By  on June 18, 2007

MILAN — Generating a truly new phenomenon in the tailored clothing business is about as challenging as a young Hollywood starlet’s staying out of rehab.

Giorgio Armani’s slouch and the shrunken proportions of Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne aside, the basic parts of the jacket haven’t changed much in the last two centuries.

That’s until Corneliani managed to alter the sport coat. It tinkered with it just enough to create a singular moment when it introduced its ID jacket to U.S. consumers last fall.

The industry immediately took notice—as did Corneliani’s competitors—of the systems jacket, which features a built-in center panel.

The ID jacket became the anchor of Corneliani’s burgeoning luxury sportswear collection, helped attract new clients even in its core tailored category, and, like its name, gave a distinguishable identity to the Mantua-based company.

“It just clicked,” said Roger Cohen, president and COO of Corneliani USA, and a driving factor in Corneliani’s stateside ascension. “We saw this need in the market. We looked at our competition and the chinks in their armor.”

Corneliani’s journey from high-end Italian suit manufacturer to luxury brand was not happenstance. Market research, spot-on timing, and creative intuition from head designer Sergio Corneliani helped the company generate a category that filled a need and solidified a brand.

When Cohen joined Corneliani almost nine years ago, the executive found the company in a state common to Italy. It was a family-run manufacturer with a solid yet homogenous product, with little marketing to help differentiate it from the other suits. Moreover, the way men dressed began to change. Casual Fridays signified something else, and as casual dress turned more formal, Corneliani saw an opportunity and pounced.

“Five years ago we were more connected to a single product,” said Maurizio Corneliani, global sales and marketing director. “We knew the values of the brand but we weren’t yet able to express them.” Expression came in the form of greater product range—the ID concept at its centerpiece. The new subdivision helped boost Corneliani’s recognition, which also bodes well for its mainstay product

“We didn’t grow and conceptualize the ID at the cost of our core competency,” Cohen said.

Maurizio added: “We decided to approach casual luxury clothing not from an outerwear standpoint but from what we do—jackets. We wanted to render the jacket more versatile.” That versatility, also at the company level, has only helped build business in the U.S. and in Corneliani’s other key markets, like Italy, the U.K., Japan and China.

The company has marked doubled-digit growth over the past few years. Consolidated global sales are expected to reach 150 million euros, or $200 million at the current exchange rate, this year, up 16.3 percent from 2006.

Maurizio said the company’s goal is to reach 200 million euros ($250 million) in the next three to four years as it penetrates more markets and continues to open stores. He added that the company plans to have a retail network of 100 stores (directly operated and in franchising) within five to six years.
Corneliani’s first London store, a directly operated unit, is set to open on Bond Street this fall. And while a U.S. store, possibly in New York or L.A., is still a couple of years away, business stateside continues to grow. Following the success of its hard shop in Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Cohen is eager to increase volume with key accounts. He said U.S. sales should reach $38 million this year.

Tailored clothing represents 65 percent of sales, ID 20 percent and furnishings the remainder—a mix Cohen would like to maintain as volume increases.

“We sell with a belief and we sell with this coordinated marketing effort,” Cohen said. “We know what we’re going to advertise; we know we’re going to get the PR and then we stock it. We’re driving the brand.”

The three-pronged offensive has proven effective. Cohen has increased ad pages in major U.S. men’s and lifestyle magazines from seven pages a year to 12. He also advertises in specialty books, like the one put out by the Forum Group.

The stock list program in particular allows Corneliani to offer customers a test run with limited risk. “The stock program gives customers a comfort level of buying x amount for their stores and then knowing they can fill it in,” Cohen added.

Cohen’s investment in the stock program and keen intention to promote a specific look have had a remarkable impact on the U.S. business. Corneliani’s tailored clothing range is in 130 doors and ID in 98.

“After you have good product and on-time deliveries you need to have someone who understands the specificity of the American market, and Roger is someone who does,” said Michael Macko, senior vice-president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue men’s. The luxury department store has carried Corneliani since 1979. “We’ve always treated Corneliani like a brand. Its recent success has only validated it. They’ve proven they are a leader and people are watching.”

This week at Pitti Uomo in Florence, people will be watching the evolution of the ID jacket. Sergio, Maurizio’s brother, said he played with contrasts for the spring collection, which melds natural fabrics with technical ones and pulls inspiration from works by Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray.

For Cohen and the Corneliani family, in its second generation and poised to celebrate 50 years in business next year, the plan is to continue to push all product categories, generate greater volume in key accounts and even pick up a few new ones.

Where there are ID customers, Cohen believes there are potential tailored ones as well. “We’re creating brand recognition for the company,” Cohen said. “The consumer, at our price level, wants the confidence of a brand. They recognize us and know we are the credibility of the brand.”

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