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Giuseppe Cavallaro: 'we started with 20 ties from my trunk'

He was one of the first to bring Italian flair to the Netherlands. Giuseppe Cavallaro is at the helm of his fashion empire Cavallaro Napoli and wants to make people look better with his company. And with success. He is now allowed to place his logo on nineteen stores and 250 points of sale and many men are spotted in his refined clothing. A conversation with the fashion man – who breathes 'fare la bella figura' – about the special origins of his trunk, the fashion sensitivity of the Dutch man, the biggest challenges, his Italian heritage and Italian style.

“The company started with twenty ties, which I sold from my trunk.”

You are active in the fashion industry. What does fashion mean to you?

''It is my greatest love. I wouldn't want to and couldn't do any other work anymore. It is the most attractive industry I know. You can use your own creativity and see it again. I always want to look good and I earn my living from it. Actually it is also very grateful. Clothes make the man and we hear and see that again. I sometimes spoke to people who said: 'I have been wearing shirts for years, but since I started wearing yours I have been getting compliments'. That gives you energy.”

The company has an Italian heritage. Where does your passion for Italian fashion come from?

''I come from a family with an Italian father, who was very involved in it. In the 60s he wore tailor-made suits. He sometimes jokingly said that when guests came to the Netherlands and went out in their tailor-made clothes, he would sometimes encounter a Dutchman in clogs. He was very much into fashion and also entrepreneurship. I founded the company myself, where I thought la bella figura was very important. A concept that we are less familiar with here. We do have something like Easter best or going to church in your Sunday clothes. In Italy that is actually 365 days a year. It's very cliché, but it's true. I had an aunt who lived above a shop. In Italy there are many high buildings where people live upstairs and shops downstairs. That aunt made sure her hair looked good and her clothes fit well. She then took the elevator down, bought mozzarella and took the elevator back up. Even if they have to turn the corner, they still make sure they look good. That's that bella figura. Here they would say: 'put a long coat over your garment'. But that is not possible in Italy.

In the mid-90s I lived in Bérgamo, where I studied. On Sunday I went to get a coffee in my tracksuit. And then there were neater older ladies walking around there in their fur coats, which was still allowed back then. And I was asked how I dared to walk down the street on Sunday in a tracksuit. That has now also changed. In Italy you now also see jeans with holes, or worse among the youth. But I think it's still there. If you go to a wedding or funeral, you just look neat. How many people I have seen wearing jeans at a wedding or funeral... There is indeed a cultural and fashion difference between Italy and the Netherlands. I got that from my Italian side. This has created a certain passion. I always liked fashion and then I wanted to see how far we could go.”

So you have an Italian father and Dutch mother. Do you feel Italian or Dutch?

''I have been asking the question for a long time: 'Am I Dutch or am I Italian?' Actually, you're kind of a mix and I'm in a vacuum. I don't know enough about Italy to feel Italian and I was raised too Italian to feel like a Dutch person. At one point I thought: 'I'm best of both worlds'. I am neither Dutch nor Italian. I'm just a half-breed, as they say. The best of both worlds in particular has enabled me to build this company. I inherited the passion, fashion and creativity from my father. And my mother taught me to manage money very well and to be frugal. To avoid incurring unusual expenses. More down to earth and businesslike. I am very happy that I received that.”

Cavallaro Napoli has been around for 20 years this year. How did the company come about?

''The company started with twenty ties, which I sold from my trunk. I bought this from the trunk of a representative from Naples.

It was the late 90s and I was about 25 years old. I worked in IT and was not happy at all. I wanted to do something, preferably something related to fashion, so I flew to Naples. I actually wanted to import shirts, but I came into contact with someone who was in the ties business. He said: 'You just left school, you don't have much fashion experience yet, so start with a tie'. Back then, everyone who had an office job wore a jacket and tie. Now that has almost completely disappeared, but back then it was an accessory that many people bought. So I could offer handmade Italian silk ties for a great price, from my trunk. I sold them like hot cakes, so within two weeks I bought another ticket with the money I earned and went to get new ones. And so a kind of tie import company was born. Very quickly I started producing under my own name and in 2004 the opportunity arose to open my own store.

I also thought a store that sold ties was a bit sparse, but I had already made some purchases with the shirt that I initially went for. And then I opened my first store in Utrecht, a small specialty store of 40 square meters in ties and shirts. As you see a lot in Italy, specialty stores in mozzarella and socks, for example, I had a specialty store in ties and shirts. Compared to a men's store, I had more choice in my product type. Then people would come to me with a suit on a hanger and buy the rest of the outfit. With that specialization I achieved some small success in the early years. Then I thought: 'hey, this could be something'. From March 1, 2004, I had my first own store and our history started to count. I threw all my certainties overboard: quit my job, returned my lease car and fully pursued entrepreneurship.”

“Our mission is the expression 'fare la bella figura', which means something like making a good impression”

And what have been your biggest challenges in this?

''That was at the start of my second store. When my producers delivered late, while my store should have already been open. Then you have just started and the money you earned from your first store is already gone. Then the entrepreneur in me emerged. I would almost say the market vendor. I then bought a batch of shoes and started selling shoes for the first six to seven weeks. I had to pay the rent and the staff that walked around. That stove had to burn. The first period it was a junk shop with racks of shoes.

You also had to reinvent yourself during the corona period. Things deteriorated so quickly that our shelf life was not eternal either. It was so bad that the end was in sight. Like 'if no money comes in now, it could be ready in three months'. At one point we closed all the shops. In the end, we survived, emerged stronger and reinvented ourselves. Corona was dramatic, but that process was fun. As an entrepreneur it has made me stronger and sharper. We produced where there was demand. I went from suits to tracksuits.”

