By  on July 18, 2005

NEW YORK — A. Testoni is making an aggressive push into women's accessories while building its network of freestanding stores.

The Bologna, Italy-based firm, founded in 1929 by Amadeo Testoni, has until now been known as a men's luxury leather goods maker, focusing mostly on shoes.

The family-owned company has entered the women's business full throttle. With a new design team in place, Testoni launched its first full women's collection of handbags and shoes, called A. Testoni Femme, this spring. The company is also increasing wholesale and retail distribution with two new stores in Las Vegas and Palm Beach, Fla.

"In order to take Testoni to its next level, we assessed our position and started fresh," said Arrigo Berni, chief executive officer of A. Testoni, who was promoted to his post after Massimo Macchi left to become ceo of Gianfranco Ferré in February.

"We started [the women's division] in a new path that doesn't necessarily compete with established brands in the market. There's more than enough choice in the fashion area of the spectrum [for luxury accessories]. Rather, we're trying to find the right balance between the need for creativity and beauty in designs, and what women need on an everyday basis."

Yvan Benbanaste, Testoni's new style director, completed his first collection for spring, featuring signature handbag styles contending and competing with top-tier accessories brands.

"The inspiration behind the women's collection is an aristocratic, glamorous style, while focusing on an airy feeling," said Benbanaste.

The bags incorporate exotic skins, elaborate hardware and lavish rose quartz stones with an engraved logo.

One of the brand's signature styles is known as the Turtle bag, a basket-style satchel made of woven hand-stitched straps of cropped leather of irregular thickness, creating a shell of sorts, lined with canvas. The bag, which is popular in Europe, will be introduced to the U.S. market this fall, and the line will be extended to include other silhouettes for spring 2006.

Another style from A. Testoni Femme is a lavish day bag in a flower-print fabric that has pink ostrich trim, with a profusion of ostrich feathers and gold self-frame and rose quartz logo closure.The company is known for its use of exotic skins in novel ways, and so it incorporates alligator with woven leather or chain maille in certain styles.

Prices for the core handbag collection range from $300 to $600 wholesale. Exotic skins can go up to $7,500 retail for an all-crocodile style.

The company has retail on its mind, with 72 stand-alone stores worldwide, three of which are in the U.S.: Honolulu, New York and Las Vegas. Forty stores are directly owned, while the rest are franchises.

"I've learned from experience that one has to be very pragmatic," said Berni. "We are starting out with these stores and will take a look at how they work."

Berni said the company is looking at locations in San Francisco, Chicago, Aspen and the New York Tristate area for future U.S. boutiques.

The bulk of the Testoni business is in the Far East, where there are 60 boutiques.

Industry sources estimate the company's volume to have been about 40 million euros in 2003 (or about $48 million at the current exchange rate), and Berni projects Testoni will have a 10 to 15 percent growth within the next year.

Berni also has plans to increase the brand's visibility by way of A. Testoni Femme within the company's wholesale channels, which include specialty stores such as Belizza in Miami and Vogue Shoes in Los Angeles.

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