With Most Weddings Still on Hold, Italian Designers Struggle

At 7 a.m. on April 30, Pietro Demita and Silvana Persano, the owners of Diamond Couture, which specializes in wedding gowns, were already busy in their atelier in Veglie, Italy.

The business partners had chosen nine gowns from their latest collection, hung them on a rack and dragged them in front of their warehouse. Scissors in hand, Mr. Demita and Ms. Persano, each wearing face masks, cut through corsages of white lace and skirts of tulle, thrusting the shreds into a large yellow and blue bin. Mr. Demita set the pile on fire with a lighter.

The burning was filmed by a friend and used to address “people in power,” he said, about the plight of the country’s wedding industry.

According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, 190,000 to 195,000 weddings are registered every year in Italy. When these are celebrated with a party, they sustain an industry worth an estimated 40 billion euros ($44 billion) employing 83,000 companies. Additionally, 540 million euros ($593 million) are generated by about 10,000 wedding celebrations organized by foreigners in Italy, who often purchase their wedding dresses in the country.

“If my dreams have to be turned into ashes, I prefer doing it myself,” Mr. Demita said.

Diamond Couture presented its latest collection in April 2019 at Sì Sposaitalia Collezioni, an international trade show in Milan for bridal and formal wear. The event showed 220 bridal collections in 2019. Orders for gowns were taken during the buying appointments at the fair and delivered between September and October. The company always agreed to start crafting the ordered dresses without a deposit. The payments would be sent in March of the following year.

Mr. Demita’s and Ms. Persano’s annual production grew from 49 gowns to more than 1,000 within 13 years.

But on March 9, the Italian government announced stringent quarantine measures. Eighty percent of the weddings for which Diamond Couture had orders for gowns were postponed with the rest being canceled. Mr. Demita and Ms. Persano faced empty cash registers.

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Italy was the first Western country to impose a national lockdown, on March 4, which suspended all businesses. With 33,072 Covid-19-related deaths as of May 27, Italy has the third-highest figure, only ranking behind the United Kingdom (37,460) and the United States (101,392).

Restrictions in Italy were lifted May 18, but social-distance measures are still being enforced throughout the summer, pushing most weddings planned during the sought-after period from April through September to the fall or next year.

“It is a climate that certainly does not invite to celebrate,” Michela Gombacci, a business consultant, said about her postponed May wedding on the Italian island of Capri with her American fiancé, Stefano Minoli. “We thought it would have been almost out of place.”

The practice of delayed payments is common among small businesses in Italy, and it is especially widespread in the wedding industry as it allows retailers to collect the payments for the gown in installments.

Larger companies and small outfits operating in the higher-end segment try to steer clear of it. Nicole Spose by Nicole Cavallo has asked brides to pay off dresses by the date on which the wedding was originally planned, not the newly scheduled date in the future. “The majority understands the situation and has agreed,” Ms. Cavallo said in a phone interview. But, she noted, “some aren’t that happy about it.”

The payments are necessary, Ms. Cavallo said, to cover the cost of keeping gowns in her atelier for longer than originally planned.

Still, shops are without their usual orders and deposit money. To make up for the canceled fashion show in April, Ms. Cavallo offered future brides online consultations to jump-start new orders and deposits.

A similar service will be rolled out by Antonio Riva in Milan at the beginning of June. Mr. Riva, who starts producing only upon receipt of a deposit and delivers only when gowns are paid in full, hopes to be able to deliver his gowns by October, as usual. “We are in a lucky position because everything is made in Italy and our business partners understand our needs,” he said.

Larger losses were suffered by companies like Carlo Pignatelli in Turin, Italy, which specializes in formal attire for men. “While brides start looking for a gown nine to six months before the event, men start only three to two months before,” said Francesco Pignatelli, the creative director of the house. His company received all payments for its 2019 bridal dress collection in the fall of the same year. However, since 80 percent of the company’s total sales is generated by men’s suits, which typically sell between February and April, Mr. Pignatelli expects a 50 percent drop in the companies’ annual revenue.

To date, no company in Italy has received the government’s monetary aid to provide for furloughs. Businesses have had, instead, to advance salaries for about two months, putting their finances under further strain.

Wedding gown makers remain hopeful that they will recover in 2021; they expect to set a record in the production of gowns after social restrictions are lifted.

Yet, it seems inevitable that smaller businesses will suffer.

“The year 2020 is compromised,” said Serena Ranieri, the president of Feder Matrimoni ed Eventi Privati, a group that represents businesses involved in weddings and private events. “It is a collapse that the sector is unable to absorb and which will cause closures and bankruptcies, with consequent job losses and a devastating impact also for the companies in the supply chain which miss most of the customers.”

Mr. Demita said he and Ms. Persano are using their savings to get by, “but sooner or later, the water in the well runs out.”

In the meantime, in Milan, Emanuele Guido, the director of Sì Sposaitalia Collezioni, is working on the next edition of the fair, which has been postponed from April until September. “It is an experiment,” Mr. Guido said of how many exhibitors will actually show up in the month when they usually deliver gowns.

Will Diamond Couture attend? Mr. Demita sighed. “Frankly, I do not know.”

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