MILAN — Armani Group has found its new eyewear partner: Safilo SpA.Speculation over which company Armani would link up with had risen in the last two months since the designer terminated his 14-year eyewear license with Luxottica Group SpA.Armani announced Tuesday that it has signed a license with Safilo to produce and distribute the Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani eyewear collections. The first collections will bow for spring-summer 2003 and will be introduced in May at Mido, Milan’s international eyewear trade fair. Strategic differences and a radical change of Armani’s design approach from classic to trendy products emerged as the reasons for the termination of the license with Luxottica in November. In announcing the deal with Safilo, Giorgio Armani, president and chief executive officer of the group, said in a statement that his new partner "has a formidable reputation within the designer eyewear sector based on the excellence of its manufacturing capabilities and on its unique understanding of appropriate distribution channels."He added that the partnership with Safilo will allow him to "clearly distinguish" the design of the Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani eyewear collections and to carefully select retail locations "offering the best standards of customer service."Vittorio Tabacchi, president of Safilo, said his "immediate priorities" were to "gear up swiftly" for the production of the first collection, to fine-tune the distribution strategies for each of the lines and to increase investments "in a way that effectively and appropriately supports our customers."The Padova-based Safilo produces eyewear under license for Gucci Group brands Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney and Gucci, as well as for Burberry, Polo Ralph Lauren and Max Mara, among others. Last year, Safilo became private by delisting its shares from the Milan stock exchange and, in December, Credit Suisse First Boston Private Equity became a minority shareholder in the company. In 2001, Safilo reported sales of $865.6 million. Neither a Safilo spokeswoman nor an Armani spokesman would provide details about designs or sales targets for the new license. Both said the companies are "still working" on a distribution strategy. But the Armani spokesman said the designer will reduce the number of retailers that will carry the lines, which will be available at the company’s own boutiques, selected department stores and specialist eyewear stores.The spokesman reiterated on Tuesday that the new license will not affect Armani’s 5 percent stake in Luxottica and that he will continue to sit on the company’s board. Last month, Luxottica acquired IC Optics, the firm that produces Versace eyewear, and signed a licensing deal to produce and distribute the Versace, Versus and Versace Sport eyewear lines for the next 10 years. This was the first step toward compensating the loss of the Armani license, which accounted for 7.2 percent of the company’s revenue, or $225.3 million. Last year, Luxottica’s sales were $3 billion. Luxottica also owns the Lens Crafters and Sunglass Hut chains.

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