When I was a little girl my bedroom wall was a shrine to Wonder Woman; her indestructible bracelets, swords and Lasso of Truth were my first glimpse at female strength and power. Today, instead of a cape and fierce boots, my hero wore a million hats—made magic with spatulas and scrapers. She unabashedly supported working mothers and leaped from industry to industry in a single bound. Her legacy: enviable and praiseworthy.
Her name: Luisa Spagnoli—a real modern marvel of the early 20th century.
In early February, Italian TV network, Rai Uno produced a brilliant two part series on the inspiring life of Luisa Spagnoli, venerating her as one of the founders of Perugina Chocolate. And as with many made-for-TV movies, there’s always more to the story.
It was in 1877 when Perugia, Italy gave birth to one of the most forward-thinking women of its time. Luisa Spagnoli put Perugia on the industrial map in not one, but two major sectors: confectionary, with Perugina and fashion, with L’Angora L. Spagnoli.
Today, her name is predominantly associated with haute couture. Style icons, political figures, and many a celebrity have donned her label. From Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, to First Lady, Linda Rama of Albania—all have proudly worn the line. But it was in 2011 when a true revival in popularity emerged. Kate Middleton sparked a fashion frenzy wearing a vibrant and beautifully tailored red peplum Spagnoli ensemble. It was only her second official outing where she yet again, raised her fashion game, with then fiancée, Prince William, at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.
Luisa never lived to see the indelible mark her innovations made in the textile industry—when her son Mario catapulted the family name into fashion royalty. Yet without her, there wouldn’t be a story.
Spagnoli’s rise to entrepreneurial greatness began just before the turn of the century.
At just twenty-one years old, Luisa and her husband, Annibale owned a grocery store where she made and sold candy and chocolates. It was not until 1907 that the company, Perugina was born. Luisa and her husband, partnered with Francesco Andreani, Ascoli Leone and Francesco Buitoni to form a modest company of just 15 employees.
Two years later, the business braced for bankruptcy. Francesco Buitoni, called upon his 18 year old son, today’s well-known pasta maker, Giovanni Battista Buitoni, to help revitalize the company. He had just finished law school and was residing in Germany while scoping out the industry’s latest operational advances. Regardless of age, he was 100%, management material—destined for food industry fame.
Luisa had a genuine admiration for Giovanni and in time their shared passion for the enterprise grew into a full-fledged love affair, proven to withstand any obstacle. The ten-year age gap, Spagnoli being a wife and mother of two children, economic turmoil, social suicide—none of that could pull them apart.
As the country braced for World War I in 1915, Luisa and her two sons, Mario and Aldo were left to run the company. Finances were tight and Spagnoli was forced to keep the operation small selling only sugared almonds. Yet even under the dreariest of circumstances, Luisa firmly believed that Italians would eventually splurge on the sweeter things in life. And she was right.
Giovanni was briefly called to service in 1918, but quickly returned to manage the plant—upgrading machinery and introducing new products. And with these new products, came the most beloved of all: Il Bacio.
In her eyes, the original creation resembled a fist, thus she playfully called it a “Cazzotto”, Italian for a “punch”. A humorous comparison, yes, but it bears some truth. Il Bacio, with its silky dark chocolate, rich gianduia center and whole hazelnut on top, is pure love—the kind that knocks you off your feet and has you coming back for more.
Interestingly enough, this delectable creation came out of cost reduction efforts. Tireless as she was, Luisa began gathering discarded granola nut to maximize the use of production waste. Guessing customers wouldn’t care to buy “punches”, Giovanni renamed the product, “il Bacio”, or “the Kiss”. Graphic Designer, Federico Seneca then added love notes inside each foil wrapper— rumored to have been inspired by Luisa and Giovanni’s secret exchanges of chocolate with private messages.
Spagnoli’s instincts, business savvy and strong will, coupled with Giovanni’s marketing genius paid off. Demand reached an all time high and the company grew to 100 employees strong. Not only did she love her craft, she was a social pioneer— a true advocate for workingwomen and dedicated to improving quality of life for all her employees. While men were off at war, women were faced with a daunting new role: head of household. Recognizing their value and potential, she provided employees with housing and founded a kindergarten in the Fontivegge plant, then considered to be the most advanced in all of Europe’s confectionery industry.
