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Are Fashion Houses the new Medici benefactors?

Many of Italy’s great works of art and iconic cultural heritage sites are badly in need of restoration. But with a government in flux, and the Italian economy in a protracted economic recession, very little public funding has been allocated to these projects. Despite a rise in tourism, ticket sales alone are not enough to maintain them. Enter the corporate sponsor.

Tod’s Pledges to Restore the Colosseum

In January 2011, Tod’s (Italy’s luxury shoe and leather bags brand) announced a plan to fund a 3-year restoration of the Colosseum in Rome to the tune of 25 million euros. And not a minute too soon: chunks of stone and masonry have regularly fallen from the arena over the past five years. Already, traffic has been diverted away from the immediate perimeter, and replaced by a pedestrian zone and bicycle path, as the vibrations were thought to be damaging the structure. While four floors of scaffolding now cover parts of the monument’s arches and will remain there for another two years, the site will remain open to visitors throughout the renovation.

Diego Della Valle, in front of the Colosseum

So, what does Tod’s get in return?

Not much, by the usual standards. They have the right to use the Colosseum’s logo for 15 years in their advertising (i.e. bragging rights) and to brand the back of tickets bought by the six million tourists who pay to see the Colosseum each year. No massive signage or renaming of the site. Tod’s Italian billionaire owner, Diego Della Valle has stated, “I won’t put Tod’s shoes on the Colosseum.”

Fendi and the Fontana di Trevi, Rome

Not to be outdone, the fashion House of Fendi (LVMH) announced a 2.2 million plan to restore the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) in January 2013. Thankfully, only a third of the fountain will be covered in scaffolding at any one time. A metal plaque, about the size of a coffee table book, will be added to the fountain that names Fendi as the sole sponsor. The sign will stay up for four years after the project is completed. Fendi will also be sponsoring the restoration of four more fountains in Rome as part of its “Fendi for Fountains” initiative, including Bernini’s Triton in Piazza Barberini.

Diesel to underwrite Venice’s Rialto Bridge

On January 24, 2014, Diesel (an Italian-based jeans company) announced a 5 million euro plan to “Save the Rialto Bridge” in Venice. The 400-year-old bridge spans the Grand Canal and is subjected to 20 million tourists per year tramping across it en route to St Mark’s square. Recently, a column on the bridge’s railing collapsed, and some marble steps have begun to crack, resulting in part of the iconic bridge being closed down.

In return, Renzo Rosso, founder and owner of Diesel which is based in the Veneto region, receives promotional rights (yet to be announced). The project will also provide employment to workers of OTB, a Venetian company that just happens to be owned by the same family that owns Diesel. The work is expected to take 18 months.

 The Trend Picks Up Steam

Thanks in large part to Tod’s CEO Della Valle’s Project Italia, other international luxury goods companies are jumping on the restoration bandwagon: Bulgari, Prada, Benetton, Gucci, Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. In Umbria, leading cashmere maker Brunello Cucinelli is restoring the entire medieval hill town of Solomeo – where his workshops are located. The real value of this form of home-based philanthropy appears to lie in the social prestige factor: it promises a fast ticket to the new nobility. That said, not everyone is keen to participate: Armani recently declined an invitation from Della Valle to restore Milan’s Sforzesco Castle.

Given that the luxury goods sector is one of the few thriving aspects of the Italian economy (thanks to the rise in tourists from Asia and South America), it would also appear to be a wise PR move. What better way to silence critics than with a grand gesture of public goodwill?

Regardless of the motivation, Credit Suisse’s Lyne-Smith says Europe’s philanthropic renaissance might be one of the financial crisis silver linings. I, for one, am very grateful for this trend that encourages companies to spend their publicity dollars in this way, rather than yet another series of ads. I doubt any of the millions of visitors will begrudge them a discreet commemorative plaque or a logo on the back of a ticket or brochure. It appears to be a win-win for all concerned.