Do you still manage the company all by yourself?

''The company has now grown to 150 people with a head office of about 50 people. I don't manage them all myself. There is a general management that supervises general matters and I am actually involved 24/7 with the collection and the product. You can have the best salespeople or the best marketing team, but it all starts with the product. If that's not right, it won't work out. I see the importance of that and I put my heart and soul into it.”

So you are very involved in the design process. Is there a signature in the collections?

''I always find that very difficult. When I get a message from an acquaintance saying: 'hey, I saw so and so wearing your clothes on TV'. Then I think: 'how did you see that?' Apparently we have our own style with a signature look and feel that people recognize. But it is difficult to define. Just like artists, they have a certain hand. I think that's the same with fashion."

What is the company's mission?

''It has always been my personal mission to broadcast our surname to the world in such a way that we are present as a brand on all continents. And create a beautiful, sustainable company that is in line with Gucci's and Dior's. A company that will still exist in 150 years.

The mission within our company is the expression 'fare la bella figura', which means something like making a good impression. We think it is important that our clothing makes people look better. Bringing a piece of Italy to the Netherlands. We and many other companies have now achieved reasonable success in the Dutch market. If we look at what it was like 20 years ago and now, the Dutch man has become very fashion-conscious and fashionable."

You're talking about the Dutch man. Do you have a specific Dutch man that you are targeting?

''We never actually said: 'we want to focus on this'. We want to focus on the Dutch man and teach them a bit of Italy. We do something with our collection that makes it easy for the man without having to spend thousands of euros. So we are quite accessible with a very international, Italian look.”

What is that typically Italian?

''When I look at typical Italian, it is a certain sense of taste of the Italian. It's always right: the sweater fits the pants, there is the right shirt underneath and the right color socks. We try that too. That our garments always match. And we always hear from our customers that it is very easy to look good with our clothing."

“My father told me that when they went out, he sometimes encountered people in clogs”

And has this typical Italian style already been integrated into Dutch men today?

''It keeps getting better. A Dutch person will not be Italian or French for a while, but a lot has changed. My frame of reference is about 20 years ago. Then I sold white, light blue and pink shirts. Well, pink was a really hard sell. Because there were all kinds of associations. Pink has now become a kind of basic color. But if I go back even further. My father has been in the Netherlands since the 60s. He told me that when they went out, he sometimes encountered people in clogs. You can't imagine that anymore. That time is now over. Over the past fifty to sixty years, Dutch people have become much more fashion conscious. They are much more open to it, want to delve deeper into it and also find it important to look good."

Why do you think that is?

''Men have become much more vain and are much more concerned with fashion. Clothing used to have more of a function and is now more for appearance. Fashion has changed. We go on holiday more, so you see what's happening around you. The world is so transparent that you are so nourished and inspired that you go along with that flow. In the past, people would come back from Lake Garda and shop in good spirits. But that was one moment. Now they are inspired daily. The Dutch man is increasingly adapting to the Italian fashion image."

What are the future plans for the company?

''We now have nineteen of our own stores and around 250 points of sale, mainly in the Benelux. I want to preserve it for the next generation. That the company has a good foundation, that it might still exist in 150 years. As an ambition, I would like to break through more internationally. Getting bigger is positive, but it doesn't have to be my goal."

“Italian look and feel, but with the fitting range for the Northern European man.”

So we can say that you have already achieved quite a bit of success. What do you think causes that?

''What led to great success, especially in the early years, is that we brought a piece of Italy to the Netherlands. 20 years ago we were a little more unique in this than today, but Italy is still our DNA. What I also did then was apply it to the Northern European market. So I can introduce all kinds of items to the Dutch market that are completely hot in Italy, but the chance that it will catch on here is not 100%. The same goes for the fit. A lot of people still walk past our store because they think: 'Italian, that must be small'. While I have been working on that from day one. Italian look and feel, but with the fitting range for the Northern European man."

Is there anyone else who inspires you?

''Giorgio Armani. He is still active and that inspires me enormously. That man is 80 plus and is still styling a shop window. I can imagine that you will still continue to do what you are passionate about if you are still physically able to do it. He is my inspiration to remain involved until late in life and because of what he has achieved worldwide. I also find him an inspiration because of his side activities. I slept in his hotel in Milan for years. Sleeping upstairs, the restaurant downstairs and his shop downstairs. The versatility of the brand inspires me and makes it a great example to look at.”

What do you always try to tell people when they want to start a business?

''When I have people at the table who want to do business, what I say to the children of friends or what I try to pass on to my staff is that it always starts with a passion. If you do something just for the money, it is not a good approach. That has never been my motivation. Your motivation should always be: 'what do I get up for in the morning?' If you do something that you put your whole heart and soul into, the salary and success will come naturally.

And also try to be financially healthy and independent. That has always given me a good feeling and contributes to creativity and entrepreneurship. Spend what you can spend. It has brought me a lot of peace to grow steadily. I did what I could afford and I didn't do anything above that. I knew I could open my first store with only $10.000 in savings and I knew I could only open my second store with what I had earned from my first store. So I don't want to have that many stores within five years, so I'll just borrow. I can look back on a happy 20 years without stress. If someone had told me 20 years ago that I was able to dress Arsenal, am a clothing partner of the KNVB and employ 150 people, I would have said: 'dream on'."

Speaking of dreams. Is there another dream you have?

''My second passion is really catering. We have had a boutique hotel in Haarlem for three years. It is a profession in itself, and I have learned that too. We have four rooms and we manage them well. We have had a coffee line for about four years now and chocolates. I enjoy expanding products that we can put our brand on. My big dream is to go bigger and have our own bedding line, for example."

Would you like to bring a piece of Italy into your home? View the collections for women and men here.