Zimmerli of Switzerland – Made on the Home Turf



Prestigious undergarment manufacturer Zimmerli was founded in 1871 by Pauline Zimmerli. It was also her idea to send the first wares to Paris, where they soon won numerous prizes for high-standing quality. Today, Marcel Hossli, a native of Lucerne, manages the day-to-day operations of the underwear company, which was sold to the v. Nordeck Group, a consortium specialized in regionally established manufacturers, in 2007.

Marcel Hossli distinguishes between two types of luxury, endorsing one but not the other. Prior to taking on the management at Zimmerli, he worked in the watchmaking industry, where “many are only concerned about having a snazzy business card to put on the table.” Personally, Marcel Hossli isn’t impressed by pretension, neither in people nor in brands. And in his opinion, his previous employer, Patek Philippe, stood out from the rest. “A little reserved perhaps, but never arrogant.” Decadent luxury with its ostentatious wares and exaggerated price tags is not for him. “Real luxury isn’t about displaying wealth – it’s something to be enjoyed privately. We are extremely privileged in this country and have many ways of spending our money. To me, quality is the best investment.” His personal opinion matches the luxury concept that Zimmerli products convey.

The luxury we offer is the wonderful sensation of our undergarments on your skin, along with the satisfaction of allowing yourself that luxury on a daily basis.

And this is not the only reason to choose undershirts that cost CHF 90 a piece, as Marcel Hossli intends to demonstrate to us personally. And so he drives to meet us one morning at the Mendrisio train station in Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, to show us the cutting department. Unhurriedly, he pushes a child’s safety seat to one side and ushers us into his car. Upon arrival at our destination and after calling out a hearty “Buongiorno, Signora!” into every well-lit room of the modest building, he introduces us to each of the employees.

From cotton fiber to fine rib undershirt

Cutter Marisa demonstrates her work to us with a speed and dexterity that reveals a well-established routine. First she rolls out meters of fabric panels, carefully placing one layer on top of the other, 30 layers in total. These are smoothed down and ironed until every crease has been eliminated. Though working with obvious concentration, Marisa appears relaxed. With red spectacle frames pushed back on her head, she uses marked templates to work her way deftly over the fabric. The templates are meticulously prepared by pattern cutter Raquel, then laid out according to the cutting pattern image. “The fabric can hardly be recycled and is very expensive, so it’s extremely important not to waste a single centimeter,” Raquel explains conscientiously. Meanwhile, Marisa is ironing the numerous templates to the fabric so they won’t slip during cutting. Then she cuts them with an industrial cutter, leaning all the way across the table to reach the opposite sides of the panels draped on the 25-meter-long table that stands in front of an equally long window. Only a few meters away, her sister-in-law operates a machine with razor-sharp blades. Ombretta is in charge of fine-cutting the fabric down to the exact millimeter and then packing all the separate parts of one item together. She wears a chain glove to avoid injuring herself. The only sounds are the hum of the bright neon lights and the clicking of the cutters and shears. One of the women is humming too, but it isn’t clear which one. The fabric for 1,200 articles is processed here on a daily basis, and, over the year, these four women do the entire cutting for the 350,000 finished pieces that Zimmerli produces annually.

We manufacture our goods in Switzerland, which means a high payroll compared to other locations. So we have to be extremely productive. It’s a continual balancing act to achieve both top-range quality and cost-efficient production.

The fabric is delivered in rolls or, for articles without side seams, as round knitted tubes in various sizes. Only long, thin cotton fibers of the highest quality, so-called “extra long staple,” are used to produce the fabrics. The thread is spun exclusively for Zimmerli, and the cloth is produced according to the company’s exact specifications. Cotton is very pleasant on the skin and carries a low risk for allergies, making it very interesting for the textile industry. “Our fabrics are in direct contact with the skin, so we really want to avoid any sort of chemical irritants,” Marcel Hossli explains while he cheerfully unrolls bales of fabric and stretches finely ribbed cloth to demonstrate its elasticity. Finishing – softening, soaking, dying the textiles – is done as gently as possible.

