The Cosabella Story
“She is a trailblazer, but the most humble—I think—the most humble woman around. There aren’t many others like her. She has made a brand,” explained Guido Campello, Vice President of Sales, Branding & Innovation for Cosabella, a Made In Italy lifestyle apparel brand, about his mother, Valeria Campello, the company’s founder.
Humble is not a word one normally associates with the fashion industry, especially for a brand that has been embraced by celebrities, but Valeria did not plan to create one of the world’s leading lingerie companies. Speaking with her it’s as though she is somewhat surprised by her success.
“I’m not a designer. I’m not particularly fashion-oriented myself. I had to learn it. But I am a creative person—that definitely,” she shared.
What she planned was to have a family and become a corporate lawyer near her native town of Carpi in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, which now also hosts Cosabella’s global distribution offices. She had graduated from law school and was on her way to achieving that goal when her husband, Ugo, who was working for a glass factory, was given the opportunity to relocate, briefly, to Miami to lead his company’s expansion into that market.
“I graduated got married, had children and when I would’ve started the practice, I never did because I came to America,” she explained.
She and Ugo knew they were taking a risk in leaving their comfortable life in Italy and at that time they already had their three-year old daughter, Silvia, and Campello was pregnant with Guido. But it was a risk they were willing to take—albeit originally with the intention of it being temporary. However, soon after she arrived in Miami, Valeria became restless.
“I was always at home with the children while my husband traveled for work and I began to grow anxious and weary because I’m not one to sit still for long.”
Law school had taught her resourcefulness, and she began to wonder what to do while Ugo worked.
“Law school taught me to find always another answer. You have to find a solution or an answer to work it out,” she explained. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m in America, what am I going to do?’” she explained.
The answer was Carpi. As it happened, her hometown was known throughout Italy as being a destination for fashion and Campello saw an opportunity to bring Made In Italy products to Miami. Soon, she was importing clothing from “friends and friends-of-friends.”
“My first stock of Made in Italy products included embroidered tops, linen sets and Egyptian cotton t-shirts. The small success of this Italian product showed me that American women take Made In Italy quality seriously,” she explained.
This initial success led to subsequent opportunities, each of which Campello acted upon, and soon her star was on the rise and she was making contacts with buyers and others who would propel her business to the next level.
“I realized I was able to sell more than just to friends, but also to boutiques. The thought of heading my own company was far from my mind, but business grew so rapidly that I had the need to hire someone to manage sales. This was also needed as I could not yet fully communicate in English. So, I began to ask around for a good sales representative,” she explained.
A local store clerk, fortuitously named Fortune, put her in touch with a salesman from Argentina, Sergio Oxman, who began to grow sales.
“Immediately the great adventure of ups and downs, successes and disillusionment and the birth of a ‘beautiful thing’ (the meaning of “cosabella” in Italian) began,” she described.
Their first setback came when their expansion into the Mexican market was derailed by the devaluation of the Mexican peso. This left them with bounced checks and product sample losses. However, this setback turned positive because it was during these negotiations that Campello began to realize that lingerie made from luxury Italian fabric was not found in the U.S. market and the idea to design and manufacture lingerie was born.
They reached out to a dear friend who owned an Italian lingerie company called Luemme (now also the name of Cosabella’s parent company). Luemme was able to quickly provide product samples, something that was rare for Made In Italy products. Sergio took them to buyers in New York who immediately responded to the elegant, simple, high-quality product.
But selling in New York proved challenging. One order was returned because the labels didn’t have washing instructions, another because the bottoms were too small to fit American women. Yet they made the necessary adjustments, learned quickly and continued to push forward.
One of their first successes was the bodysuit, which had become a major fashion staple and which they could sell to both the lingerie and boutique store buyers. As a result of this success, in 1983, Valeria, now joined by Ugo, formalized the company. It grew quickly and, when others may have looked for less expensive production options, Campello remained fiercely committed to Italy.
“She has an Italian pride,” Guido conveyed about his mother. “A brand like ours should’ve been taken to Asia, but instead of leaving Italy she actually fought and opened up a company to handle our production. We were able to create a firm spot in Italy when everybody else was exiting and that was unique to us. Some people think its nuts, but that’s what makes this brand what it is.”
Now, in addition to the Carpi distribution center, they also have a production facility in Fabriano in the Marche region, as well as thirteen plus laboratories (“laboratori”). These facilities are somewhat unique to Italy in that they are a more specialized type of factory, generally family-owned, where great attention is paid to detail.
