The Riri zip company of canton Ticino has for the past few years been riding the crest of a wave.
Its success can partly be explained by high quality and innovation. But the decision to sponsor Switzerland’s victorious America’s Cup yacht Alinghi has also helped put the Riri brand firmly on the map.
The Mendrisio-based company was expecting to reach sales of SFr64 million ($47.97 million) in 2003 after a figure of just over SFr40 million five years ago.
Many people take the humble zip for granted but Riri president Livio Cossutti told swissinfo he was not one of them.
“It’s very important. It’s something that we use every day without really knowing that we are using it,” he said.
Opening and closing
“But you have to realise that we are opening and closing almost everything with a zip,” he added.
Riri’s history can be traced back to 1923 when Swiss jurist Martin Othmar Winterhalter from St Gallen bought the patent of a handcrafted zip from a travelling American.
“The founder was an inventor and at that time there was not a precise zipper working,” explained Cossutti.
“There were many patents but no one knew how to make the right machinery to actually produce them. Winterhalter found some solutions to produce zips on an industrial basis,” he added.
Hailed as the uncrowned king of the zip, Winterhalter made a fortune.
After opening factories in Germany and Luxembourg with great success, Winterhalter was forced with the arrival of Nazism to return to Switzerland in 1936.
He opened his industrial complex on the site of an old pasta factory in Mendrisio, where the company still has its headquarters.
But success seems to have gone to Winterhalter’s head because he squandered much of his money, lavishing it on religious charlatans.
After becoming obsessed with seeing uses for zips just about everywhere, including streets, viaducts and palaces, Winterhalter ended up by being unceremoniously abducted and taken to the mad house.
Ten million metres
The Riri of today, owned by a group of Swiss and Italian investors, produces about ten million metres of zips each year. Production is divided between two plants at Mendrisio and Tirano in Italy’s Valtellina.
Making a zip is not as easy as it might seem. “It is very complicated. There are a lot of technicalities involved and you have to have a lot of expertise,” Cossutti said.
These range from blanking of the teeth, sewing and dyeing of the ribbon, to zinc or plastic injection and electroplating.
“These provide you with the possibility to be very innovative because in each of these fields you can always find new solutions,” he added.
Riri claims it was the first company to make a zip with the functional characteristics and aesthetics required by haute couture. And it says it can be flexible enough to innovate each season according to the needs of the stylists.
But over the past two years, Riri has also been making a name in the sports field with a high-tech line of zips called “Storm”.
This is a line which keeps out water, wind, salt and is also resistant to damaging ultra violet rays.
What better way to launch it than by using it in the nautical gear of the Alinghi crew.
“As soon as we saw there was a Swiss challenge for the America’s Cup, we thought this could be a very good idea to launch this new line in one shot all over the world,” Cossutti said.
“We were the only sponsors who actually brought something innovative to the team,” he added.
Aside from “Storm”, Cossutti believes that the fashion sector will continue to play a more important role for the company as people look for the unusual.
“We are there to give them this support in finding special things. We have seven engineers who all day long almost reinvent the zip,” he said.
“We go out to clients but they also come to us because they know that we are the Rolls Royce of the zip and can produce whatever they like,” he added.
swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Mendrisio
The name Riri comes from the first two letters of the German words Rippe and Rille (convex and concave)
Riri today produces ten million metres of zips each year.
The company was one of the sponsors of Switzerland’s victorious America’s Cup yacht Alinghi.
The man behind Riri was Swiss jurist Martin Othmar Winterhalter from St Gallen.
He managed to find solutions to produce zips on an industrial basis.
After making a fortune, he squandered much of his money and eventually was taken to the mad house.
Winterhalter died at the age of 72 and left most of his estate to charities.