By this time, business endeavors were taking off, yet the Spagnoli family’s foundation was coming apart at the seams. In 1923 Annibale Spagnoli left his wife, including Perugina—and she remained on the board.
And as one story ended, another emerged.
Spagnoli turned her attention to raising chickens and Angora rabbits, known for their long and amazingly soft hair. Curiosity and creativity once again led her to discover how to produce yarns. What’s more amazing was her invention of a technique that safely collected hair—preventing the unnecessary killing of countless rabbits.
Angora Spagnoli was officially founded in 1928, in the village Santa Lucia, near Perugia. There she began to produce shawls, knitwear, but more importantly, develop a unique edge over competition. The company managed to carry out the entire production cycle, from raw materials to garment finishing. At that time, Angora wool was far from popular, as most rabbits were bred abroad. So Luisa decided to breed them in her villa garden, continuously experimenting with yarn texture until she achieved a high quality product that outsiders, even those abroad, couldn’t resist.
Sadly this new chapter in Luisa’s life was cut short. She had fallen ill and moved to Paris for treatment—Giovanni always by her side. It was there, in 1935 that Spagnoli succumbed to throat cancer. She was only 57 years old.
A life lost too soon was indeed tragic, yet her death gave birth to a legacy of ingenuity, compassion and the very resilience that defines “Spagnoli”.
Luisa’s son, Mario Spagnoli turned her latest passion into a world-renowned high-end fashion line. And like his ingenious mother, Mario invented a special comb to collect Angora from rabbits and a patented tool for rabbit tattooing. He is also held in high esteem for the development of “Angora City”—a community of workers, living together, enjoying their very own terraced homes, a communal pool, nursery and gifted wool garments at Christmas for families. And if that weren’t wonderful enough, a park and playground were built in 1963 for employee children called “Città della Domenica”, which you can still visit! The park is a fairy tale wonderland with a Pinocchio Village, the home of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and Snow White and the seven dwarfs. In recent years, the park focuses on animal conservationism and nature studies…but the original magic and whimsical theme remains.
Thanks to Mario, the 1950’s are also remembered for a “hiring boom”. Italy had about 20,000 Angora breeders, creating huge job opportunities nationwide. Eventually Mario’s son, Lino took the helm in 1953 and just like his father, fortified the company’s backbone by increasing knitwear production and opening 90 additional boutiques.
Today, Lino’s daughter, CEO and president, Nicoletta Spagnoli, runs the classic women’s clothing line. In a recent article from Sole 24 Ore she said that the brand is doing very well: the company has 810 employees, mostly women, and ended 2015 with 126 million Euros in revenue, with no signs of slowing down.
Luisa Spagnoli clothing is mainly sold in Italy with 152 boutiques throughout the country and 52 stores abroad, as well as in multi-brand clothing stores. The label is expanding with a fifth store in Iran, two in Dubai, one in London and one in Palo Alto, California. Another recent success includes the launch of “Luisa” perfume.
As for the future, Nicoletta said that “the company is firmly in the hands of my family and will remain so. Even my son Nicholas, who is studying at university, is already working with me…”
And with that, I am sure Luisa is proud…and so are we.
Cheers to all female entrepreneurs around the globe!
Citta della Domenica: History- http://www.cittadelladomenica.it/una-storia-importante/
Perugina- About- http://www.new.perugina.com/the-story/
150 anni- Spagnoli Luisa-Gabriella Mecucci
The Florentine- Giovanni Buitoni:Pasta and Chocolate, Deirdre Pirro, June 16, 2011
L’Italo-Americano- “Casa del Cioccolato Perugina”: The history of chocolate and the story of a great woman told in a unique exhibition in Perugia- Giulia Louise Steigerwalt- Jan 23, 2015
Pasta Tales- A “Sweet” Story of Luisa Spagnoli – The Inventor of Baci Perugina Chocolate Candies- written by Irina Sorogina
Il Post- Luisa Spagnoli, la vera storia- Social TV- 1 febbraio 2016
Natalia Wojdak- Sweet Ambition- Luisa Spagnoli- December 5, 2011
Il Sole 24 Ore- Moda 24- Luisa Spagnoli, in tv la storia di un’imprenditrice d’avanguardia. L’ad: «L’azienda cresce e resterà della famiglia» 28 gennaio 2016