The word autarchy evokes distant times: a time of people in black fascist uniforms, iniquitous sanctions, chicory coffee, Italian East Africa, and looming war. Exotic suggestions aside, there is little to be nostalgic about the fall of 1935, when the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy that changed our history.
That same history and those dramatic years have taught us a life lesson that is valid for today and tomorrow.
During the autarchic period, which Fascism expanded far beyond the economic sanctions (which ceased in the summer of 1936), “doing things yourself”, making do and adapting, became a political manifesto and social system. Everyone had to make the best of a bad situation. For those aiming for excellence, however, it was more complicated because the impossible circumstances drastically affected quality. And yet…
The “fabrics of the Empire” were not a free choice, but an imposition. However, necessity — which sometimes leads to virtue — often sharpens one’s wits and leads to making the most of available resources at hand. It wasn’t just a question of nationalism.
It was a question of applying credible problem-solving solutions because the available resources were not sufficient or they were simply no longer there, as in the case of wool. Under certain conditions a different vision emerges if you want to survive. Waste is abolished, there is a tendency for reuse, and the maximum is squeezed out of the minimum, giving a different or new life to things.
We could not stop producing yarns, fabrics and clothing. But wool, almost all imported through English brokers, was no longer arriving. Therefore, native species of sheep were reintroduced and raised, when feasible. But that wasn’t enough. Therefore, agave, mulberry, broom, nettle, and hooded matweed fibers were spun. What’s more, milk — or better, casein — became Lanital, hemp was used to make Cafioc, and cellulose was used to make Cisalfa and, above all, rayon. Mister Gualino rubbed his hands together with glee: his SNIA Viscosa never had so many orders.
On closer inspection, these are all-natural fibers or natural/slightly artificial blends. None contained petroleum (there wasn’t any to be found). So, was autarchy a green economy that was ahead of its time? Let’s not exaggerate. And can we consider the act of not throwing away anything but making the most of everything as much as possible a precursor of recycling or the more modern and creative upcycling? That might be a bit of a stretch. However, Ermenegildo Zegna and other entrepreneurs like him had to improvise and adapt to achieve the goal of not shutting down their factories and unloading all the burden of that difficult moment on their workers.
Zegna autarchic fabrics are now a historical example and, even more so, proof of psychological and later productive resilience and versatility. The next time, we will learn more about them.