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Made in translation: Stanford scholar explores Italian-Chinese collaborations in fashion

A Stanford anthropologist studies how the transnational business relations between Chinese and Italian clothing manufacturers are reshaping the people and culture of each country.

Sylvia Yanagisako A Chinese store selling  'Italian' clothing in Shanghai.

A Chinese store selling 'Italian' clothing in Shanghai. Today, Italian fashion is as likely to be made for China as it is made in China, says Stanford scholar Sylvia Yanagisako.

From manufacturing to market share, the entire Italian apparel production process has become intertwined with China in the last two decades.

Through a study of the collaborations between Italian and Chinese firms, Stanford anthropologist Sylvia Yanagisako has uncovered how these complex relationships are reshaping Italian and Chinese ideas and business practices.

"It's not just the material objects that are being refashioned, but it is the people engaged in the production of those objects that are themselves being changed by these collaborations," said Yanagisako.

Yanagisako's research, conducted in both Italy and China from 2004 to 2010, centers on the working relationships between Italian family firms, including those in the silk industry of the Como-Milan area, and Chinese entrepreneurs.

The transnational ties between China and Italy solidified in the 1980s when Italian manufacturers began to outsource production to China to reduce labor costs. But, while Yanagisako has been studying the topic over the last eight years, China has also become "the most important market for Italian luxury brands."

With the insatiable appetite for luxury goods in China, many Italian firms "consider China as the market that will help them survive and expand," Yanagisako said.

These days, Italian fashion is as likely to be made for China as it is made in China.

"It is a very complicated situation at this point," she said.

According to Yanagisako, the most significant difference between the Italian and Chinese firms is that nearly 80 percent of Italian firms are family owned and managed, while in China the majority of firms are sponsored by government entities.

While she was on-site at overseas offices and factories, Yanagisako talked to owners, managers and workers about a wide range of topics, including "business and work histories, organization of the production process and career plans."

The research, Yanagisako said, will enable her to trace the interactive processes through which Chinese and Italian entrepreneurs and managers produce what comes to be viewed as "Italian" and "Chinese" capitalism.

An intercontinental and multilingual research project

Yanagisako has been researching family firms in the silk industry of northern Italy since the 1980s. She became intrigued by Chinese-Italian business relationships after learning that the Italians had relied on the Chinese for raw silk since World War II, when Italian silkworm production died out.

Lisa Rofel, one of Yanagisako's graduate students at the time, was doing research at a Chinese silk factory and was also interested in the transnational production process, so the two scholars joined forces.

Together, they were able to gain access to offices and factories in both Italy and China. "The firms that I had studied in Italy allowed us to visit their factories in China and introduced us to their Chinese subcontractors and partners," Yanagisako said.

Rofel, now an anthropology professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, used her Chinese connections to find Chinese managers and factory workers who were working for Italian firms.

In addition to observing manufacturing processes and employee interactions, they spent time talking to people at restaurants, bars and other informal gatherings. They also took in fashion shows and trade shows. 

Rofel's fluency in Mandarin helped her get surprisingly candid interviews with Chinese managers and factory workers. Yanagisako, who has studied in Italy for two decades, conducted the interviews with Italian managers, but found her unfamiliarity with Chinese to be both disconcerting and informative. 

"My daily life was much like that of the Italian entrepreneurs and managers I was studying, the vast majority of whom did not speak any Chinese and knew little about China" before they began work in the trades. "This increased the bond and empathy between them and me," Yanagisako said.

Interestingly, Yanagisako, a third-generation Japanese American, said, "It was the Chinese who found it surprising that I could not speak Mandarin or Cantonese." The Chinese often assumed that she was of Chinese descent and directed their questions to her, even after Rofel told them that Yanagisako did not speak the language.

Hitting the 'kinship glass ceiling'

During the course of their fieldwork, Yanagisako and Rofel found that the organizational structure of Italian family firms is often patriarchal. When the children of the heads of these family firms are young, the firms will often hire outside managers to help run the business. As more family members enter the business, the non-family managers are often let go or leave when they realize they have hit the "kinship glass ceiling," Yanagisako found.

In contrast, Chinese firms are often owned by combinations of public and private entities, which can present complicated bureaucratic issues for the Italian firms. As a result, Italians prefer to partner with family firms. "They feel like they understand family firms, even if they are Chinese," Yanagisako added.

The majority of the young Chinese managers and entrepreneurs who work for and with Italian firms have made a conscious choice to work in textile and clothing firms because they want to avoid the restraints of working in the state sector.

"What you have is a cohort of freshly minted college graduates who have entered into business especially keen on learning about retailing, branding, advertising and how to design fashion that appeals to Western taste," Yanagisako said.

However, Yanagisako said, what these young Chinese entrepreneurs are learning firsthand is that "Italian capitalism is itself shaped by bonds of family and kinship."

Yanagisako told the story of "Emily," a Chinese woman who worked for several years for an Italian entrepreneur who arranges garment production in China for well-known designer brands. She expected to take over his clients when he retired, but instead he brought his son in from Italy to take over the firm.

What Emily has learned is this "painful lesson that she didn't expect – that she too hit the kinship glass ceiling," Yanagisako said.

Clashing fashion cultures

Chinese and Italians manufacturers are also grappling with another sensitive topic – fashion sense.

While Italian managers are positive about the technical skills of the Chinese factory workers, they complain that Chinese managers and entrepreneurs lack an intuitive fashion sense, Yanagisako said.

"Given the underdeveloped state of Chinese fashion, Italian managers feel that they're crucial to guaranteeing the quality control, the brand management and the effective marketing of their products," Yanagisako said. "And above all, [Italian] managers feel like they have to be really vigilant to maintain the quality and prestige of the brand."

According to Yanagisako, many managers feel that "Chinese can't be trusted to preserve the brand italianita; in other words, its Italian-ness."

Italian managers believe that italianita is not something that can be taught or learned formally in school or business training. In fact, they talked about "how they acquired a kind of intuitive feeling for design and fashion, and more broadly for a kind of aesthetic, just by growing up in Italy."

Yanagisako and Rofel are currently collaborating on a book titled Made in Translation: Italian-Chinese Collaborations in Global Fashion, in which they explore how the Italian and Chinese participants in these transnational business relations are reshaped by their experiences working together.

Yanagisako, who devoted her year as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center to writing up the results of her research, gave a presentation on the topic during the 2012 Alumni Homecoming Weekend. A video of her talk is available on the Stanford YouTube Channel.

Michael Marconi, the communications coordinator for the Stanford Humanities Center, contributed to this story.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu