The knitwear is soft, fine, yet warm: this is the beauty of cashmere, a noble fibre. Leonardo Dondini, the thirty-six-year old at the helm of Dalle Piane Cashmere, is proud of the quality of his products. And even more proud of contributing to nurturing a centuries-old tradition like that of Prato’s textile manufacturing. “We want everyone to know about this ancient tradition,” he says. “For this reason, when we chose the motto for our knitwear, we were inspired by the words of Curzio Malaparte, who wrote: if I were not a native of Prato, I would not have wanted to come into this world. That’s how our products are - created in Prato, and it could not have been otherwise. But open to the whole world,” he smiles. Yes, because Leonardo represents the third generation of entrepreneurs behind the success of a business that has created a real strong point out of the combination of tradition and openness to the future.

Nobiltà artigiana: il cashmere di Prato che conquista il mondo

A long tradition, a short supply chain

The story of Dalle Piane spans three generations. It all began in the 60s, when his grandfather Valter started a spinning business that would give employment to the whole family. His children’s generation took the next step: it was in 1988 that Maglificio Angorelle opened, which would go on to work with all the big names in international fashion, and produces all Dalle Piane’s garments today. “Ours is a very short supply chain,” Leonardo explains. “The raw material, the rough wool, arrives from Mongolia, but then all the stages of processing and design take place in Prato.”

Leonardo, who used to run off to his grandfather’s spinning mill when he was a kid (“To play with the calculator and the skeins of wool,” he points out), joined the business at a very young age, as soon as he had finished his studies. It was in the early 2000 years, a period of profound changes: the arrival of the euro, globalisation. The story of the knitwear is intertwined with the wider history of Prato’s industry. “Ever more businesses, both customers and competitors, were choosing to outsource production abroad. At that time we were mainly working for third parties, and we found ourselves in great difficulty.”

Inventing a way out of the crisis

Faced with the choice of liquidating the business or adapting to the trend for outsourcing, the Dondini family decided to resist and tried to reinvent its business: “Instead of producing for the big fashion houses, we created our own brand, Dalle Piane, and a catalogue for selling directly to customers. The transformation was not easy,” he continues. “It has taken years. But the advantage of being small is the flexibility, and we have never been afraid of change.”

E-commerce has formed part of this reinvention strategy, and it was Leonardo himself who proposed the idea. “I was buying online at a time when it was still considered something extraordinary,” he smiles. “Understanding the customer’s perspective has been a great advantage.” It began with creating a website for the business, then, in 2015, it made its debut on Amazon’s Made in Italyshowcase, designed to promote Italian excellence. For Dalle Piane it was a revelation and a boost: “Right from the start the results were tangible, to the point of making us decide to take our chances with online selling, rather than investing in new single-brand stores. It turned out to be the right choice.”

A global adventure

With Amazon’s Made in Italy showcase, Dalle Piane’s garments are winning customers all over Europe, and of late arriving in the United States too. “Amazon has given us the chance to expand abroad with a very modest investment. The costs we would have incurred in order to open a store or a showroom in another country would have been unsustainable in a situation like ours,” Leonardo explains. “An opening up to the world that has put us in contact with thousands of customers who, otherwise, would have been inaccessible to us.”

The impact has been significant, given that these days, for Dalle Piane the e-commerce channel represents about 60% of their turnover. “Germany is the country in which we are strongest and the United States is giving us great satisfaction, as the Made in Italy brand is highly valued there.” Selling online has helped Dalle Piane optimise its modus operandi too: “Before we were selling large amounts of stock to various retailers, whereas now we are producing according to the demands of the end customer, thus limiting overproduction and wastage. For the benefit of the environment and of the customer, who can count on more affordable prices. It’s a new mentality.”

The future, a mix of sustainability and continuity with the past

One of the secrets of the Dondini family’s success is their attitude to change, the capacity to innovate continuously. In line with the company’s ethical sensibility and the expectations of a clientele which is increasingly aware of environmental issues, Dalle Piane is now experimenting with a new line of products based on regenerated cashmere, “an approach which will enable us to give new life to unsold products and processing waste, transforming them once again into fibre,” Leonardo explains.

His vision is one that is open to the future, but which never forgets to acknowledge the importance of the past: “I am proud of continuing the tradition started by my grandfather, and which has been passed down from generation to generation for over 50 years. The fact that this family tradition is intimately linked with the DNA of our land and can contribute to making it known to the world is something that fills us with pride.”

Leonardo Dondini, owner of Dalle Piane Cashmere at Amazon Academy Brussels 2019.