MILAN — The opening of four stores in Florida this month is an American dream come true for Blunauta.

The Rome-based label is expanding its business across the Atlantic, despite a generally uncertain global economic climate.

Over the next two weeks, Blunauta USA, based in Boca Raton, Fla., along with mall developer Taubman Group will roll out four stores in shopping centers in Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Palm Beach. Next year, the firm plans a Fifth Avenue store in New York, and by 2005, it plans to count 18 stores in the U.S.

While acknowledging that times are tough in the U.S., Stefano De Santis, general manager of Balloon SpA, the firm that produces the Blunauta brand, said: "Americans react to and overcome a crisis with incredible speed, compared to Europeans," adding that the number of potential buyers there remains "a drawing force."

De Santis compared Blunauta’s market range to that of such brands as Ann Taylor and Max Mara. "We think we have a good balance between price and quality," he said, noting that a silk blouse, for example, retails around $100.

The line is designed by a team in Italy and offers a total look for women, from underwear to jackets and suits, and includes a selection of fabric accessories and handbags. Silk and other natural fibers like cotton and cashmere make up the company’s core business. The spring collection features romantic looks, with fringed or flower skirts with uneven hems, embroidered bell-bottom suede pants, Asian-inspired jackets in such colors as purple, white, turquoise, pink and green, with touches of golden yellow and lacquered red combined with basic black.

"Exports now account for 10 percent of sales, but we want these to account for 60 percent in three to five years," said De Santis. In 2001, the company registered sales of $31 million. He expects a 20 percent increase in sales this year.

Balloon is also expanding in the European market: The company has two stores in London, and four in Spain — in Madrid, Valencia and Marbella. Next year, it plans stores in Seville, Malaga, Frankfurt, Moscow and Prague. "It’s not only a matter of sales, we want to have an international dimension," said De Santis."We are also looking to China and Japan," he continued. In total, the firm counts 90 sales points, of which 55 are franchised.

Roberto Greco, president and chief executive officer, whose family founded the company 30 years ago, reorganized the management base and structure seven years ago, calling De Santis on board. De Santis is a shareholder, together with other top managers.

De Santis first shook things up in Milan, where Blunauta staged its first fashion show in September 2001, while tapping photographer Fabrizio Ferri to shoot the brand’s ad campaign, which featured model and actress Charlize Theron (for Italy only).

"These steps were instrumental for the relaunch of the brand," said De Santis, noting that, on average, the firm does not spend more than 5 percent of sales on communications.

De Santis noted that customer care and a welcoming store concept are also top priorities.

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