By  on January 25, 1994

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.

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