By  on February 11, 2008

MILAN — The Versace man is ready to march in lockstep with the Versace woman. 

Versace’s men’s runway line—after a false start and seasons of tweaking—is set to return to the U.S. retail market this month when the spring collection makes its debut at Barneys New York. 

The top collection—which marks Alexandre Plokhov’s first collaboration with the Italian fashion house—will bow exclusively at Barneys’ stores in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and San Francisco, as well as in its latest unit at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. 

“It’s a great marriage,” said Patrick Guadagno, COO and president of Versace USA wholesale. “Barneys has a strong history and heritage with Versace men’s from the first time around ... and [its management] was excited to bring back the new Versace.” 

The collection, which features graphic details and slim cuts, will sell on the third floor of the Madison Avenue flagship. 

“This is a poignant moment in that there’s a lot of change at the house of Versace, certainly in terms of what its men’s wear stands for today,” said Tom Kalenderian, executive vice-president and GMM of men’s for Barneys New York. “This was a great time to reintroduce the brand.” 

To celebrate the launch, Donatella Versace will swing into town for an in-store cocktail on March 18. Following the party, Barneys chief executive Howard Socol will host a private dinner. Furthermore, Barneys will dedicate its Madison Avenue windows to the Versace men’s and women’s collections.

“The Barneys team is made of such astute merchants,” Guadagno said. “We feel we can successfully work with them in developing the business in an exclusive way.” 

The deal with Barneys is as much a milestone for the men’s collection—which until recently lacked consistency—as it is for the house of Versace. 

Since 2004, Versace has been in the throes of a major restructuring plan. Initially the focus fell on Versace’s core business of women’s wear, which today retails in tony department stores like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as in top specialty stores, including Jeffrey in New York and Maxfield in Los Angeles. 

After successfully setting women’s as well as accessories on the correct luxury course, management turned its attention to men’s. First came the relaunch of Versace Collection for spring 2006. 

Since its introduction the secondary line has excelled under Guadagno’s supervision. Versace Collection, which is sold in 15 Saks Fifth Avenue doors as well as in top specialty retailers like Syd Jerome in Chicago, has become a leader in the category, praised for its fits and value.

Yet even with the triumphs of women’s, accessories and Versace Collection, the men’s runway line proved problematic. It sold for a couple of seasons in select Saks and Neiman Marcus doors but never took off like its women’s counterpart. 

Things began to change last season, however, when Versace tapped Plokhov as a design consultant. The Russian-born designer’s steely tailoring has gelled well with Donatella’s vision. Furthermore, Donatella has sought to elevate the luxury quotient of men’s and put it on par with women’s. 

Ultra-luxurious fabrications and what Kalenderian described as “idiosyncratic details” drew Barneys back to the collection after a 15-year hiatus. “Versace has done an excellent job in bringing the men’s wear up to the level of women’s,” Kalenderian said. 

And although the Versace/Plokhov relationship is still in its nascent stages, the two designers appear to be getting on well. During the fall Milan collections last month, Donatella affectionately called Plokhov “Alexandre Versace.” 

“Clearly now the Versace man has a modern sensibility,” Guadagno said. “The collection is a little cleaner, less embellishment, still sexy but not overtly sexy.” 

Versace’s newfound point of view found its face in Patrick Dempsey. The star of Grey’s Anatomy appears in Versace’s current spring campaign, shot by Mario Testino. He’s on board for the next two seasons as well and is expected to attend the Barneys cocktail party next month.

“We feel we really identified the right Versace man in Patrick Dempsey,” Guadagno said. “Guys can relate to him.” 

The men’s push extends past the U.S. as well. As Versace chief executive officer Giancarlo Di Risio recently said, this is the year for men’s. “After consolidating women’s and accessories we are now concentrating on men’s,” Di Risio said. “The first-line men’s collection now mirrors the women’s collection. There’s equilibrium.” 

Men’s wear currently generates around 35 percent of revenue and Di Risio said the goal over the next few years is to bring men’s to around 45 percent of total sales. 

Versace has not yet released 2007 figures. However, Di Risio told DNR that the family-controlled company would surpass the 300 million euros mark, or $411 million at average rates, and in doing so recoup losses incurred in 2006 after phasing out several lines. 

In a bid to support the men’s drive, Di Risio said, the company was investing “significantly” more in men’s advertising this year, but declined to give a percentage increase. 

“The year is off to a good start,” Di Risio said, adding that sales for the fall 2008 men’s collection were up 20 percent. 

“This year is the beginning of the change [in men’s wear] and that’s why we want to keep distribution tight, have a strong partner, learn from them and grow with them,” Guadagno added. “We are committed to making this category work.”

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