humble pizza is now seen as a culinary dish.' The stereotype works and the label sticks. Indeed, it has become a licence to print money.
Natuzzi, Italy's largest furniture manufacturer, has certainly seized its opportunity. Set up in 1959 by entrepreneur Pasquale Natuzzi, it is the only Italian firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and in November last year it opened a string of shops across Britain, following its purchase of Kingdom of Leather in May 2003. But whereas B&B Italia, Kartell and Poltrona Frau cater for the design elite, Natuzzi wants to bring stylish Italian leather furniture to the masses.
With a group revenue of €7.5 billion (£5.1 billion), the group garners 90% of its revenues from export markets, mostly from the US. Daniele Tranchini, the company's worldwide sales and marketing director, says the group's recent heavy investment in the UK is part of a global strategy to push the brand. 'What we're trying to do is to take advantage of a market void and occupy it with a design-led, made-in-Italy, high-quality product,' he explains.
In contrast to the giant Natuzzi, but in a league of its own nonetheless, is family-owned design business Alessi. Founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi, the homeware designer is a household name in Italy, famed for its stainless steel coffee and tea services. In Britain, it is better known for its witty plastic bottle openers and Philippe Starck lemon-squeezer. The company's London office opened in 2000 and is run by Matteo Alessi Anghini, aged just 26.
The British subsidiary accounts for 13% of the group's turnover, but Anghini, who moved to London in January, wants to make the UK the company's biggest European market outside Italy. A business school graduate, Anghini is keen to move the perception of Alessi's brand away from the kitsch plastic designs that it is known for in Britain 'to make it a bit more like it is in Italy: a premium brand, high-quality, leading-edge in terms of design. I think there is a lot of potential here, where all the Italian brands are very well appreciated.'
Alessi trades on its name first and its nationality second. 'Being Italian is more a warranty of the way we work,' he feels. Alessi's values are built on the twin tenets of inspired design and meticulous manufacture. Its factory is based on Lake Orta, northern Italy, a region known for its stainless steel manufacture – the knowledge of metal production techniques among Alessi employees is, according to Anghini, unparalleled. The company was forced to halt production of its bombé coffee pot for a year when the only worker who knew how to attach the spout to the body retired.
But not all Italian brands are immune to trouble. Fiat, for one, has battled to slough off a reputation for unreliable products. Not for nothing were Fiat cars dubbed Fix It Again Tonys in the 1970s. Protests Gadeselli: 'I acknowledge that we have had certain images, but that was 30 years ago. A Punto or a new Panda is a better reflection of the current Fiat. The new Punto has for many years been Europe's biggest-selling car.' But Fiat continues to battle with financial woes. General Motors recently agreed to pay $2 billion not to have to buy the company. In May, UK sales were down 52% year-on-year.
Alessi's Anghini agrees that there is still a problem with the image of automotive and electrical goods. 'I feel that there is still this perception of Italian brands that they look good but they don't work. And sometimes they still perceive this of our products.' Technogym doesn't have an obviously Italian name and, according to founder Alessandri, doesn't have any problems with the perception of its reliability. The company turned over £29 million for the financial year 2004-05, up from £25.5 million the previous year. It estimates turnover for its current trading year at close to £35 million. 'The UK is key to Technogym,' affirms Alessandri. 'It is the country we do the most business with right now. The UK has always been a market that we work well with and that understands the quality of our product alongside our concept.'
But is everything about Italy all it's cracked up to be? A leading business voice in Italy, Alessandri willingly acknowledges the problems of the Italian way of life. 'What is missing in Italy is a civic sense – a deeper national pride and sense of societal unity. Society needs to be felt as a responsibility for Italians, who generally lack national pride. To do this, we need a generation change. The armchair leaders and businessmen need to move aside and give room to the new generation.'
For many, Italy can be a frustrating place in which to work, with an overactive bureaucracy and a culture of relying on personal contacts to get ahead. Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte has spent much time in his family's home country. 'Italy has big structural problems, one of which is a huge bureaucracy, which slows everything down,' he says. 'A lot of small and medium-sized businesses are family-owned and run, and they manage to bend the rules.'
Observes Natuzzi's Tranchini: 'It's no coincidence that Machiavelli was Italian.' And the Italian recession will only make life harder. 'If there is no consumption, then there is no joy. It is going to be difficult.'
Italy has been dubbed 'the sick man of Europe', though prime minister Silvio Berlusconi denies that his country is in any kind of economic trouble. He is deaf to urgent pleas from Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, head of Confindustria, Italy's CBI, for reform.
Italy has also had its fair share of corporate scandals, most recently with the very public demise of Parmalat. Then, there is the continuing threat of the Mafia, organised crime and corruption to contend with. There is no doubt about it – Italy faces fundamental economic problems, and its future looks uncertain.
'Italy does not do well in any of the businesses significant for the future,' says Bayley. 'Old industries are in decline. While Italians have a sense of style that appeals to English taste, I think the case for Italian "creativity" is often overstated. It is a deeply conservative country. Lapo Elkann, Fiat's brand boss, told me that if he goes to the office without a tie, it is regarded as a scandal. And he owns the company.'
Design Icons of Italy
We all need a bit of humour in our lives. Funny little plastic men that dispense salt from their caps and lemon-squeezers that look like giant spiders make the breakfast ritual so much more pleasant. The family-owned company – now based in the Lake Orta region – started out as a maker of pewter wares. By the 1950s, it was producing a range of products such as kettles, coffee pots, cooking utensils and cutlery by some of the world's most famous designers, including Achille Castiglione and Jasper Morrison. Philippe Starck's Juicy Salef, designed in 1989, is perhaps Alessi's most iconic product and can be found in New York's Museum of Modern Art. The company has now expanded into watches, bathrooms and even telephones.
B&B is the most luxurious of Italian design companies, favoured by the likes of Sting and Nicole Kidman. When Piero Busnelli, founder of B&B Italia, came to London in the 1960s, he stumbled on the 'Noddy' figure. Its squeezable foam-filled form gave him the idea of creating a sofa cushion that would retain its shape. Of all the sofas, tables, chairs and beds that the company produces, the Charles sofa, designed by B&B star architect Antonio Citterio in 1997, is the most blatantly copied. Its aluminium frame looked so delicate when originally launched that visitors refused to sit on it. The company now works with many of the biggest names in the business, including Gaetano Pesce and Patricia Urquiola, and has a turnover of €132 million (£89.5 million).
Where would Italy be without espressos and cappuccinos? (which no-one but tourists drink after 11am in Italy). Gaggia was founded in 1947 by Achille Gaggia, a Milanese bar owner, who found the coffee he was serving too bitter. After much experimentation with home-made pistons, he patented the idea of pressurised water. This involved making water roll over the coffee grounds to create the famous crema (foam). In 1977, Gaggia further transformed our lives with the launch of Baby Gaggia – a professional coffeemaker for the home.
How could La Dolce Vita (Fellini's seminal 1960 film) have been made without the Vespa? The symbol of Italian post-war recovery arose out of the ruins of a crushed automotive industry. Factory owner Enrico Piaggio had the bright idea of creating an affordable form of transportation and asked aeronautic engineer Corradino D'Ascanio – the man who designed the first helicopter – to make it. The motorised scooter was ready by the spring of 1946. More than 16 million units have been produced to date. The latest model due this summer is the Vespa GTS 250.