By  on January 25, 1994

MILAN -- After several slack years, Italian knitwear is gaining a new place in the sun on the U.S. market, according to a number of leading manufacturers here.

Italian knitwear exports to the U.S. were off 16.5 percent in 1990, down a walloping 31 percent in 1991 and off 7.2 percent in 1992, according to statistics from Italy's national knitwear association.

But with the dollar up an average of 30 percent against the lira in 1993 compared with a year earlier, and a new appetite for designer knitwear on the part of the American consumer, the negative trend may have come to an end.

In fact, Italian knitwear exports were up 5 percent in the first six months of 1993, the most recent period for which statistics are available, and knitwear producers ranging from Benetton to Missoni are optimistic that the outlook will continue to improve.

In the high-end segment, which commands prices ranging from $300-$700 for a cashmere sweater, most of the Italian knitwear companies export between 10 percent and 17 percent of their total production to the U.S.

Brunello Cucinelli, who exports some 70 percent of the production of his fine cashmere collections bearing the same name, said his export sales were up 30 percent from the beginning of the year. Growing demand from American consumers for top-quality knitwear products has even encouraged some Italian producers to make new investments in U.S. distribution and retail networks.

For example, Alfredo Canessa, chairman of Manifatture Associate Cashmere, Europe's largest producer of luxury cashmere knitwear, recently opened his first U.S. boutique in New York for his Malo label. The Loro Piana brothers also recently opened a custom tailor shop in New York, which also sells Loro Piana cashmere knit accessories.

"The American customer has been developing a stronger taste for designer clothes; this creates a higher request for improved quality and fashion," said Piero Cividini, chairman of the Cividini cashmere and silk knitwear company.

Cividini said he has focused on quality in all his collections as a strategic principle.

"We strongly believe in 'Made in Italy' as one of the essential features that can make our products competitive," he said. "For this reason, research and innovation, together with an extreme accuracy in manufacturing, have always been our main concern."

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