By  on January 27, 2009

MILAN – Safilo Group SpA is looking for a white knight.

Safilo’s majority shareholder Only 3T SpA said it was weighing ideas “to strengthen and develop” the debt-ridden Italian eyewear firm and that it had contacted “a few potential partners.”

“The shareholder specifies that the situation is in a negotiation phase and that no agreement has been reached at this time,” Only 3T stated.

Safilo chief executive officer Roberto Vedovotto, who rejoined the firm in November, is said to be working on a turnaround plan, which could see an international private equity fund taking a stake in a new holding entity for Safilo and delisting Safilo from the Milan Bourse.

Suitors reportedly include Bain Capital, Apax Partners and CVC Capital Partners. Neither Bain nor Apax returned calls seeking comment, while CVC declined to comment.

The Tabacchi family controls just under 40 percent of Safilo via Only 3T.

Discretionary spending on designer eyewear is expected to contract sharply this year and Safilo, which has licenses with Giorgio Armani, Dior, Gucci and Valentino among others, is under pressure due to net debts, which could total 580 million euros, or $753.8 million, by the end of fiscal 2008, according to Deutsche Bank.

On Monday, the eyewear firm said it planned to shutter all four of its manufacturing plants in Italy on a rotating basis over the next two months, following a rapid slowdown in demand for designer frames.

The government-sponsored closures, which are temporary, will be staggered through Mar. 28 and could affect up to 2,700 staffers. The first factory suspension went into effect last week.

Monday’s decision follows a similar move by eyewear rival Luxottica Group SpA, which said earlier this month it would close six manufacturing plants for two days in January and two days in February, following disappointing fourth-quarter sales. The closures will affect 6,000 Luxottica staffers in northern Italy.

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