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Style and Il Sistema: Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah

Philosopher-journalist Roberto Saviano doesn't speculate about the relationship between high fashion and organized crime.  He doesn't have to.  He's seen the connection up close -- and even braved the icy waters off the Port of Naples at dawn to help unload goods that would never pass through customs.

In the Italian bestseller Gomorrah, recently made available in English translation, Saviano offers an exposé of the Neapolitan Camorra so damning that he now lives under constant police protection.  It turns out that while the more famous Sicilian Mafia was drawing attention with bombings aimed at law enforcement, the Camorra -- "il Sistema" to those in the know -- was amassing a profitable portfolio of drugs, toxic waste disposal, and, yes, fashion.  Real and fake.

The shady businessmen of Saviano's story have brokered production of legitimate -- albeit untaxed -- garments for some of the most exclusive "made in Italy" labels.  They have also developed a global trade in counterfeits turned out by the very same skilled hands.  In his words:

Not only is the workmanship perfect, but the materials are exactly the same, either bought directly on the Chinese market or sent by the designer labels to the underground factories participating in the auctions.  Which means that the clothes made by the clans aren't the typical counterfeit goods, cheap imitations, or copies passed off as the real thing, but rather a sort of false-true.  All that's missing is the final step:  the brand name, the official authorization of the motherhouse.  But the clans usurp that authorization without bothering to ask anybody's permission....

Products of slightly inferior quality have yet another venue:  African street vendors and market stalls. 

According to the book, designer labels have been slow to protest for fear of losing access to factories in both Europe and Asia, transportation systems, and many retail outlets around the world, all of which are controlled or influenced by Camorristi. 

Saviano's writing, even in translation, often becomes a sort of grim prose poetry, depicting sordid details far removed from the glamor of Milanese runways or the idyllic charm of Tuscan vacations.  The narrative can be choppy and impressionistic.  But Gomorrah is an extremely powerful work by a gifted writer and a clear-eyed son of the region, a work written from the gut and not merely the brain -- and hopefully not in the author's blood.

P.S.  If you understand Italian, check out this interview with Saviano (in several parts), striking for its matter-of-fact tone. 


Thanks to my research assistant, Fordham law student, and Italophile Anthony Mascarenhas for the tip!