PRATO, ITALY — The "Made in Italy" label conjures images of little old men and women in aprons and spectacles, stooped over wooden tables, cutting leather and sewing by hand in workshops that dot the hills of Tuscany.
It certainly doesn't make you picture Chinese immigrants toiling long hours in ramshackle, poorly illuminated sheds, and then sleeping in small rooms behind thin plywood right there in the factories.
These days, the coveted "Made in Italy" label on those Prada bags and Gucci shoes, which can quadruple a price, may not mean what it used to.
Thousands of Tuscan factories that produce the region's fabled leather goods are now operated and staffed by Chinese. Though located in one of Italy's most picturesque and tourist-frequented regions, many of the factories are nothing more than sweatshops with deplorable conditions and virtually indentured workers.
Chinese laborers have become such an integral cog in the high-fashion wheel that large Chinatowns have sprung up here and in Florence. Signs in Chinese, Italian and sometimes English advertise pronto moda (ready-to-wear). At the main public hospital in Prato, the maternity ward on a recent morning was a cacophony of 40 squalling babies, 15 of them Chinese. "Mi chiamo Zhong Ti," one of the crib tags said -- "My name is Zhong Ti."
In Prato, Tuscany's historic and industrious textile center 10 miles northwest of Florence, Chinese who are legal residents make up about 12% of the population (and probably close to 25% when illegal Chinese are counted, police say).
For the big-name clothing labels, Chinese-staffed workshops provide an important way of keeping costs down by supplying cheaply and quickly made purses, shoes and other products. It helps the fashion houses compete and, many argue, it's better than the alternative: moving all production offshore.
But for legions of Italian craftsmen and -women who try to maintain painstaking but costly old-style practices, the cheaper Chinese labor is deadly.
"It's a crazy competition. In fact, you can't compete," said Andrea Calistri, whose third-generation family business has been making handbags for top designers from voluptuous leather and buttery suede for more than half a century.
In a way, this is representative of the dilemma facing Italy as a whole: How do you compete in a hard-edged global economy while maintaining the standards that give a native craft its panache?
Three categories of problematic production plague the Italian fashion industry.
First there are the out-and-out counterfeits, part of a multibillion-dollar fraud denounced the world over. Consumers have long been aware of the fakes and knockoffs, made God-knows-where, that are hawked on street corners or out of the trunks of cars. Italian financial police last year conducted 250 raids on workshops in Tuscany alone and confiscated tons (literally) of cheap bags and shoes bearing fraudulent Prada, Fendi and Nike insignia.
Then there is the gray area of shoes and bags assembled at least partially in China, India, Malaysia and other low-cost locales, then brought to Italy for a final buckle, heel or strap. These items can, somewhat questionably, bear "Made in Italy" labels.
Finally, there are the products made completely in Italy but by Chinese immigrants. That's often technically legal. But it crosses the line when the workers are in Italy without proper documents and labor conditions for them are especially nasty.
Italian law governs safety in the workplace, the number of hours that can be worked and the minimum wage, among other rules, but the law is often flouted.
And so, it is possible that a fancy store may have expensive designer bags made by Chinese workers in Italy displayed next to the same bags made, also in Italy, by Italian workers, Calistri says. One cost 20 euros (about $30) to produce, the other 250 euros (about $365). The price tag is the same, often many hundreds of dollars.
That's plain wrong, Calistri says. "When you have a product like Prada or Dolce & Gabbana, you are not supposed to use illegal workers," he said. "If a customer pays 1,000 euros [about $1,470] for a bag, he has a right to expect not only the best materials and the best creation but also a respected legal process.
" 'Made in Italy,' " he said, "means tradition, know-how and standards. . . . It means not only made in Italy, but made in the Italian way."
Calistri has formed a consortium composed of 65 companies, all small like his. They call themselves 100 Percent Italian.
In his workshop during a recent visit, women (and they are mostly women) in crisp white lab coats were attaching gilded bows to pink satin clutches for Roberto Cavalli, while a computer-guided laser sliced thin sheets of soft leather for designs by Bulgari or Donna Karan. Under bright fluorescent lighting, other women hand-stitched the suede inner pockets of another batch of designer bags.