By  on April 12, 2010

For Italian fashion houses with a strong foothold in the interior design arena, it’s all about the personal touch.

Companies including Giorgio Armani, Versace, Bottega Veneta, Missoni, Etro, Fendi and Diesel are gearing up for the upcoming Salone del Mobile furniture fair with a bullish outlook, buoyed by improved sales as well as consumers’ growing interest in customization.

Many agreed the year was off to a good start with sales slowly inching up, and cited the U.S., the U.K., France and Japan as markets on the rebound, with Russia and China close behind.

Smaller objects such as vases, tabletop, cushions and home textiles are sure sellers, thanks to attainable price tags and because they inject a newness into the home.

“People think twice before changing a sofa or a bed unless they really have to, but they’ll gratify themselves with new sheets and ceramics,” noted Jacopo Etro, director for that company’s textiles and home units.

According to Fabrice Gouffran, director of Armani Casa and the company’s hotels division, 2009 sales fell from the previous year’s $54 million mainly due to a drop of traffic in the Armani Casa stores.

“That said, [the amount of] our average single sale has increased and the first quarter of 2010 is off to a good start,” he noted. “We expect significant growth this year.”

When setting up their dream homes, many customers seek bespoke services to better mirror their personal tastes. As a result, companies have structured their home divisions with dedicated teams and production facilities to cater to customization.

The $94 million Versace Casa business also promotes its interior design atelier service, in which customers can choose from a sea of prints, combinations and colors. Versace chief executive officer Gian Giacomo Ferraris said he is plotting two new partnerships aimed at increasing the Medusa logoed home line, although he declined to disclose details.

This week, Versace will unveil a new edition of Vanitas, a chair designed by Gianni Versace in 1994. Two Versace Casa boutiques have already opened this year, in Jakarta and Dubai, and two more are in the pipeline for Asia.

Design-centric, quality furniture is still perceived as a longer-lasting purchase than many other types of luxury goods, according to several executives.

“Interestingly, since we launched our first limited edition furniture pieces, we have noticed that customers purchasing these products seem to behave as if they’re buying antiques,” contended Armani’s Gouffran. “Furniture and furnishings are generally purchased more with a view toward long-term investment, while accessories and fashion are more of an impulse buy.”

But as is the case with a great bag, the design and craftsmanship that characterize a piece of furniture are what set it apart.

“It’s very much in keeping with our philosophy to help the customer personalize the pieces they select,” said Marco Bizzarri, ceo of Bottega Veneta. “And since every piece of furniture is handmade to order, customers can select the color and material they want, including precious skins like crocodile, ostrich and python.”

He added that some of the pieces produced for this year’s Salone del Mobile were inspired by special requests the company had received.

Michael Burke, ceo of Fendi, expects the house’s Fendi Casa division to deliver double-digit sales growth this year.

“People keep spending in their homes because of the cocooning effect and the tremendous pride they take in how their houses look,” said Burke, adding the company also recently fully outfitted a 230-foot yacht with Fendi Casa. “Homes need to mirror the person’s personality, just like a dress does.”

Alberto Jelmini, Rosita Missoni’s brother and ceo of T&J Vestor, which produces Missoni Home, echoed those thoughts.

“For us, any accessory for the living area — whether it’s a cushion, rugs, curtains or a pouf — sells well because it adds character to the house without breaking the bank,” he said. Missoni Casa posted sales of $27 million in 2009.

In a quest to create a lifestyle project, on Thursday Blumarine will launch its first furnishings collection, a mix of contemporary design infused with classic elements.

The new undertaking, licensed to Como-based Idea due, is expected to rake in $13 million in the first year, according to Gianguido Tarabini, Blumarine’s administrator.

“We haven’t even unveiled the line and already we’re receiving requests for personalized pieces,” said Tarabini, adding the existing collections of tableware and home linens generate 15 percent of Blumarine’s licensing business.

After dabbling with kitchens last year, Giorgio Armani is taking on the bathroom. For the undertaking, he joined forces with Roca Group, a worldwide leader in this sector.

“We want to offer a complete collection of interior solutions so that customers are able to find an Armani treatment for all the main spaces of their home,” said Gouffran.

Etro and Missoni noted how teaming up with top hotels helped their bottom line. (For more on designers and their hotel projects, see page 10).

After opening in Edinburgh, Missoni’s colorful stripes and zigzags will dress a namesake hotel in Kuwait City slated to open in June.

Etro reported 2009 sales of $13 million in its interiors division, thanks to a one-off project that consisted of refurbishing 30 suites in Moscow’s luxe Hotel Ukraina with Etro linens, upholstery and ceramics. Etro fabrics and cushions were also used to decorate the Asian-style Buddha Bar in Paris and Dubai, while the one in Washington is in progress.

“If these projects meet our requisites and standards, then we’re more than happy to do them,” said Etro, who forecast a 10 percent increase in sales this year.

While the uncertain times pushed the firm to freeze plans to launch a furniture line, Etro’s annual renditions of its classic paisley design and well-known stripe motifs in soft dusty hues continue to be top sellers in home textiles.

Bottega Veneta, which is looking to significantly boost distribution of the home line in yet-to-be-determined markets, is also looking to expand its involvement in the hospitality industry and in luxury private residential real estate.

It currently has a partnership with the St. Regis hotel that has resulted in Bottega Veneta suites in New York and Rome.

Fueled by the successful Craft Punk design event hosted last year with design Miami, Fendi will repeat the undertaking at Salone del Mobile, this time called Design Vertigo. The interactive, work-in-progress angle is still at the heart of the project, which will transform Spazio Fendi into a design theater with viewers who will interact and become part of the installations.

“Today, art needs design, which needs fashion because the various areas influence one another, stirring creativity,” said Burke.

According to a Diesel spokesman, clients are very attentive to trends and approach home design the same way they approach fashion, always seeking out news and innovation.

“That’s why our attitude when developing our home collections is to do pieces thought to change the look of your home every year,” he said. “We try to introduce as many different fabric and material options as we can to give our customer the opportunity to make each piece even more special and unique.”

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