Italian shoes are back... but who’s buying them?

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Italian shoes are back... but who’s buying them?

Over two days, 26 Italian shoe exporters recently exhibited their new collections at the Seoul Hilton downtown. “Shoes from Italy Spring/Summer 2004 Seoul,” part of an Asian tour that included Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, was open to importers only; it included various styles of sneakers, boots, sandals and dress shoes for men and women, with prices ranging from 30 to 150 euros ($35-$175).
According to the trade commission office, 132 Korean importers attended the event.
Sexy high heels with pointed toes and down-to-earth sneakers for men were considered standard classics for the coming year. But the most obvious shift in fashion was: the candy colors of the ’80s are back!
Jubilant colors seemed inspired by fruits and candies. Materials were often soft kid skin or patent leather, and details included such youthful embellishments as polka dot patterns, dainty buttons and bows. Flats, slippers and pumps with kitten heels had rounded toes that were popular in the ’80s.
For both men and women vacationing in resorts, aqua shoes ― lightweight, rubbery shoes with stretchy mesh uppers, like those worn by water sports athlets ― in rainbow colors are predicted to be “It” shoes next summer.
But how were the sales? While Gian Piero Giovannetti of Giovannetti, who was also in Korea last April, said he had three successful contacts this time, most sellers, including Tino Bertolaja of Mario Cerutti and Fabio Rusconi of his own brand, were disappointed with the lack of business from the recent trip.
“It’s hard to be competitive in Korea. A pair of ballerina slippers made in Italy costs 20 euros, but a similar one made in China costs only 10 euros,” said Mr. Rusconi. “Trendy shoes that are popular in European and American markets don’t sell well in Korea.”
After the exhibition, the IHT-JoongAng Daily met up with Giuseppe Pezzulo, the Italian Trade Commissioner, in his new office atop the Myongji Building in downtown Seoul.

You are a new commissioner.
I was in Korea 13 years ago. I worked in Osaka for three years in the ’80s, and I brought my car in a ferry through Busan and traveled all around Korea for three weeks. I liked what I saw then, and I wanted to work in Korea.
Seoul 13 years ago doesn’t exit anymore. Back then, there was nothing south of the river! To Italians, such a quick change is very strange. For 2,000 years Rome never changed.

What have you observed in Korea?
Korea is technologically advanced, yet I feel there are Confucianistic values holding them back. Everything is so quickly made and done that they don’t seem to value time so much. They are influenced by American consumerism in that their values lie in superficial things.
The way Koreans regard age is very different from the way we Westerners do: In the West, if a person has a youthful spirit, it doesn’t matter how old he or she is ― the person is perceived as young. But in Korea, the age between 20 and 25 is considered young, and past 30 is like you’re already dead.
Koreans place more importance on owning expensive luxury goods than they think we Italians do. For example, to us Westerners, home is an extended personality of a person, and is a sociable place where we invite friends and enjoy ourselves, so we take care of our home in a very personal way.
Koreans, or Asians in general, go out to restaurants and cafes, and they like to show off their wealth through clothes, cars or watches. It’s like being in Italy in the ’60s.
We Westerners have already put that behind us decades ago; now we believe that simpler things in life make us happy.

Exporters spoke of disappointing business on this trip to Korea.
It is because of the current economic crisis in Korea and in the world. The economy picked up a bit in March and April, but after that, it plummeted ― last August was the worst. This situation has to do more with psychological than economic factors.
Because houses and real estate are too expensive, people buy stocks as the only affordable form of investment. As a result of this, the value of stocks rises, but not necessarily the actual value of the company. So the economy on the whole becomes unbalanced.
When media report that one famous person in New York says “there might be a crisis,” the next day no one buys, not because he or she doesn’t have money but because he heard that there’s a bad economy.
Rich people take advantage of this stock market situation, thereby creating bull and bear markets.
For years, many Italian manufacturers have gone to China and taught Chinese how to manufacture goods, but we didn’t think they could learn so fast. Now manufacturers in Asia ― from China to India ― can make high-quality products at low cost.
And, Italian machinery, one of Italy’s major exports, is not as competitive as before because we didn’t invest in technology.

What are your plans for the future?
I believe with Korea’s technology and Italy’s manufacturing, the two countries can benefit from each other in the future.
Italy’s new prime minister wants to start a new strategy to promote Italian business worldwide, by combining the embassy, trade commission and cultural center into one. Through dialogue between the political and economic sectors, he thinks he can improve the situation in the long run. In Korea, we’re now looking for a 3,000-square-meter (32,000-square-foot) space to combine all three, but it’s hard to find such a large space in the capital.

by Ines Cho
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