MILAN--To trace the roots of some of the big names in Italian fashion, take a look at the history of Callaghan, a knitwear line that has been a launching pad for some of Italy's best-known designers. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall, Callaghan is produced by Zamasport, the Novara-based manufacturer that also produces Gucci's women's ready-to-wear. "It all started with the creation of a knit jacquard," explained creative director Marisa Zanetti, who has overseen the line since its debut in 1966. Zamasport, which is owned by Zanetti's sister and her husband, Giuse and Paolo Greppi, directly employs some 120 people, and indirectly, nearly 1,000. It rings up annual sales of $120 million and has showrooms here and in New York. Much of the design, cutting and other production operations are now executed on computers, but things were a little different in 1966. "Things weren't going that well with my father's lingerie factory, and we realized we had to come up with something new," Zanetti explained. "We found a way to use the same machines to produce an apparel collection." That was the beginning of Callaghan--a tiny line of T-shirts, sweaters and shirts. In no time, the collection took off. It was picked up by FTM (Ferrante-Tositi-Monti), one of the key buying offices emerging at the time. "They bought three pieces, and pretty soon nobody could keep them in stock," Zanetti recalled. "The thing that was different was that we had positioned ourselves at a designer level. We were aiming at an elite customer." She added that at the time, Italy's designer business was just starting to take off. "There was Krizia, Missoni and us, and that was about it," she said. In 1968, Walter Albini--the hot Italian designer-of-the-moment, who also worked for Krizia and designed a line called Mr. Fox--was invited to design the collection, launching a strategy Callaghan has followed ever since: putting a name designer behind the label. "I knew I couldn't keep designing it myself, because I wasn't really a designer," said Zanetti, "but I also knew that the only person I wanted to do it was Walter Albini." Albini designed the line for four years, until he left to launch his own collection. The next person to design Callaghan was a youngster named Gianni Versace. "His mother had a boutique in Reggio Calabria and they were one of our clients," said Zanetti. "He was just a kid at the time, with a passion for designing clothes. He loved Callaghan and wanted to design for us. "It was a great success," she continued. "Ironically, at the time, we were better known than he was, and he stayed with us for 14 years--until he had to stop because he had founded his own company." When Versace left in 1986, another emerging designer took over--Romeo Gigli--who gave an entirely different look to the line, Zanetti said. "Our choice has always been to put the designer in the spotlight," she said. "It was a choice that we felt lent prestige to the name." Callaghan is currently designed by Britain's Scott Crolla, who succeeded Gigli in 1994. Not to be left out of the lucrative fragrance field, Callaghan has its own perfume, Lilith, launched in 1994, and produced by Italian perfumer Proteo.
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