In the 19th century, a parade of writers—Stendhal, Wordsworth and Shelley among them—spread the word of Lake Como's charms. "I ask myself, Is this a dream? / Will it vanish into air? / Is there a land of such supreme and perfect beauty anywhere?" Longfellow wrote of the lake. Liszt, Bellini and Verdi composed music on its shores. After World War II, it was a destination of choice for both Winston Churchill, who painted from a villa in the village of Moltrasio, and Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar German chancellor, who summered in Menaggio.
Today a new generation of famous visitors is descending on Lake Como. The best known is the actor George Clooney, who in recent years has purchased two villas in Laglia, a lakeside village six miles north of Como. "People sometimes call us Lake Clooney," says Jean Govoni Salvadore, the longtime public relations director at the Villa d'Este. Others have apparently started calling Laglia, formerly a sleepy stop on the lake's ferry route, "Georgetown." At least that's what I was told by Sergio Tramalloni, a member of Como's very active seaplane club, as he flew me over the lake and pointed out Clooney's property.
Clooney's presence has reportedly attracted a stream of other celebrity visitors and would-be villa owners. Last year, Vanity Fair cited Italian newspaper reports that Tom Cruise, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and recently re-elected Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had all either purchased or were shopping for Lake Como villas. The Comaschi watch all this with mixed feelings. They are happy to see fresh money reviving hotels and restoring stately properties. But they also know that gentrification and the influx of celebrities come at the cost of increased traffic and, now, dramatically inflated real estate prices.
While the arrival of Clooney and friends may have captured Como's headlines, silk makers and fashion houses still shape its spirit. Mantero, dapper in a pale-blue spread-collar shirt and handmade silk tie, leads me through the design ateliers and consulting rooms of his company's headquarters—a stately urban villa with dark wainscoting, broad hallways and coffered ceilings. In what looks like a professor's study, four people lean over a stack of large design albums. "That's Ferragamo on one side and our designers on the other," Mantero whispers. "They're planning some new scarves."
We walk across a glassed-in bridge from the villa to the design ateliers, where another team is gathered around a long table. This group is finalizing a design for dress material. In the main atelier—a huge room with light streaming in through high windows—I see a dozen or more designers working with pencil, pen, brush and computers. "All these people are artists," says Mantero. "Everything we do starts by hand. It would be far cheaper to do it all by computer, but that's not what our clients want. They want to know that every design is hand-done."
A woman named Donatella (she shyly declines to give her last name) painstakingly draws tiny butterflies, mosquitoes and whimsical flowers for a blue-and-gray scarf design ordered by Liberty of London. At another table, designer Mauro Landoni scans Donatella's drawings into a computer, creating files that will ultimately produce the porous screens that are used for printing on silk. Each will allow a single color to pass through onto bolts of off-white silk stretched out on printing tables that are nearly the length of a football field. The design of a single scarf may need as many as 30 to 35 screens. Landoni's computer scans will also create stencils for weaving dyed silk yarns into a desired design.
A few days after my tour of Mantero's operations, Donatella Ratti, president of the Ratti Group, the other best-known silk company in the Como area, takes me on a tour of her offices. Situated on a plateau about 12 miles from Como with an unobstructed view of the Lombardy Alps, the headquarters houses administrative, sales and design teams in a single, 50,000-square-foot room. "We put women's scarf designers near the home furnishings people," says Ratti, "so each knows what the other is doing."
Style consultant Fabio Belotti, whose wild white hair makes me think of Albert Einstein, tosses silk swatches and design books around as he explains how he and his staff work with the fashion houses to find a winning look for the next collection. "Today we have to be very fast," he says. "In the United States they all do eight collections a year. We try to find something we love, but sometimes the client wants something else, so we collaborate with them."
Touring Ratti's printing plant, I'm amazed by the complexity of the process: the thousands of dye variations in what is called the "color kitchen," the ceiling-high racks of hundreds of silk screens, the baskets full of hanks of raw silk from China and the creative interchange between the print technicians and the designers. At one long table, a man was doing something I'd never before seen in previous visits to silk country: painting, not just printing, a long bolt of silk. Renato Molteni, who refuses to call himself an artist, was making art. Dipping a spatula—"they want the spatula look," he told me—into his dye buckets, he was creating, over and over again, an array of flowers on a large swath of silk. The diaphanous design—beige on white, with tinges of gray—was for dress material ordered by the Milanese fashion house of Dolce & Gabbana. One can only imagine what those dresses are going to cost. Molteni says simply, "You have to watch out that the flowers don't get too big."
"Creativity and high quality, that's our way to survive," says Ratti. "The Chinese are good at doing big quantities. They are not interested in making luxury. It's difficult, it's hard, it's expensive. They can't understand why we would print only 100 meters of something. But there are new rich people in the world—in China, in India, in Russia. They want luxury. They want real Ferraris, real Rolexes, real Hermès. They want Europe."