Mulberry trees still grow on the shores of lake Como, the green leaves that drape like a canopy from thin branches feeding the silkworms that transformed this beautiful corner of Lombardy — an Italian idyll flanking deep water — into a global textile power synonymous with quality, luxury, craft.
Today things are a bit different. Empires rise and they fall, George Clooney moves around the corner, but there are still a handful of Como custodians preserving the old ways. One of those is Ottaviano Mantero Scheuten (a fine name for a silk baron, we’re sure you’ll agree), a member of a family that has been embedded in the business for generations. Riccardo Mantero, Otto’s grandfather, founded his own textile company in the early 20th Century, which is still going strong today. In 1990 Otto struck out on his own, taking over Fermo Fossati, a silk mill dating back to the mid 19th century and, in 1992, consolidated it with the purchase of Carlo Riva, a historic shirtmaker.
Otto and Drake’s go back a long way. Creative Director Michael Hill apprenticed here, with Mantero and Fossati. “There’s no education like it,” says Michael. “I was 18 when I first met Otto. To be able to live with, and learn from, people like that, it’s a great school.” They’re companies that we’ve worked with since the very beginning of Drake’s. Fabrics that you can’t find anywhere else. “Our histories are intertwined,” says Michael. “It’s massively important to what we do.”
Fossati HQ is a short drive from the centre of the town of Como, winding up the hillside in the faint mist of a summer morning. A low building surrounded by a few simple houses. We’re welcomed by our friend Giorgio Citro, the director of Fossati, and Otto, in his trademark Drake’s bow tie. He’s off to Armenia later that day. An invite from the ambassador, he tell us.
“I’ve been wearing a bow tie for 45 years,” says Otto, “I don’t know why I started, but it never changes.” “Maybe on a Sunday he doesn’t wear it,” quips Giorgio.
We’re shown around the manufacturing side of the business, shuttle looms from the early 20th Century. “This one is from 1870 perhaps,” says Otto, “and makes all of the warp for the grenadine silk.” There aren’t too many mills still working like this — a direct link to centuries past. “I think I have the best looms in the world,” says Otto with a glint in his eye, leading us through the elaborate warren of his workshop, craftspeople expertly tending to fabric, machinery and finishing, the whir and energy of things being made.
After the tour it’s time for lunch. Al Pesce Vela, locals only. The walls are covered with newspaper clippings and awards for their pizza and tomato sauce. Otto lives by a certain set of rules: 30g of pasta, no more, and please don’t top up his wine glass before it’s completely finished — savour it slowly. One of his two phones rings, a now-retro Nokia, more Armenia logistics. He owns a seaplane and a lake boat that is being repaired. Some people just lead interesting lives.
“Excuse me, but I have to go to the airport now,” he says. He removes his napkin, packs up his pair of phones, hands are shaken and warm goodbyes exchanged.
“Thank you for coming,” says Otto, and then he’s gone.