Marco de Vincenzo of Etro Tries to Slow Down Fashion

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This article is part of a series examining Responsible Fashion, and innovative efforts to address issues facing the fashion industry.

“For me, fashion was always about fun and beauty,” said Marco de Vincenzo, pacing his showroom at the Casa Galimberti, one of Milan’s most ornate Art Nouveau palazzos. “But today, fashion needs to convey more important messages, and my own mission in fashion needs to go beyond mere creativity.”

Mr. de Vincenzo, 44, a Sicilian designer who has emerged as one of the brightest new stars among the last decade of Milan’s runway calendar, was surrounded by racks of the latest collection for his namesake brand. The garments were evidence of his newfound sustainability imperative: At fashion week in February, instead of newly manufactured clothes, he presented vintage revamped with his own panache, covering coats, skirt suits, sweaters and more with meshes of sequins, fields of metal studs and accents of shiny rivets in a craftsmanship-intensive transformation of thrift-store finds into unique pieces — some running over $2,000. Mr. de Vincenzo said the collection, called Supérno, was a way to understand upcycling’s potential.

“Whatever I do next will be linked to this formula,” he said last month, gazing into the distances of Milan beyond his window. “Perhaps I’ll be in a new role on a bigger stage soon, and I’ll be able to incorporate this principle if I’m guiding a larger brand.”

Then, on June 1, Mr. de Vincenzo was appointed the creative director of Etro, the Milan fashion house known for its high-end paisley prints and made-in-Italy hippie glamour. Long a globally successful but family-run affair, the LVMH-founded private equity group L Catterton purchased 60 percent of the brand last year, with plans to expand its international growth. As the brand’s first head designer from outside the Etro family, Mr. de Vincenzo will oversee its offerings of women’s wear, men’s wear and interiors, while maintaining his longtime position as the head designer of leather goods at Fendi.

“I hope to include upcycling in the first runway collection in September or soon after,” he said in a recent interview, his first since the announcement of his new role at Etro. “There’s much to be done to understand what sustainability means when it comes to larger brands like this, but today they’re at least embracing recycling for capsule collections and special editions.”

From his own line’s fancified vintage to his future efforts at Etro, he sees a new form of luxury taking shape, with unique or small-run pieces made from the inherently limited supplies of repurposed materials. Although Etro declined to comment on what kind of project may happen under the designer’s new leadership, in the past, the fashion house, which began as a fabric mill and produced textiles for decades, has created capsule collections from archival fabrics.

For Mr. de Vincenzo, a new path was illuminated during the contemplative early years of the coronavirus pandemic, when there were no runway shows to fret about, and his brand went on a two-year hiatus. In 2020, he bought back shares that for years had been in the hands of LVMH, allowing for a retreat from the high-paced, high-production, high-profit demands of working with the powerful luxury conglomerate. When he later entered the Marco de Vincenzo archive to take stock, he was overwhelmed by the sight of 6,000 sample garments that never saw the light of day. “Such an immense quantity of squandered ideas, resources, money and time,” he lamented. “I know how much effort artisans dedicated to these things.”

He returned with the upcycled clothes of the Supérno collection — apparel he personally sourced from charity shops, which he then asked artisans to embroider and embellish, producing iconoclastic twists on their original ladylike forms. But only a couple of longstanding partners agreed to give the niche project a shot. One that did was CIM, a factory north of Milan that bedazzles fabrics with rhinestones, studs and spikes of all kinds, in partnership with fashion houses like Balmain, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Armani and Prada. (“The haute couture of strass,” as one riveter there put it.)

“No one had ever asked us to work on vintage before,” said Angela Galbussera, who had been overseeing Mr. de Vincenzo’s collections for years at CIM, as more than two dozen artisans worked away, clamping rhinestones into place and attaching studs with tabletop rivet presses, with castoff baubles scraping underfoot. Drawers were filled with deposits of pearls, imitation gems, mirrored tiles and glue-back confetti, each bin teeming with sparkling bits packed as densely as sand.

Mr. de Vincenzo’s vintage garments have to be worked on mannequins, where the artisans map out rhinestones and chalk the placement of studs before attaching them one by one — a far more time-consuming method than their typical embellishment of fabrics laid flat on tables. And each Supérno piece is one of a kind: a prim black swing coat with spikes splayed along the collar and cuffs; a stern headmistress dress with space age silver bubbles trimming its bodice and pleated hem; a figure skater’s short-sleeve sweater iced with rows of faceted crystals. “Industrial production,” Mr. de Vincenzo said, “is out of the question here.”

The Supérno collection received critical plaudits when it debuted in Milan, but store buyers shied away, citing concerns that the one-offs defied their merchandising protocols, the designer said, so the fall season clothes will be sold on his proprietary website. But investors, he said, have expressed interest, and he will carry on his namesake brand and its mission of reuse, perhaps at a slower pace, as he heads up Etro and continues designing accessories at Fendi.

Some of fashion’s biggest brands have responded to the call of sustainability with efforts like Miu Miu’s special runs of remade vintage dresses and restyled Levi’s, Marni’s patchwork coats of cut-up old clothes and Coach’s handbags from 1970s-era archive purses. And Mr. de Vincenzo pointed out that Fendi had made considerable efforts to use leather and fur remnants that would have previously been discarded and to support artisan craftsmanship against industrialization, which he called “another key aspect of sustainability.” Still, with a few exceptions, these are small-scale projects from large-scale brands.

The fashion industry encompasses countless actors — business leaders, factories, investors, designers, retailers, every human being who wears clothes — who will have to agree to produce and buy less, and to make more out of what we already have to fight the tidal wave of overproduction still programmed into the supply chain at large.

“How much was written during lockdown about slowing down and being more conscientious?” Mr. de Vincenzo asked. “But the old rhythms and expectations are proving too deep-rooted.”

Yet to speak to the designer as he embarks on leading a global luxury brand is to encounter an emissary of hope. His own upcycled line, like perhaps all sustainability projects, is imperfect. Its surfaces of glitz from CIM — of quartz, metal and polymers — are not sustainably produced or easily recycled, and will have a lengthy life in a landfill. “There are always compromises to be made,” Mr. de Vincenzo responded. “If I went looking for 100 percent perfection, I probably would never have been able to do anything. With Supérno, I managed to stop producing new garments. We need to each consider what we’re able to do.”

The most crucial step for brands is to reduce excess fabric and apparel production, he said, an approach companies are working on perfecting, using the better predictive sales tools available today.

“The culture of waste is coming to an end,” he asserted. Individually, “the important thing is to do your part in the macro picture. The battles we face are too big to get discouraged when we don’t see immediate change.”

At Etro, he envisions the chance to incorporate sustainability into at least a portion of the brand’s output. “You create change by contributing what’s possible, not what’s perfect, to the cause.”