“We have already been restricted to our homes,” says Veronica Etro. “So there should be no restrictions in our minds.”
Speaking to me from Italy, the creative director of womenswear for fashion label Etro says there are many important lessons to be learnt from the pandemic. “Covid-19 upset everything. The stores were closed and suddenly we had to go back to basics. I took one whole month off, because the whole of Italy was closed, so for me, this became a time to reflect and reconnect with things I felt were important,” she explains.
“When we all came back to work, I found myself asking: ‘Why would anyone want this? Where are they going to need this?’ So for us, it became about making each piece more important. So now it is about doing less, but doing it better.”
Founded in Milan in 1968 by her father Gerolamo Etro, the company started life as a textile design studio, which quickly gained a reputation for creating beautiful patterns and fabrics of the finest quality. Veronica and her three siblings were all immersed in this environment from a young age.
"I remember my father every Saturday used to take me to the store and I would sit among all the swatches. For me, it was just magical to be surrounded by all this colour, all this beauty."
Known for its exquisite fabrics, the company expanded into bags in 1984, and into homeware the year after. In 1996, it unveiled its first ready-to-wear fashion collection. By the end of the 1990s, the company was being run and managed by her siblings, while Veronica was studying at Central Saint Martins in London. She was summoned back home to join the company by her brother, Kean.
“Kean was doing both the men’s and the women’s [collections], so that was a little difficult. He said that I must come back, so I did. I went straight to work, and to be honest, I spent the next two years just watching, observing and learning. In 2000 I did my first collection, and it was so exciting and frightening. But seeing everyone there, enjoying the show, was an incredible feeling.”
Famous for its use of paisley, the swirling pattern that draws from Persian, Indian and Scottish motifs (the pattern carries the name of the town in the west central Lowlands of Scotland that produced it), the company has forged a deep-rooted identity that is linked to the idea of travel, with each season offering visual cues to other places and cultures.
Confined and unable to travel because of the pandemic, Veronica had to find another muse for her spring/summer 2021 collection. While quarantining, she rediscovered old Italian records that brought back memories of holidaying along a sun-drenched Italian coast. Realising the collection needed to be a sonnet to her own country – even as it struggled with the pandemic – she conjured up youthful yacht wear in breezy patterns taken from the archives, mixed with some nautical touches, such as crisp shorts and rope-soled shoes.
Loose knitted tops and flowing skirts and dresses came adorned with nautical flags and ropes, as silk scarves were casually tied into bandeau tops over tailored trousers and even elongated into foulard dresses. The famous paisley was made into roomy shirts and worn knotted over beachwear.
Fresh, youthful and decidedly optimistic, it spoke of holidays to come. A smaller collection than normal (“we actually reduced it by 35 per cent, and no one noticed,” Etro says), it is a skilful mix of old and new that stays close to the core DNA of the house.
“I am very lucky, because at Etro we have such a strong language. I have never felt restricted by the heritage and I have never had any pressure to change what I am doing. People always ask me: ‘What is my favourite paisley?’. But I don’t know; it’s impossible,” she says.
“Every season we reinvent it, reinterpret it, and there are thousands of ways to see it. It’s a challenge, yes, but also very inspiring, very exciting, to have to rethink the same things. As a brand we are inspired by many, many things. By travel, art, by painting, by cities, by architecture and colours, and it’s always very exciting translating that into designs.”
Like many other companies, Etro found itself on something of a back foot when the pandemic struck, forcing a rapid rethink of priorities. One was a new virtual showroom, the launch of which was hastily brought forward as the pandemic took hold. Even though it is still a work in progress, so far, the reaction has exceeded expectations.
“We created a virtual space and launched it as a business-to-business platform. But what we are finding, increasingly, is that customers are coming to it, because it is possible to have a one-on-one call with a salesperson who will guide you through the collection,” Etro explains.
“We have models in the boutique who can try on the pieces that you are interested in, so you can see how it fits, how it moves, what it does. And that is the personal touch – it’s not just a machine. There is someone there who can tell you the details, explain the stories, describe and show you the elements that make Etro pieces unique.”
One challenge for every label is how to engage with a newer, younger audience. Here, too, Etro sees a fascinating challenge. Reeling off the platforms the company is active on, from TikTok to Weibo, she welcomes the new energy it all brings.
“Two years ago was our 50th anniversary, and I saw this as a great opportunity to revisit everything, and really see what worked. Now we have collaborations planned with younger brands to reach a new audience, and this is our way of getting our message across.”
Fans of the house will recognise the Pegasus (Pegaso in Italian) from the brand’s emblem, and it is a motif that is regularly reworked. In 2019, Etro launched the Pegaso bag, made from rich paisley edged with leather, while for spring 2021, it was presented in patent leather, with an oversized buckle. “This is not really a material we have ever really worked with before, so this is new for us,” Etro explains.
Elsewhere, a classic trench has also been revisited, and is now edged with paisley, while several prints have been re-issued from the archive, including a bomber jacket made from a print from 1998. The mix of old and new feels both familiar and dazzlingly fresh.
“With Covid, now more than ever brands need to find an identity, and for us, it was a return to something, a going back. I start every collection – it is not where I plan on finishing it, but I start every collection by going back through the archives. We have these huge archives here, that we can go to and sift through.”
Even with such a resource at her disposal, Etro maintains that it is crucial for any designer to remain connected to the world around them. Inspiration, she says, can ultimately come from everywhere, including from her customers.
“I am very open-minded, and I find it exciting when I see new outfits, or even old pieces from five years ago being styled in new ways, and I think: ‘Wow, I never would have put those pieces together.’ But that is the advantage of being timeless, they sit together even though they are years apart – there is a common language between them.
“We need to be free. This is something that the past 12 months have taught me. It is important, especially with this job, to be very fluid, and to be very open.”