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The Big Boom: Italian Fashion Houses May Be Struggling At Home, But the Exchange Rate and Emerging Markets Are Helping Them Thrive Abroad

MILAN -- The good news on the Italian fashion scene these days is almost all overseas.<BR><BR>While fashion gurus reluctantly admit the going is rough at home, where the domestic market is still in a slump and expected to stay that way at least for...

MILAN — The good news on the Italian fashion scene these days is almost all overseas.

While fashion gurus reluctantly admit the going is rough at home, where the domestic market is still in a slump and expected to stay that way at least for the first half of the year, favorable exchange rates are making Italian fashion a hot item on foreign markets.

According to industry estimates, exports of Italian textile and apparel products surged 18 percent last year to $19 billion (32.5 trillion lire at current exchange rates from 27.6 trillion lire in 1992). Barring surprises on the currency front, experts predict Italian exports in the sector will rise an additional 10 percent in 1994.

With the U.S. economy showing fresh vitality, hopes for that market are particularly high on the part of Italian designers and fashion executives.

“The exchange rate has made a tremendous difference. We had lost significant market share over the years because of the overvaluation of the lira,” said Alfredo Ciampini, general secretary of Federtessile, Italy’s national textile and apparel association. “Last year’s results are very, very good — even beyond expectations — and I expect continued growth, though more moderate, this year,” Ciampini said.

Germany is Italy’s leading export market for textile and apparel products, with 27 percent of the total. France follows with 13.4 percent, while the U.S. (where, according to the most recent statistics, exports jumped an above-average 22.6 percent in the first seven months of 1993) is in third place with 6.5 percent.

Exports are also surging to emerging markets in Eastern Europe and the Far East, although overall volumes to these areas are still relatively small, Ciampini said. And, following the approval of the NAFTA treaty, Mexico and other Latin American countries are becoming increasingly strategic for Italian fashion houses.

While the exchange rate is a key factor in the success of Italian fashion houses, industry leaders here aren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the currency alone to work more wonders. Italian design houses and industrial producers are scrambling to expand in established markets such as Europe and the U.S. and get a foothold in countries that are waking up to fashion — in Eastern Europe, South America and the Far East.

“Today it is essential to divide the risk among many markets,” said Santo Versace, chairman and general director of Gianni Versace SpA. “If we were exclusively dependent on the Japanese market, for example, it would have been a disaster. Instead, the crisis in Tokyo is being counterweighted by golden moments in other markets of the Far East, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia — not to mention the Middle East. These markets are growing like gangbusters,” Versace said.

Versace, who recently reported estimated 1993 sales of $238 million (405 billion lire), said he was comforted by signs of a quickening in the U.S. market starting in September, and noted that the German market has also been performing well.

Versace said his strategy for the future, beyond strengthening current lines and markets, is to “identify new segments and emerging markets to be developed.” He has already begun with new boutiques in Paris, Mexico City and Shenzhen, China, as well as a project to open some 200 Versace Jeans Couture shops around the world in the next three years, modeled after the one inaugurated in Miami’s South Beach district in December.

Versace has also launched a new line of articles for the home, a sector that has registered significant growth. Giorgio Armani is also expecting export growth in the U.S. and Far East markets, “where the development phase of our products hasn’t yet been completed,” a spokesman said.

Armani is opening a Giorgio Armani boutique in Dubai at the end of this month and Emporio Armani boutiques in Bangkok and Jedda in February. The group also expects increases, though more moderate, in Europe, “where our presence is being consolidated.” For example, a new Giorgio Armani boutique is slated to open in Geneva at the end of January

Meanwhile, Valentino is making a major push in the Far East, where he recently signed distribution and manufacturing accords in Japan and China with a potential wholesale volume of $2.35 billion over the next 10 years. “I believe this is one of the biggest accords signed with a European designer,” said Giancarlo Giammetti when he announced the contracts in October.

The Japanese accord is with Mitsui and calls for distribution of Valentino’s apparel lines as well as 31 licenses for nonapparel products. In China, Valentino concluded a joint venture with Yangtzekiang Garment Manufacturing Co. Ltd (YGM) to produce and distribute locally.

“I think 1994 will hold some pleasant surprises,” said Gianni Cigna, chairman of Laura Biagiotti, who last year signed a major licensing, production and distribution accord in China and is in talks for a similar accord in Thailand. “The key is that we are opening boutiques in countries that still have a hunger for fashion, such as Moscow (January), Beijing (January) and Bangkok (March),” he added. “We are also seeing interest from Singapore, Taiwan and Israel. The word is getting out!”

While testing growing interest in Eastern Europe, Gianfranco Ferre has opted for sunny Palm Beach, Florida, where he opened his fourth U.S. boutique last month. The 840-square-foot store marks Ferre’s 130th worldwide, and will carry the designer’s total look: men’s and women’s apparel, fragrances and accessories.

Krizia, which already has production accords in Japan and the U.S., is also Florida-bound and plans a new boutique in Bal Harbour’s Locust Valley Mall in the fall, according to chairman Aldo Pinto.

The store will be a franchise with Carol Leavitt, measure some 900 square feet and carry Krizia’s first line as well as Krizia Poi, Pinto said. Krizia is also opening a new boutique on New Bond Street in London next month with Robert Devorik, which will carry the signature collections as well as Krizia Poi.

Meanwhile, Pinto is also looking for another Paris location as a result of troubles with his current franchisee. “We have to have a shop in Paris. Mariuccia [Mandelli] would like a place on Rue Montain. Rue du Faubourg has gotten a bit commercial,” Pinto said.

Farther afield, Ferragamo, which already has a strong network of boutiques in the Far East (a market that represents some 15 percent of the company’s total revenue), just opened its first store in China, a shop-within-a-shop measuring some 260 square feet in Shenzhen’s Seibu department store. The new shop will carry all of Ferragamo’s products, including men’s and women’s apparel, shoes, bags, and accessories. The next opening is planned for Shanghai in February.