Ex-IT Holding CEO Tonino Perna Arrested in Italy

The former executive of the once high-flying but now defunct firm faces criminal bankruptcy charges.

Tonino Perna

MILAN — Tonino Perna, former president and chief executive officer of the once high-flying but now defunct IT Holding SpA, was arrested Monday by Italy’s Guardia di Finanza on charges of criminal bankruptcy.

This story first appeared in the January 10, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Perna is accused of using 61 million euros, or $77.5 million at current exchange, of funds meant for IT Holding for other purposes, including allegedly for his personal real estate. It is understood the financial police are confiscating Perna’s personal properties, including a villa and two houses in Capri; an apartment in the center of Rome; a villa in Porto Cervo, the exclusive luxury resort on the island of Sardinia, and a yacht.

Twenty IT Holding executives were also indicted as part of the investigation. Perna was imprisoned on Monday and a trial appears to be the next likely step, although no court date has been set. If found guilty of the charges, he faces a prison term of three to 10 years.

According to a statement by the Court of Isernia, Italy — where Ittierre SpA, which was IT Holding’s main production and licensing unit, is based — obtained by WWD, the investigations highlighted the “particular relevance of PA Investment,” which is headquartered in Luxembourg and of which Perna was chairman. According to the court, PA Investment, which controlled IT Holding through a 60 to 70 percent shareholding, was based in that country “to enjoy fiscal advantages” and is described as “a family safe to draw from for liquidity, even for purposes extraneous to those of the company.”

The court statement underscores how Perna had no qualms about raising his salary as chairman of the board of IT Holding by 250 percent to an annual 1.4 million euros in 2008, “during the full economic and financial crisis” of the group.

IT Holding was once one of Italy’s fastest-growing fashion firms, owning Ittierre, Gianfranco Ferré and Malo, among other brands. It also produced secondary lines for the likes of Versace, Trussardi, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana. Following two years of government-backed bankruptcy protection, Ittierre was last year sold to Albisetti, and Ferré and Malo now operate under new owners, Paris Group and Evante, respectively.

The company went public in 1997 and in the early part of this century, Perna began investing in the acquisition of designer brands such as Ferré, Malo and Romeo Gigli. His dream was to create a luxury conglomerate and to do so he piled on debt. As of Sept. 30, 2008, net debt totaled 295.4 million euros, or $382.4 million. Soft consumer spending and difficulties in obtaining further support from banks sank IT Holding at the end of 2008. Perna tried to save the group, holding discussions with several potential bidders, including China’s Mensun Ltd., fronted by Hong Kong businessman Billy Ngok, without success. In February 2009, IT Holding entered government-backed bankruptcy protection.

Neither Perna nor his lawyer could be reached for comment Monday. But the Italian fashion industry was stunned by the arrest of Perna, a stocky man with mild manners who always chose his words carefully.

An industry source said Perna was “not a rogue, but to save a company from bankruptcy, things are never handled with gloves, and there’s always some kind of shady goings-on.” The source also said Perna “was too easily influenced by other people. He was not up to it, but he thought he could manage troubled companies better than others. He should have just limited himself to being a licensee because by taking control of designer brands, he turned himself into a rival for those fashion companies Ittierre produced for.”

Another source, who worked closely with Perna for several years, attributed IT Holding’s collapse to “the credit crunch. IT Holding, together with [bankrupt dairy and food giant] Parmalat were the first to fall under the 2008 bubble.”

The source had nothing but praise for Perna, who “first understood how fashion brands could be democratic,” by striking licensing agreements with Trussardi and Versace to produce and distribute their younger lines. “He helped promote Dolce & Gabbana’s visibility with the D&G line; he was an enthusiast and had a true passion for fashion and art. He would never stand still, and he was sincerely moved by the beauty of fashion designs by Gianfranco Ferré or Romeo Gigli, for example.” Unfortunately, he did not take into account the commercial difficulties connected to these brands, added the source.

Communications veteran Marco Nardella, who worked with Perna in the early Aughts, was equally supportive of his former employer. “I was very disappointed to learn about his arrest. He doesn’t deserve this. He was a passionate entrepreneur that was always very attentive to the social value of his company,” he said.

Nardella also said Perna was the first to believe in designers’ second lines. “That was his talent; he should never have invested in designer brands,” he said. “Ittierre was a perfect machine. That’s why the company started functioning so well again after the bankruptcy, it’s one of the leading clothing manufacturers in Italy.”

In effect, in less than a year, Antonio Bianchi, president and ceo of Ittierre SpA, has succeeded in expanding the company’s license portfolio with new signature collections for designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Tommy Hilfiger, and brands such as Balmain and Aquascutum. It also produces lines for Costume National, John Galliano and Ermanno Scervino.