SOVERIA MANNELLI, ITALY - 17 NOVEMBER 2016: Emilio Salvatore Leo (41), entrepreneur and heir of the woolen mill and historic family business Lanificio Leo, poses for a portrait by an old warping mill in Soveria Mannelli, Italy, on November 17th 2016.
Lanificio Leo was the first and last machine-operated woolen mill of Calabria, founded in 1873, it employed 50 people until the 1970s, when national policies to develop Italy’s South cut out small businesses and encouraged larger productions or employment in the public administration.
The woolen mill was on stand-by for about two decades, until Emilio Salvatore Leo, 41, started inviting international designers and artists to summer residencies in Soveria Mannelli. With their inspiration, he tried to envision a future for his mill and his town that was not of a museum of the past,
Over the years, Mr. Leo transformed his family’s industrial converter of Calabrian wool into a brand that makes design products for home and wear. His century old machines now weave wool from Australia or New Zealand, cashmere from Nepal and cotton from Egypt or South America. He calls it a “start-up on scrap metals,” referring to the dozens of different looms that his family acquired over the years.
Soveria Mannelli is a mountain-top village in the southern region of Calabria that counts 3,070 inhabitants. The town was a strategic outpost until the 1970s, when the main artery road from Naples area to Italy’s south-western tip, Reggio Calabria went through the town. But once the government started building a motorway miles away, it was cut out from the fastest communications and from the most ambitious plans to develop Italy’s South. Instead of despairing, residents benefited of the geographical disadvantage to keep away the mafia infiltrations, and started creating solid businesses thanks to its administrative stability, its forward-thinking mayors and a vibrant entrepreneurship numbering a national, medium-sized publishing hous