To ensure that the color of each part of the final article matches, it is essential that all parts come from the same fabric roll. This is the only way to guarantee an overall consistent color and quality. And so the four employees in the cutting department have to work at the same pace and coordinate seamlessly at all times. In addition to Raquel, Marisa, and Ombretta, a fourth woman sits in a small side room and makes the cuffs and collars used in some designs – all from the same fabric roll. Then, the separate parts are bundled together and sent to the sewing department as a complete set. Before saying his good-byes, Marcel Hossli stops at every workstation and has a brief chat with each employee in Italian.

We all share in the success, every single person is a part of the larger whole: Purchase, sales, production, logistics, development – we are one team.

One hundred percent traceability

In Coldrerio, just a couple of kilometers away, the separate pieces are sewn together in roughly 17 further production steps, and then packed for delivery. A sophisticated system entailing bar codes as well as time, name, and activity registration enables exact monitoring of how long somebody has worked on a certain product and on what date. “This system ensures both an exact quality control and guarantees traceability,” Marcel Hossli explains. “Quality control takes up about a fifth of the entire time needed in making a Zimmerli product.” Something probably no one is more aware of than Clementina. With spectacles balanced on the end of her nose, she has been employed here for 41 years. Hanging at the top left of her desk, a sheet of paper lists the six parameters for which she controls every single article. Each worker has a control number, which is attached to each article in order to establish the amount of material processed during the year and to reconstruct how many employees were involved in which work step. Marcel Hossli explains why this is so important: “If somebody calls and complains that the undershirt they bought only a year ago is already showing signs of wear, we can reconstruct the entire production procedure – the provenence of the material, and when the product was produced – by looking at the number on the label. And so we can check whether a mistake occurred, or whether the garment was really, perhaps, already a few years old afterall.

Manufactured in Switzerland since 1871

Approximately 60 employees in total are employed in Ticino. Most of them work on the upper floor of the sewing department. Exactly 55 machines, of 33 different makes, stand here. Many of the seamstresses are specialized in just one or two sewing operations, which they perform the entire day. These they carry out with accurate and deft precision, their machines flying over the fabric. Many of them have their personal workstation, and only a few operate several machines. Some of the workstations are decorated like personal desks, with a bright star here, a devotional picture or a dried rose there. Other workstations feature packets of Pocket Coffee, patterned make-up bags, or notes with popular sayings or reminders. Many of the women have perms or streaked hair, wear golden hair clips, leopard-patterned blouses, and comfortable shoes. The room is brightly lit – much too bright to get tired – with windows opening up onto a view of the vineyards of Coldrerio and of Italy.

Marcel Hossli walks down the rows of workers and proudly points out colors and patterns of articles that will only be available in the next collection. “The great thing is,” he says, not without pride, “that our people are really prepared to go the extra mile.” By which he is referring to the rebranding process the company underwent last year. At the time, the entire packaging was changed, requiring an enormous effort from the entire team.

As a manager, you don’t always receive unsolicited feedback, but when I hear one of our staff defending our brand, involved in a heated discussion and standing up for Zimmerli, that’s better than any kudos I can think of.

We didn’t want to start a revolution with our rebranding and upset existing customers,” Marcel Hossli tells us. “We simply wanted to move forward, but not in enormous leaps and bounds.” The new brand imagery more clearly highlights Switzerland as its production location, where Zimmerli has been manufacturing for over 140 years. “The response and sales have shown that we’re pursuing the right direction,” he adds. “Made in Switzerland is already a guarantee for quality in itself, but to be able to say that we manufacture everything within a radius of 200 kilometers is especially nice. And the trend toward authenticity and fair working conditions plays right into our hands,” he says with evident satisfaction. Before we leave the site, he grabs a last espresso from the huge coffee machine – “This is just so good!”

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Comments (1)

michael glauser | 15.01.2015

wunderbarer artikel und der tagtägliche beweis, dass auch in einem land mit hohen lohnkosten produziert werden kann.


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