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Striking a Balance in Milan

Executives at fashion houses hope the spring 2004 season finally brings light to what has been three dark, gloomy years.

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MILAN — Italian fashion designers and luxury goods executives are crossing their fingers.

Many hope that the spring 2004 season will finally reveal some light at the end of the tunnel, after three years of darkness and a trilogy of disaster — terrorist attacks, war in Iraq and SARS.

As Milan gets rolling with shows and events — the big players take center stage starting Tuesday — most fashion executives here have started to think somewhat optimistically, based on a surge of sales in July and August, followed by a rosier-than-expected September.

“If nothing major happens, then expectations are good,” said Giancarlo Di Risio, chief executive at Fendi. “One can only hope that the upswing in consumer spending, which started late this summer, will spill into the coming season.”

Domenico De Sole, Gucci Group’s chief, concurred that sales have heated up, saying the Gucci brand has registered a double-digit growth in the U.S., Asia and Europe, since August. “We expect a similar growth rate until the end of the year,” said De Sole.

Pre-spring orders, which started rolling into designer showrooms in July, confirm the upbeat forecasts, be it single-digit growth or peaks of up to 20 percent.

“With a single-digit growth, our pre-spring already shows a general optimism and that business is coming back, especially in the U.S.,” said Robert Triefus, corporate vice president of worldwide communications at Giorgio Armani.

Most executives interviewed said pre-spring collections are steadily gaining momentum as a tool to guarantee fresh stock and to monitor the latest market trends.

Keeping a lid on prices, a stronger-than-ever priority this season, should also help rekindle consumers’ desire to shop, lately severed by excessive price increases on branded products.

“It’s not really price resistance, but certainly price sensitivity,” said Jason Weisenfeld, worldwide communications and advertising director at Versace, adding that for the first time, the company is widening its price range. On average, this season Versace lowered its prices by 25 percent. For example, the opening price for eveningwear is $1,600, down from $2,067.

Many have whittled company costs across the board and have built spring collections with simpler construction, more basic fabrics and less labor-intensive craftsmanship. “It’s important to define the entry price for each item beforehand,” said Marco Gobbetti, ceo at Moschino.
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On the other hand, Prada is taking a different route. “We’re not lowering our prices for spring. Rather, we’ve introduced a number of articles within a reduced price range while maintaining our high standard of quality and materials,” said Patrizio Bertelli, Prada Group’s chief.

Cases in point are mélange hemp flip- flops that retail for $92 and a shopper-style tote that goes for $253.

Nevertheless, a few swords of Damocles continue to hang over the industry:

  • Still-depressed strategic markets, like Germany and Japan.

  • Slow exports because of the bullish euro against the dollar and the yen.

  • Consumers shifting their priorities about where to spend their money.

“Today, being in fashion is the way you live, not only what you’re wearing. People spend their money in many other ways,” said Enrico Mambelli, chief executive at Ferré.

Sure enough, as designers work into the wee hours to fix a hem here and a tuck there for some catwalk drama, pre-spring orders reveal that buyers favored sexy little dresses, fashioned with simple fabrics but jazzed up with a carnival of prints, embroideries decorations and embellishments, along with rocker-style denim-and-leather combinations.

Specific bestsellers show Miuccia Prada is working with innovative colors on flimsy silks; Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce are embroidering silk blazers and slipping them over second-skin jeans; Giorgio Armani mixes striped T-shirts with vests in technical fabrics; Donatella Versace is using parachute silk for gathered skirts paired with canvas and silk blazers, and Roberto Cavalli opts for teeny bikini tops paired with embroidered jeans and brief biker jackets.

In general, companies are forging their strategies based on the fact that the booming Nineties and turn of the 21st century — and the streams of disposable cash that came with them — are long logged into fashion’s history book.

Vittorio Missoni, marketing director and sales manager at his family’s 50-year-old company, believes it’s important to stay grounded and deal with an ever-changing fashion scenario.

“Today, we have to work harder to achieve what we want because major events change the course of life and people’s habits. You can’t just assume that things stay the same, but an optimistic reaction is key,” said Missoni.
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Similarly, Ferruccio Ferragamo, chief executive at Salvatore Ferragamo, said, “We used the past two years to reflect on future strategies, to focus on the product and streamline operations. We need to be more reactive and to be more cost-oriented and competitive.”

Cristiana Ruella, the chief financial officer at Dolce & Gabbana, confirmed the importance of a balanced strategy for distribution.

“We’re receiving reassuring feedback from our specialty store clients,” said Ruella, adding that supporting specialty stores with an appealing array melding trends and reasonable prices is critical.

Ferré slashed the prices on its pre-spring collection by 30 percent, thanks to unfussy constructions and less-elaborate fabrics. “We kept the more dramatic and important eveningwear for the catwalk because that’s what retailers want from us,” said Mambelli.

The move was well-received in the U.S., “where wholesale sales have doubled and where Bergdorf Goodman opened a Ferré in-store shop, partly fueled by good sales results,” said Mambelli.

Retail prices range from $1,875 for a crepe wool and viscose suits to $790 for a cotton poplin shirt and $1,500 for a pair of embroidered leather pants. Also well received was the new cruise collection of 240 pieces.

The It Holding-owned company is moving ahead full-throttle with plans to streamline and court a younger, hipper clientele, including Beyoncé and Kim Cattrall.

Steven Fairchild attributes part of his success to an appealing quality-to-price ratio. Fairchild, whose company is a joint-venture with the Mariella Burani Fashion Group, expects to sell between 15,000 and 20,000 pieces this season, a 15 percent increase against last spring’s sales. “I feel like Seabiscuit. I’m really going for it because I believe we have a valid, high-quality brand with an accessible price, which is key in today’s market,” he said.

To boost business, Fairchild has signed a three-year licensing agreement with A&M, an accessories manufacturer under the Mariella Burani umbrella, to produce and distribute accessories and small leather goods. The collection will debut with fall 2004 but a first flash will complement the spring runway looks. In the pipeline are a men’s collection and a fragrance.
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In general, retail expansion continues to be progressing rapidly.

After a two-year aggressive rollout, during which Dolce & Gabbana’s directly owned stores soared to 69 from 16, the fashion house is now channeling its resources to enlarge its production plants in Legnano, Lombardy, and Incisa Valdarno, Tuscany.

From 1998 to 2002, Giorgio Armani spent $643 million to support a strategic investments program, largely dedicated to retail expansion. Between last year and this year, the company opened 60 new flagships under the Emporio Armani and Giorgio Armani banners.

This fall, Ferré and Emporio Armani will open flagships in Munich — for both brands, their first in Germany. Prada headed east, where it recently opened Prada and Miu Miu stores in Singapore, as well as a space for the Prada, Prada Sport and Miu Miu collections at Villa Moda in Dubai.

Byblos is seeking to expand its retail presence by opening a store in Moscow in October and one here in the first half of 2004. By the end of next year, the fashion house, which is owned by Veneto-based maker Swinger International, will have eight additional locations, in Europe and Japan.

And starting with this season, Byblos Blu, its $4.6 million diffusion line, will be available in the U.S.
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