A bored mother and her restless hands – no one could have imagined that this was enough to start a multi-million euro manufacturing enterprise.
The day when Giovanna Miletti started sewing clothes to pass the time while waiting for her kids to come back from kindergarten, she could never have expected that many years later, her creations would dress children from thousands of miles away, as far as Japan, Russia, China or the United States.
“In the 1980s, my mom started creating children’s clothes and other items just to pass the time while doing something useful”, said Guido Chiavelli, Il Gufo’s CEO - along with his sister Alessandra- and son of the company’s founder. “It started out as a mere hobby. But it was while she was enjoying her hobby that she discovered her knack for entrepreneurship”.
Even the brand name “Il Gufo” reflects the artisanal and natural beginnings of the company. “My mother was working on some tablecloths for some shops and friends across the city. Eventually, she had to establish a company and come up with a name. she used to work at night, in order to avoid drawing attention off us during the day. Then, she decided for Il Gufo – “the owl” in Italian: the nocturnal bird.
Even as time went by, the name Il Gufo stuck and came to represent the homegrown origins of the company. In fact, you can’t miss owl-themed handicrafts in any weekly market held in many of Italy’s historic town piazzas.
True to its grassroots origins, its first workshop with three workers was located in their home portico. In winter, the portico could be closed off. “This produced some of our first goods and guess what? These products are still in our catalogues,” said Guido. He added that continuous growth has been achieved since then, owing to continued re-investment while studying and adapting to their competitors. All this was achieved while staying true to the artisanal model, even without a business plan drawn up.
Eventually, Il Gufo scaled up and the enterprise started to look less like a hobbyist’s pastime. “My mother signed contracts with a big sales agency in Milan called “Zappieri”, to distribute our products. They were very interested in working with handmade goods. “This was the turining point when we started thinking more like strategic entrepreneurs,” the CEO explained. He continued: “She used the first profits to boost production gradually, without needing to rely on bank loans.”
One of the most important milestones marking the evolution of Il Gufo- from an artisanal producer into a fully-fledged modern manufacturer- was when they invested in creating their new headquarters in 1993. “The 90s for us were marked by big investments and rapid expansion. We hired new people with more skills. I also joined the company in 1997 and began distributing internationally,” Guido said.
Their foray into the international market started in 1994 in Germany and the US. They also participated in some of the most important fashion exhibitions such as “Pitti Immagine Bimbo”, where they were introduced to international clients.
Despite this expansion, maintaining their focus on quality remained. And not only for what concerns materials. Clients also have to pass through their criteria. “We have refused clients in the past because they could not fulfill the high standards that we have set. Nothing changed, as my mother always wanted the best.”
By 2000, Il Gufo moved to a new facility to accommodate their operations’ growth. The new location was closer to the mountains and to the people that first supported their enterprise. The CEO continued, “We love Italy of course. It’s the biggest market for our products. By then, I was developing our international sales mostly in Russia, Middle East and Japan.”
“In 2002 we opened our first flagship store in Turin. Someone believed in our products and asked us why don’t we try to open our own store. Since then, year after year, we have opened new stores in major cities across the world such as Milan, Rome, Paris, New York etc”. Aside from stores, they’re also present in several department stores worldwide.
Their department store presence is also strategic, as it isn’t just another sales channel for them, but also a way to distribute their brand by being present only in the most well-known, high-end department stores. Indeed, London’s Harrods and La Rinascente in Milan and Rome are just some high-end department stores that supply Il Gufo. They also developed their e-commerce portal where they now see big sales growth (more than 22% in 2016).
The Secret Sauce
What’s their secret to success? An unfailing standard of quality. “From the time when we first registered the company in the 80s up to today, we understood the need to project quality, even to our employees; we show that we are selective for what concerns our products and carefully choose who or what store represents our brand.”
However, building a quality brand means higher risks of being targeted by counterfeiting operations and copycats. Recently, Guido, along with his sister, has taken up seriously monitoring and protecting their brand in public, and now invests in ensuring the integrity of their brand. “We took steps to register Il Gufo’s trademarks and we do not tolerate counterfeiting or any infringement of our brand’s copyrights.”
Aside from safeguarding their brand, another action Guido mentioned was to keep developing Il Gufo’s products and evolving them while maintaining quality. “Constant changes make us impossible to replicate,” he said.
At present, ‘children dressed as children’ is Il Gufo’s guiding concept. “We strongly believe that kids deserve their own style and quality. They have different needs from adults. It’s not enough to get adult clothes, shrink them, and call them children’s clothing”, said Guido.
“As for my mother, the person who started all this, she still has the same enthusiasm that showed from the start, and it hasn’t diminished – indeed, today she still has an oversight of the style department and is involved with our company’s strategic decisions. A continuous quest for excellence and moving forward, step by step, has allowed her to turn something as simple as a hobby into a successful company,” Guido concluded.