"The silkworm is a snob," says Moritz Mantero. "He'll eat anything, but he produces silk only if he eats mulberry!" Mantero is the third-generation owner of Mantero Seta SpA, one of the largest silk manufacturers in Como, Italy. Situated three miles from the Swiss border in northern Italy's lake country, Como supplies silken goods to the fashion houses of New York City, Paris and nearby Milan. Although the backbreaking labor of cultivating the voracious and picky silkworms left Italy after World War II—returning to China, whence it had come centuries earlier—the finishing end of silk production stayed here and expanded. Today in Como and its surrounding foothills, there are 800 companies engaged in the silk and textile trade—manufacturing, printing, dyeing, designing, selling. And more than 23,000 Comaschi, as Como residents are called, work in the business. In 2007 they turned out some 4,400 tons of silk fabric. If you own a silk scarf, tie, blouse or dress by any big-name fashion house, from Armani to Zara, chances are the silk came from Como.
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The city, which is also the tourist hub of Lake Como, one of Europe's deepest and most picturesque lakes, is to luxury silk what Reims is to Champagne and Modena to fancy sports cars. Since the manufacturing of silk for the mass-market end of the rag trade migrated largely to China in the past two decades, Como has concentrated on the high-end market, which means fast turnaround for two or three collections a year, sometimes even including final delivery directly to the boutiques of a client like Chanel. "That's the total service they expect," says Mantero of such world-famous designers as Versace, Prada and Ralph Lauren. China, he says, is too far away and too slow to meet the fast-changing demands and relatively small orders of luxury fashion houses.
"Service is not just a practical matter, it's a matter of culture," says Guido Tettamanti, secretary of the Italian Silk Association. "The Como suppliers speak the language of the fashion houses. It's not just the client who proposes. Como also proposes."
Como became Italy's silk capital for two reasons, silk makers say. First, there was an ample supply of water from the lake and nearby alpine streams to the north. Second, there was widespread mulberry farming in the Po River Valley just to the south. Mulberry, native to Italy, was often planted as a field and property divider. This made the region a natural for the cultivation of silkworms.
For me, there's a third reason: the town's physical setting—a palm-lined fjord with an improbable Mediterranean climate and snowy ridgelines in the near distance—may be unmatched in the world. Even its man-made attractions, especially the grand 16th- to 19th-century villas that dot its shores, suggest that adding to the sum of beauty on earth is what is supposed to happen here. And it does—in the silk, in the architecture and in the lifestyles. "We call it la cultura del bello," says Tettamanti. "The culture of beauty."
That culture was on full display as I set out to explore the city and its lakefront one sparkling fall day. The water glinted between sharp Swiss peaks on one side and rolling Lombard hills on the other. Ferries and fishermen skittered across the lake's surface like bugs on the hunt. Small seaplanes buzzed in and out of the Aero Club at the water's edge. Stone structures and ocher facades lined the city's streets, which hummed with the energy of Italian life. A market was selling regional sausages, cheeses and olive oil; mimes and accordionists entertained on the Piazza Duomo; and families bought gelati from a kiosk in a lakeside park next to the Volta Temple, a museum-cum-memorial to Alessandro Volta, a local aristocrat and physicist who in 1800 invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery.
In Como's lively pedestrian zone—within the old walled Roman city founded when Julius Caesar sent 5,000 men to colonize the place 2,000 years ago—young couples with strollers greeted other young parents on the flagstone-paved streets. Exuberant youngsters chased pigeons and darted around on bicycles, while teenage rakes chatted up chic young women in sidewalk cafés.
Reminders of silk were everywhere. Along Via Vittorio Emanuele II, the main shopping street, designer boutiques splashed silken wares in their windows. On the Piazza Cavour, the main square opposite the town's ferry port, a large emporium offered a profusion of silk products. And just outside the city walls, La Tessitura, a store opened by Mantero in a former textile mill, featured a restaurant called the Loom Café.
Both the city and lake of Como have been drawing visitors for centuries. Many who came were wealthy, which is reflected in the exceptional concentration of villas—palaces, really—that line the inverted Y-shaped lake. Arrayed against rising dark hills, the villas look like set pieces for a movie backdrop. (Indeed, many movies—including Casino Royale, Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones and A Month by the Lake—have been filmed here.)
Notables, too, have been coming since Roman times. Both Plinys, Elder and Younger, were born here and Pliny the Younger built two country houses along the lake—one named Tragedy, the other Comedy. Leonardo da Vinci visited and was said to incorporate scenic elements from the area in some of his canvases. In 1568, Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio constructed what is probably the most famous building on the lake, now known as the Villa d'Este. The Renaissance-style palace, originally built right on the water's edge in the town of Cernobbio, was designed by a leading architect of the day. In 1815 the building passed into the hands of German Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of George IV, Prince of Wales. Caroline spent the next five years upgrading the house—adding a library and a theater and expanding the terraced hillside gardens—and putting on gala parties. In 1873 the estate became a hotel, eventually hosting such boldface names as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Alfred Hitchcock and Mikhail Gorbachev. Today's guests—who pay $1,000 and up per night for accommodations—include movie stars, Russian oil magnates and American business leaders.