A native Texan now based in Italy, Allison Hoeltzel Savini is the founder of Officina del Poggio, an accessories line completely made in Italy, focusing on traditional construction methods. Having spent the last 17 years in Italy working for various brands, she launched ODP in 2014. Through her own collection and also her consulting business in product design and development for shoes and leather goods, Allison spends her days hands-on at tanneries and factories throughout Italy. We had the pleasure of meeting Allison at the Lineapelle fair in Milan, and asked her to share with us a little more about her work.
Your role sounds very behind-the-scenes, so explain to us a little more about what you do:
For my own line, I manage the entire creative and development process: researching shapes and trends, sourcing materials, designing and developing the protos and samples, and even the sales. Fortunately now we are growing so I am able to delegate some of the sales and marketing to external collaborators, which allow me to work more on the product.
For other brands, I work as a consultant to help in the development of their lines. I collaborate directly with the creative directors or product development teams to help in building their line, whether it be completely from scratch in trend research and presenting designs and concepts, to developing their sample collections, or in some cases my clients just need help with sourcing materials.
Tell us a little about why you chose this career path:
Actually I studied something completely different. I came to Italy in 2001 for an internship to complete my MBA. I was specializing in Arts Administration, yet as most arts organizations are state-run in Italy, it was difficult to find a job in the arts as I wasn't an Italian citizen, therefore couldn't even apply for most jobs. I searched for a job in fashion as it had always been an interest. I wanted to work in marketing but instead landed my first job in product development. I loved spending time in the factories and really seeing the whole process: from the research and development of the raw materials up to the final stages of ensuring that the product meets quality standards.
Working with shoes and leather goods, what was the most interesting thing you discovered?
I was really amazed at how complicated the process is, and how many components and manufacturers are involved in each product. The components are all made from different suppliers, so it is quite a process to organize it all together. For industrialized brands, even though you may make the shoes with a specific shoe factory, you still source the lasts, leather, soles, reinforcements, and heels all from different suppliers. You have to “build” the constructions starting from the last, and then all of the other components are custom fit to the last. The last has to be tested and fit as even just a millimeter can make a big difference in the comfort, and the height and pitch of the heel also has to be perfect. It is actually quite a technical process because in the end, the shoe has to fit well and be comfortable, while still respecting the design and “look” of the design team. With handbags, it is the same except you have fewer components. I am always tempted to say that handbags are easier to develop, yet it isn't necessarily true as handbags have to be functional, as they are more personal to a woman.
What is a typical week like for you during the development process?
No week is ever “typical”, as a lot of the process is just being on-hand to resolve problems as they arise. I have the luxury of being in Italy, and very central in Bologna, so I am at the factories at least twice a week to make sure that the development process is running smoothly, and I often visit the tanneries to check on the development of leathers or also to quality control before shipment to the factories. I try to at least have two days a week as “office time”, to catch up on correspondence, pricing calculations, and emails.
What do you love most about this job? I love a good challenge, so it is always fun to hunt and search for unique materials or workmanship techniques. I also love working directly with the artisans. A lot of the process of both my bags and also the lines that I work for is a constant dialouge and hands-on participation with the various people involved: from the shoe technicians to the patternmakers to also the prototype makers, who are key in the process as they are the ones who take the pattern and transform it into the first piece, often needing to tweak the pattern or use particular reinforcements to make it perfect. The best part, though, is seeing the final samples... it is like Christmas each time a piece is completed!
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Definitely keeping track of all of the deadlines. Italy is always thought to have too many holidays and a very relaxed attitude regarding deadlines, but I don't find that true. Those that are passionate about what they do know that fashion only works if it is presented in a timely manner. Therefore they often work long hours and weekends to make sure to get the job done. If you miss the runway or sales dates, then the entire development goes to waste. With all of the components involved, I have to make sure that they all arrive on time to allow the final maker to complete the samples. Often there are bottlenecks so it is just a matter of anticipating them. I never would have thought this at the time, but the most useful course of my MBA was definitely Operations Management!
What advice could you give to someone wanting to break into a career in fashion?
Don't be afraid to take a job that might not have been your desired path, as you need to start out somewhere and the skills you learn will always be useful when moving into other roles. I didn't ever think to work in development, yet it was a perfect start as it gave me the technical skills I needed to then move into product management, line building, and design. Getting your hands dirty working on building and understanding the product is necessary in all aspects of the business.
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