ot far from Piazza di Spagna, in the heart of Rome’s highbrow shopping district, is a street whose name seems like a misnomer — Via delle Vite. As recently as a decade ago it boasted some of the city’s oldest and most esteemed boutiques. No longer. These days, new stores open and close every few months.
Even their names sound transient.
There is “Blue Velvet,” with its kitschy neon sign, and “The Shirt Maker.” A shirt store named “The Lost Sheep” shut down recently, joining four other shops that went out of business in 2004. Elsewhere on the block, a nail salon has replaced a decades-old jewelry business.
Enzo Ceci ran a men’s clothing store specializing in cashmere sweaters and tailored suits for nearly three decades. Unable to cope with competitive pressures, he was one of last year’s closures. The name “Enzo Ceci” is still engraved into the marble sides of the empty storefront. Little remains of his clothing boutique: workers are painting the walls, a makeover for the new beauty center due to open any day.
“I am a designer, so I have radar,” said Ceci. “So I said to myself, ‘I’d better go before I kill myself.’”
Faced with economic slowdown and the global appeal of a few labels, boutiques like Ceci’s, arguably Italy’s genuine icons of quality and taste, struggle to survive.
Giants like Gucci and Armani have made forays into jewelry, perfume and other accessories to ensure their place in an industry that caters increasingly to mass-produced products.
But the smaller merchants can’t face the costs, or the stress. By the time 63-year-old Ceci closed, the rent for his 20-square-meter store — about the size of an apartment living room — was €4,000 a month. Ceci had hypertension. “I would go two or three days and only take in €350. I had to fire everyone, except for someone to clean,” he said.
“The fabric was costing more; the labor was costing more, and adding it up, the price was too high for customers,” he added. “I couldn’t play the martyr.”
So Ceci literally changed his life. He sold his house in Rome and moved to a villa in Marina di Cerveteri, a seaside town 30 minutes north of Rome. He spends his days painting and sculpting or gardening. “I did the right thing,” he says.
Ceci’s story is a cautionary tale. When he opened in 1976, his customers included members of the Roman nobility as well as Prince Albert of Belgium. He also developed a stable middle and upper middle class clientele.
But at the first hint of hard times, priorities changed. Italians turned to property. “When the economic situation of a country like Italy is unstable, the first thing that Italians — who are used to an unstable country — do is buy a house. From infancy, the thing they tell us is, ‘You can dine on bread and onions, but buy a house,’” Ceci said.
Barber Pino Magliacci, president of the Via delle Vite neighborhood association, notices the middle class defections. “They just can’t allow themselves to do the same things anymore,” Magliacci said. “People buy at the ‘big’ stores, the outlets where they can pay less by getting last year’s stuff.”
Via delle Vite today reflects the buzz of small town life. The paucity of customers gives store owners ample time for sidewalk gossip. Part of the street runs behind the capital’s main central post office, where motorbikes are parked by the dozen. It also includes a popular English-language bookstore and several small hotels.
“I invent things every day to pass the time,” said Augustino Crisafulli, who owns “Fashion,” a store that specializes in leather jackets. After lunch — the two-hour lunch break is still respected on the street — he lolls on his motorcycle waiting to reopen. Many stores have abandoned mid-day closings, preferring to work all day, or “non-stop,” but Via delle Vite merchants don’t seem to think the extended hours make much difference. Crisafulli says he sometimes goes several days without a customer.
To absorb the increased leather prices and higher electric bills, he fired his staff of four and now works alone. “I’ll obviously go ahead until I can. When I can’t I’ll close shop and move to the countryside,” he said.
The Empire jeans store up the street is coping better, but owner Gino Di Martino says business dropped drastically after the introduction of the euro. “It was fine for the first 3-5 months. Afterwards we started selling 50 percent less,” he said. “The euro has destroyed everything. If before your salary was three million lire, now it is €1,500. If you paid 20,000 lire for a pizza, now you pay €18. It’s doubled, so by the end of the month, you’re through.”
Italians are reportedly feeling the pinch. According to a recent survey by FIPE (Italian Federation of Bars and Caterers), restaurant revenues dropped 60 percent in the first four months of 2005, and 80 percent of bar owners reported higher prices. The percentage of Italians who say that they can buy necessities but not luxuries is at 70 percent, according to ISAE, a government sponsored think tank. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, 42 percent of Italians would risk poverty were it not for welfare payments.
Macroeconomic indicators show similar trends. Italy fell into recession in the first quarter of 2005, though it crawled out — barely — in the second. Italy was the only OECD state (there are 30) whose leading indicator, a measure of trends, fell last June. Its budget deficit is expected to surpass the three percent mandated by the EU.
Many Italians and government officials (including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) have blamed the euro, with Welfare Minister Roberto Maroni calling for a referendum to bring back the lira, an improbable undertaking. Though the introduction of the European currency was heralded as a way to make Italy more competitive on the growing European stage, it had the opposite effect, illuminating the country’s deficiencies with respect to the other Euro-zone countries. Competitiveness has been curtailed.
The Wall Street Journal reported that according to Barclays Capital, an international financial services group, Italian labor costs were up 17 percent post-euro. This has taken its toll on foreign designers who have products manufactured in Italy. In the past year, the Journal reported, some American designers have had to raise the price of their Italian-made clothes by as much as 30 percent.
Ceci has been back to Via delle Vite a few times since he left in September 2004. What he hears doesn’t comfort him. Storeowners complain and say they want out. Some have been forced out. Realtor Gabriele Baudo of the Baudo Real Estate Agency evicted the owners of a jewelry store after they failed to pay rent for four months, Baudo said. Ceci gave the agency six months notice, and the space is only now being re-occupied.
Magliacci’s barbershop, the “Barbiere Peppino,” is among the few thriving businesses left on Via delle Vite — along with Mario, a Tuscan cuisine restaurant. Barbiere Peppino was founded in 1870. The shop’s secret, he says, was to convert the lira to euro values immediately, sparing customers the shock of erroneous exchanges. “The majority of shop-keepers didn’t do this. So 500,000 lire became €500. This was the error of many, and while some profited, it was short lived, and the majority got poor. I kept my prices the same, and I’ve survived,” says Magliacci. A haircut and shave still costs €25, or 50,000 lire, as it did before the conversion.
Magliacci’s barbershop well-heeled clientele includes a regular stream of senators and aristocrats. Economic prudence may be part of his success, but a simpler truth may also be at work: Men need haircuts. But they can spare themselves a new suit or tie. “Since we are a rich country, people here already had nice clothes in their closet. So they simply stopped buying,” Magliacci explained. “I have 300 ties, and I’m a barber. So I just don’t buy ties.”