While the quality and construction of the fabric became one identifying aspect of the Cosabella brand, the other was color. Vibrant, rich color became their trademark and this also has origins in Italy.
“The beautiful thing about Italy is the rich history of being able to do this color dyeing. When you think of that area of Marche around Fabriano, that’s where—Umbria and all these places—that’s where they developed the pigments for paint and apparel for the Renaissance. That is something that has only expanded out of Italy and into the rest of the fashion world because when you think of New York and Paris you think of blacks and grays, same thing with London,” expressed Guido.
And, while Cosabella is a lifestyle, not category brand, it’s fair to say that the product that propelled the company to mega-stardom was a simple, mesh thong (“il perizoma” in Italian) that appealed to women because the mesh fabric was comfortable and didn’t leave panty lines.
In fact, the Cosabella thong became such a marketing phenomenon that the story around it is included in the book Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand. Here the authors state that, “…lingerie brand Cosabella has managed to produce a line of colorful, functional and sexy thong underwear that has become an instant classic.” And, “….today panty lines are simply not acceptable….they don’t have to be, because these women are now loyalists of the Cosabella brand.”
Now, Cosabella is positioning itself beyond the lingerie category as the apparel lifestyle brand of choice for the jet set. Their collection is designed in a mix-and-match manner focused on quality, ease and comfort and inspired by the La Dolce Vita lifestyle. Guido explained that their expansion strategy pivots on their goal to capture this “value luxury” market. This is the woman that travels throughout the year and is looking for comfortable, high quality clothing that travels and wears well.
While Cosabella is sold around the world, this has been a banner year. They’ve opened, or are opening, stores in New York, Atlanta, South Korea and a store-within-a-store at La Rinascente, the luxury department store in Piazza Duomo in Milan and at Gallerie La Fayette in Paris. Opening the stores allows them to expand their lifestyle collection.
The loyalty among their customers, and the buzz around their product, has resulted in huge celebrity endorsements. Cosabella apparel has now appeared on hit TV shows, including Friends, Sex and the City, and the Rachel Zoe Project, and is worn by many A-list celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez, and Kirstin Dunst.
Still, despite the stellar success, it’s apparent that two things remain integrally important: their pride that the product is Made In Italy and their commitment to family. Like many Italian businesses, Cosabella truly is a family affair, and Valeria is deeply committed to keeping it so. Each family member has an important role in the company. Ugo serves as the Vice President of Design, essentially functioning as the product engineer and creative director. Valeria credit her success to him, as she truly believe she could not have done it without his support in Cosabella’s early stage and with his full involvment in the years to come.
In addition to Guido, they have two other children who perform integral roles. Each Campello child has studied and held outside positions prior to joining the family business. Guido first completed a degree in Urban Planning & Design at New York University and then taught English in Japan, where he ultimately transitioned into the business by working as a distributor and selling Cosabella to department stores and boutiques.
Silvia, who is the Vice President & COO and handles the administration, production and purchasing, holds a degree in Business Administration from the University of Miami and a degree in Oriental Medicine from AMC Miami. She studied ballet and spent time in Paris, both dancing and studying at the Sorbonne, prior to joining Cosabella.
Stefano, the youngest, is currently in his third year at the Savannah College of Art & Design, but has already started to make a significant contribution to the company’s graphic design, creating catalog templates and spearheading the company’s burgeoning QR strategy, though the plan is for him to work a few years elsewhere after he graduates.
Guido encourages this, “He’s got to go out there and get experience somewhere else first. He has something lined up at a great studio in L.A. It’s better if he gets his escape right now. My trip to Japan was mine.”
Ultimately it’s the strength of the Campello family that has resulted in their phenomenal success. Valeria remains deeply involved, primarily in customer service, social networking and innovation. She is a strong, driven Italian woman but, where other female entrepreneurs might fear losing control of the reigns, she readily transfers confidence to her children’s abilities. She encourages them to firmly root themselves as the harbingers of the company’s future.
Guido summed it up this way, “The Italian mother will take care of everything and run the house, while the kids kind of run rampant and that’s really true with the company. She lets us have the spotlight. She’ll credit that to shyness, but that’s not true. It’s that she genuinely pushes everyone ahead. She wants everybody else to shine.”