Fashion industry explores ‘made in Switzerland’ dilemmas

Leather and mesh look by Sandro Marzo, seen at a Mode Suisse show at Zurich's Lichthof Irene Muenger

High production costs and cautious middlemen are hindrances for Switzerland’s up and coming fashion designers. Ahead of the industry’s most intense week, stakeholders gathered for the first time – to talk.

This content was published on November 11, 2014 - 11:00
Susan Misicka in Zurich,

For five days in November, Zurich has its fashion daysExternal link – a mini-version of what goes on in Paris and New York twice a year. But throughout the year, Mode SuisseExternal link organises runway shows and showrooms. Womenswear designer Niria Frey is one of several people getting exposure. caught up with her at the spring showroom where designers promote their autumn/winter collections. Her work is inspired by art deco and art nouveau, and featuring lots of black in a wide array of materials, including pleather and fake fur. The textures demand closer inspection in the crowded showroom along Zurich’s Limmat river.

Frey holds up an origami-inspired skirt made with local lamé. “If you want to produce this in Switzerland with Swiss fabrics, everything is quite expensive.” Asked what it would cost, she wavers – explaining that it’s just a prototype.

She fills orders from her home atelier in Zurich. But to get orders, she knows she has to get out there. “It’s a good platform for young Swiss designers to reach boutiques and buyers,” says Frey.

Basel-based designer Sandro Marzo, originally from Italy, isn’t so sure. “I think some buyers don’t like to see other buyers. They want to focus on one or two collections.”

His menswear collection, on display just a few metres from Frey’s, toes the line between daring and outlandish. (Imagine a parson wearing a straightjacket.) Marzo does think Mode Suisse is an ideal platform to highlight the range of styles that Switzerland can offer.

“It shows that we have good designers here in Switzerland,” Marzo says. A few months after that event, he was selected as a panellist at the first-ever Mode Suisse TALKS.

Zurich Fashion Days

The most important fashion weeks are in Paris, Milan, New York and London. Yet other cities, like Zurich, have their own versions. From November 11-15, 2014External link, there are runway shows featuring Swiss and international designers as well as attractions like showrooms and pop-up stores.

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Let’s talk

With its oriental rugs and eclectic collection of easy chairs, the setting – a temporary gallery space in Zurich’s financial district – was more colourful than most panel discussions. Somebody brought a dog. A pink-haired design student and her glittery-cheeked friend huddled in the doorway.

On a low stage, designers, buyers and representatives from the textile industry explored ways of increasing exposure for Swiss products.

Sourcing materials is one challenge facing start-up designers. Many would like to use locally-made textiles but are put off by the expense and the minimum order quantities required.

“Twenty metres is the minimum,” said Simone Blesi of Mitloedi Textildruck, which specialises in prints. “Of course we’d like to sell 1,000,” she added – a figure that raised the eyebrows of the two designers on stage.

Embroidery firm Bischoff Textil only produces when there’s an order. “We evaluate how serious the designers are and how good their market chances are,” CEO Thomas Meyer explained. He cited an example where students from Basel wanted a gigantic design that was too impractical and expensive. Now they’re looking for a compromise.

Even under  the best of circumstances, not every designer can get what he needs in Switzerland.

“It’s hard to find the right material. Switzerland is very innovative, but not everything is available,” lamented Bern knitwear specialist Adrian Reber, who sources his wool and cashmere in Italy.

Getting stitched

There’s also the matter of getting garment workers to stitch things up.

“I’d like to do everything here, but it’s hard to find people who can sew and who are willing to make time for the smaller labels. The bigger factories might go abroad,” Reber said.

Yet the price of Swiss labour can be prohibitive when there’s no guarantee of selling your work.

“I can’t afford to have it done in Switzerland. Then my T-shirts would retail for CHF400-500 ($416-520)!” said Marzo. Instead he commissions garment workers in Serbia and Italy; a T-shirt might then cost CHF265 – still pretty pricy.

“People seem willing to buy organic tomatoes. I hope they’ll get more interested in sustainable fashion,” said Swiss Textile Federation spokeswoman Mirjam Matti Gähwiler.

The federation represents some 200 firms in the local textile and garment industries. From 2000-2010, it sponsored the Swiss Textiles Award – worth CHF100,000 in the form of goods and services useful for a fashion designer. Today it gives a textile design prize for innovations in textiles.

“We don’t just want to sponsor events; we want to bring designers and producers together,” Gähwiler said. “Surely some are willing to take a risk on a new designer.”

Limited sales opportunities

In business, risk can be a four-letter word. Laurence Antiglio, owner of the Vestibule boutique in Zurich, often features Swiss designers but doesn’t give them preferential treatment.

“You can’t sponsor them. We’re all businesses,” she said, explaining that she can’t afford to carry labels that don’t sell well. The same is true for major department stores like Globus, though as ladieswear buyer Claudio Nardone pointed out, Globus has a lot more floor space.

But ample space isn’t enough to guarantee room for untried designers.

“I like to watch a new designer for a few years before buying,” said Nardone, to the chagrin of the designers on stage and in the audience. Even those who are still making a name for themselves typically invest CHF50,000-80,000 to produce and promote a collection.

Designer and consultant Lela Scherrer called for a lobby with investors to help support start-up designers – citing a similar programme in Belgium, home to some of the world’s most successful fashion talent.

“It can really take half a million francs for a designer to get established,” Scherrer said. She herself does made-to-measure work in addition to advising businesses.

Designer Marco Steiner of the Zurich label Marc Stone says designers need to secure investors willing to support their work.

“I was lucky to find some big customers when I started. You need lots of cash in hand,” Steiner said. He seems to have a Midas touch; Gris, the Zurich boutique that he co-founded, has enjoyed success selling exclusively Swiss labels.

“Our customers love Swiss designers. And amazingly, the expensive things sell better,” Steiner said.

Globus’ Nardone encouraged any designers present to approach him if they wanted to present their collections – noting that the Zurich branch was probably best for marketing Swiss fashion.

“I get more enquiries from foreign designers than Swiss ones,” Nardone said. “Get in touch!”

“Please answer!” rejoined Zurich menswear designer Julian Zigerli, yielding applause from his colleagues. Except for his own online shop, Zigerli has no sales points in Switzerland – despite the fact that Italian fashion veteran Giorgio Armani invited him to Milan Fashion Week earlier this year.

As the day came to a close, Mode Suisse founder Yannick Aellen described this first pair of industry talks as fruitful and communicative: “I’m sure a lot will come of it.”

“It was especially nice to see how open the textile companies and buyers were to being contacted by the designers,” Aellen told “But as Julian said quite rightly, they have to reply to the emails.”

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