"Riopele has remained the only full-cycle industry in Europe"

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There are many definitions for Giovanni Bonnoto. The plain one tells us he is a 4th generation entrepreneur in a company that, in 1912, manufactured straw hats and is today a reference in the Italian textile industry. Those closest to him introduce him as purely creative, capable of combining art and design in an industrial environment. At a time of profound changes in International fashion, Giovanni Bonotto is an ambassador for a new way of thinking and producing, which, inspired by the existing know-how, takes us back to the origins of textile production; something he named “slow factory”.

Giovanni Bonotto has gained vast professional experience in the textile industry and fashion sectors. What have been the major changes you’ve encountered in these sectors of activity?

In the past ten years, the fashion industry has undergone a profound transformation which resulted from the victory of communication, that is, the product, the garment, is not only made of fabric, but every more the result of communication. The product has been turned into communication. It is no longer made just of fabrics, accessories, and buttons, but of communication itself. This has made brand communication much more important. And then, textiles come almost in fourth or fifth because the value is attributed by the positioning of the brand. The biggest investment in fashion is now to build the brand…

Do you believe that companies like Riopele are losing some space in the market because brands are more relevant than the product?

The problem is that fashion today is communication. The last ten years have seen the rise of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and so on, where fashion has become digital communication.

Portugal and Italy have the know-how and the experience and have made many investments very recently. So, in your opinion, what role will play these countries in the fashion industry globally?

Difficult question because the world’s economic policy is now going through a quick-change progression. I would have answered this question differently had you made it one year or two years ago, before the war. Now that China is increasingly closing, all the European manufacturing industries are being obliged to leave China and return to Europe. This is called reshoring. The reshoring, which is the return of industrial production to Europe, has shown that the whole European textile industry chain has been destroyed – all the materials are Chinese, raw materials are no longer made in Europe, are only made in China. The yarn is no longer made in Europe, it is made in China. There are no more commodities in Europe, all of them are produced in China. When production returned to Europe, no one had raw materials, and that is why its price increased so. Riopele has remained the only full-cycle industry in Europe; the only cotton-root industry because there is the cotton industry, the textile industry, the wool industry and then there is the synthetic fibre industry, which concerns polyester filaments. In Europe, Riopele is the only factory left with a traditional setup.

So, there is no competition?

There is no competition. Riopele has no competition because here enters the fibre, the polyester staple, the viscose staple, which is processed in fibre preparation, spinning, yarn dyeing, and finishings – there is none of this in Italy, for example. Riopele has no rivals in Italy. This is an important asset; it is a strategic asset because Riopele is the owner, and it has in its hands an industrial process that in Italy nobody has. This happened in Italy because China started making all the basic fabrics, at a price 90% more competitive. So, everything in the textile industry in the 90s, 2000, 2010, was ruined. On the contrary, today, Riopele has a new life ahead because it remains the only full-cycle industry in all of Europe, a cotton-root industry.

In terms of price, share of the market, dimension, China is hugely important in our industry. But, regarding creativity and development of new products, do you believe that countries like Italy and Portugal can be relevant in the future?

In Italy, the textile industry is very important because many people are working in this industry, mainly small companies: many people work across many small companies. All this large number of small industries have so many heads thinking, so many, unlike Riopele, which employs numerous people, but few devoted to thinking. In Italy, many heads think but also many that work. This industrial system, with so many heads daily thinking, has promoted in Italy a great search for new products because the only advantage of the Italian industry is the creation of new products. It used to be twice a year, but today it is one collection a month, so, there is always this continuous search for new spaces to innovate. This is the small reality of Italy. Small production, lots of research. The reason why Bonnotto and Riopele work together is that Bonnotto brings all this know-how of continuous research, which is not a problem of intelligence, it is not that Italians are smarter than Portuguese, but a question of DNA.

Nowadays, everybody speaks about sustainability. In your perspective, can sustainability restrict creativity?

Sustainability is the business of today, and it will remain so in the future. True creativity is born from little resources. With little resources, creativity...boom! Creativity explodes with little resources, so, sustainability is never going to be an issue. Creativity always finds new ways. A topic I always talk about with José Alexandre Oliveira is that Riopele is a leader in the world of poly viscose. Polyester’s problem is related to the accumulation of microplastics in the sea. We have already done a beautiful job in using recycled/standard polyester, all recycled materials. Our short-term goal is for polyester to become biodegradable in five years.

What trends do you believe we’ll be seeing in the upcoming years? Are biodegradable products one of them, or do you believe new ones will be coming up in the market?

Sustainability is not a trend. Sustainability is a never-ending everyday process; it is not a fashion. The internet, social networks, metaverse, and digital communication have wrecked the idea of a single aesthetic, constructing, instead, several different ones. Therefore, it is no longer possible to talk about trends. There is no sense in continuing speaking of trends because one trend is me dressed in a monochrome outfit, but it is also him, wearing a beautiful, elegant, nostalgic 80s look. We are different. We are both contemporaries. So, communication, which has recently turned into a communication overdose, has cancelled the concept 'trend'.

It is a very interesting viewpoint. One more question. You have known Riopele for over twenty decades. How has the company evolved since the beginning, when you started working, with Riopele until today?

When I arrived in Riopele twenty years ago, the management was very ‘king-like’. Let’s say Riopele felt as if it dominated the market, “we are strong”, and believed that the market, the clients, were the ones needing Riopele, so it really did not matter if the client wanted faster delivery time or other kinds of fabric quality. When José Alexandre became President, there was a noticeable change because Riopele started to listen to the market, to meet it halfway. For example, the deliveries, which were the sore point attributed to Riopele, as it used to produce only big quantities, from only certain metres on… Today, Riopele can produce small quantities and deliver them quickly, so, it has evolved to produce either small or big quantities and deliver them quickly. Better than in Italy.

That is a bold statement…

Unlike what happens in Italy, Riopele still has a vertical structure, therefore, it makes a continuous quality assurance. In Italy, I am the owner and responsible for the commercial side of the business, the design, so I buy the yarn and the weaving from you, but the finishings from another. And then you say: “the yarn”? Now, I don’t have it, but when it arrives, I am handling another order. That’s how it is. So, the delivery time has changed, there is no longer quickness, not even the continuous assurance of quality. Instead, José Alexandre succeeded in making this crucial change of era, he understands well the fashion business, what it wants. Thus, I have witnessed the transition from an “industrial monster” into a sensible animal, which recognizes and survives. Just as José Alexandre did making that generational shift that Darwin always explained: it is never the strongest animal that wins, but the animal that is most sensitive to change. And Riopele has done it.