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Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Willy Wonka Of Textiles

Dr. Ottaviano Mantero was the most enjoyable and colourful new character that I met on my recent expedition to Como, Italy. Dr. Mantero is the famed creator and owner of the Carlo Riva cotton fabrics brand. To some he is known as the 'Willy Wonka' of fabrics, a flamboyant character of great intelligence, which some refer to as 'genius', who works tirelessly to create only the best fabrics in both cotton and silk with the world's most prestigious brands lining up to work with him. To Dr. Mantero, cotton fabric is no different to fine wine (which by the by he knows a lot about that subject too) and it is not uncommon for Carlo Riva fabric to be stored for up to 12 months to acclimatise before it is sold on to the customer. In the world of fabrics, there are few that come close to achieving the kind of kudos that is therefore bestowed upon Dr. Mantero. Because of this, Dr. Mantero is privileged enough to choose his customers, a very rarefied position to be in given the current economic climate in Europe.

It was a great honour to have him agree to meet me. My first two rolls which I bought from Carlo Riva were well received by the shirt customers that indulged in his cloth and we sold through reasonably well given that there were very few Australians who even knew the brand name Carlo Riva. In fairness, until three years ago, I did not know about it myself. It was a chance encounter with a tie maker in Italy who walked with me through the cobbled streets of Como and answered a few questions along the way. 'Who makes the best cotton in Italy?' I asked, to which he replied 'Certe, this is Carlo Riva'.

Dr. Mantero's factory is like any other good cloth company in Italy, it is not obvious to find. Like all fine cotton and silk mills, there are usually big heavy steel gates, concrete walls and very small names on the door if any. Inside, the office reception was rather spartan. By accident, I had entered through the factory floor where dozens of machines were humming away rhythmically producing some of the most beautiful grenadines, silk jacquards, printed silks and cottons I had ever seen on looms. The names of the companies they were producing for is not important, but let us just say that they were the names one would expect. The looms themselves ranged from the oldest working looms I had glimpsed, working on timber frames that had been put together over 100 years ago, to the latest computer operated looms, all working on the same factory floor but separated by function.

Dr. Mantero had been held up for some time, so I was invited by his daughter Katerina to rummage around the workroom where Dr. Mantero and his staff develop their fabrics. Mixed between the working tables were old maps of Como framed on the wall, ancient colour swatches for silk that came from Lyon, retired machines, a collection of vintage ties dusty and hanging from timber stands which had seen better days and swatches of cottons in a book which must have come from last century. By the time Dr. Mantero arrived my respect for his craft had trebled.

'Who told you about me?' was the very first question that I recall being asked. It was a wonderful move on his behalf because it immediately put me on the back foot. Suddenly I felt as though I needed to justify why I consumed oxygen on planet earth. I spent a good five minutes trying to drop names, double my customer base, triple my sales and quadruple my distribution. In fact, this is not quite the truth, because from the outset I felt that I was in the presence of a man who could smell a lie from fifty yards.

In the end, I let go, as I was bedazzled by his personality, his playful blue eyes, his pride for his work. 'So you have heard about the Carlo Riva hey? It is my magia si? You know this word in english? It is the magic! It is 'fun-tas-tik!' he said smiling. And it was, there was no use beating him down. The cloth was very different, very unique and highly sought after.

After some time talking about cloth, I managed to get Dr. Mantero to remove his bow tie that he was wearing, a beautiful repps silk in a narrow diamond point of green and pink on the diagonal which was Ralph Lauren I believe. He tried on one of my bow ties and it looked good on him, the Eugene. And when I showed him the Sevi (Octopus design), well, he allowed me to give him one of those too. Slowly, the ice was broken and he opened up somewhat to me, revealing that he was an incredibly intelligent man with knowledge in cars, wine, travel, cloth and much much more. The only thing that surprised me is that he didn't seem to use the internet much. Overall, we spent three hours playing with fabrics and feeling the qualities, rummaging around the archives and telling each other what we though about this or that. We disputed which bow tie shape was the best cut, who makes the best bow ties, what is the best quality of silk for a bow tie and whether Bordeaux wines were the best, or the best marketed. Only once did Dr. Mantero get upset with me and it was when I raised a touchy subject...

'Do you do cut length service Dr. Mantero?'

'What is this cut length service?'

' Do you sell the cloth by the metre, then pack and send?' I said gesticulating the process as best I could.

'No, I am not a sausage!' he responded, 'only by the roll' he added.

If anything, I will remember our meeting by one word 'Fun-Tas-Tik!'.

Dr Ottaviano Mantero of Carlo Riva fabric fame and his lovely daughter Katerina

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