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From Gucci to De Rucci, Innovation Always Grew From Imitation

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You probably know him as that stern, cult-leader-ish face staring from billboards on multiple continents, clad in wire-rimmed glasses and a starched button-up shirt, like some Steve Jobs of the sleep industry.

Contrary to the haunt-your-dreams imagery, De Rucci guy isn’t the obsessively controlling scion of a long line of Milanese upholsterers. Instead, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper, he’s a man called Timothy James Kingman who in 2009 allowed Shenzhen-based De Rucci Healthy Sleep Co. to permanently use his image in its advertisements.

“Perhaps De Rucci uses a White man’s face to pass itself off as a European company selling European products?” the paper’s Zhang Zhouxiang wrote last week, lamenting the way local businesses use Western branding as a synonym for quality. “Such blind worship is uncalled for in China, now that it has become the world’s second-largest economy.”

Zhang’s not wrong. From the company’s name, to Kingman’s face, to the French and Danish designers it emphasizes elsewhere on its website (next to stock imagery of someone, for some reason, stitching a leather shoe), De Rucci’s European stylings have always been an elaborate fake. The purpose is transparent: To counteract consumers’ prejudices about spending thousands of dollars on a product from China, a country still associated in many minds with low cost, low quality, and poor safety standards.

That shift from cultural shame and envy to cultural pride seems an almost inevitable part of innovation and industrial development wherever it’s happened in the world. In the 1940s, the corporate predecessor of Toshiba Corp. imitated the desk fan designs of its shareholder and patent licensor General Electric Co., right down to the cursive Roman lettering on their bosses.

In the 1960s, the first Japanese cars imported into the U.S. and Europe were mocked for their perceived low power and quality in explicitly racist terms. Less than two decades later, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. had become so successful in taking on Detroit with cheaper, more reliable vehicles that Washington waged a trade war to protect its dwindling domestic market share. Toyota, for its part, seems to have learned little from that history: The head of its premium Lexus brand declined in 2015 to set up a plant in China, now the world’s biggest luxury car market, on the grounds that quality would be compromised by manufacturing there.

Even the storied couturier whose associations with timeless style and perfection seem to have inspired De Rucci’s brand name had humble beginnings. In the 1890s, a teenaged Guccio Gucci worked as a lowly porter at London’s Savoy hotel, carrying leather luggage made by Asprey, H.J. Cave, and Louis Vuitton before returning to Florence to found his own saddlery and baggage-maker(1) . “Italian fashion” as we know it didn’t really exist until the 1950s, when aristocratic entrepreneur Giovanni Giorgini spotted a gap in the market driven by French couturiers’ failure to cater to the tastes of American department store customers. As with De Rucci’s conquest of the world, it’s remarkable how far a business can go if it offers good value, smart branding and a keen eye on what the market wants.

The path all those companies have followed is the same. Most technological progress comes not from lightbulb moments, but from a slow but fruitful process of learning-by-doing — the 99% of perspiration matched with 1% inspiration in Thomas Edison’s famous formula for creative genius.

If De Rucci’s products are any good, it’s not because of an invented European history, but the fact that they’re making and selling $700 million worth of mattresses a year — and, inevitably, spotting small and large ways to advance  the process as they do. That slow, iterative approach to improvement is seen in multiple areas where China is overtaking richer countries, from solar panels to electric car batteries. With such a universal place at the heart of global supply chains, it’s no surprise that the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods should be going from imitation to innovation at a breakneck pace.

There’s no shortage of jingoism to be found on the pages of the China Daily, but the paper’s dyspeptic attitude to De Rucci’s Italianate branding seems more like a healthy dose of self-confidence. One day China, in its turn, will underestimate the innovative brilliance of rising South Asian and African economies, and the world will forget that Made in China was once a by-word for cheap and tawdry, just as “Made in Germany” was originally.

Look at the stock of Japanese culture: Once derided by European and American bigots, it’s so admired these days that Western brands such as Superdry Plc and Ariana Grande sprinkle gibberish mock-kanji over their products and bodies without bothering to find out what they mean. One might term that process cultural appropriation, but culture is not so very different from cultivation — an organic process of growth, appropriating resources from the intellectual compost that surrounds it, and developing useful and beautiful new forms in the process.

The imagery De Rucci has borrowed from Timothy James Kingman is disposable. If it can make a decent mattress, that will ultimately be worth far more.

(1) His granddaughter Patricia Gucci, who wrote an account of that period in her memoir, is different to the Patrizia Gucci portrayed by Lady Gaga in the film “House of Gucci.” Born Patrizia Martinelli, she married Patricia Gucci’s cousin Maurizio Gucci before taking out a hitman to kill him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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