MILAN — Gianfranco Ferré is on a mission: transforming a high-end ready-to-wear line into a high-profile, international brand.

That’s the goal that Enrico Mambelli has set out to accomplish since he joined the fashion house in June as chief executive officer, after holding key posts at Nike Italy, GFT and Cerruti Group.

In an exclusive joint interview, Mambelli and Ferré outlined the company’s global strategies, which they orchestrated together.

So far, the marriage between IT Holding, the Italian clothing manufacturer, and Ferré, consummated in December 2000, seems to be working out.

"I’m happy. I feel inspired and motivated because I’ve kept my independence and we’re working for a joint goal: to grow the brand," said Ferré, trim and lean after having shed more than 65 pounds. Reports in Milan fashion circles had it that Ferré’s diet was the consequence of a minor stroke suffered last spring, but a company spokeswoman firmly denied that.

In 2001, Gianfranco Ferré wholesale volume was $226.8 million, with a revenue stream derived from royalties of $19.7 million.

Tonino Perna, IT Holding’s chairman and ceo, said he’s content with the results scored thus far. "By the end of the year, our first goal to create a joint project developed by a team of managers together with Mr. Ferré, will have been reached," Perna said.

Among the key points on the company’s agenda:

l Retooling the firm’s structure to bring in-house all of its divisions — the brand’s positioning, the supervision of the retail network, the communications and marketing departments and control over licenses.

l An aggressive retail rollout and a new store concept that includes a beauty spa.

l Boosting the accessories division and launching a gold jewelry line in the spring.

l Streamlining existing lines and revising the portfolio of licensees.

l Opening new showrooms or signing public relations agencies in strategic locations, including Los Angeles, to tap into the movie star system.

l Creating new posts to bolster the executive team with managers that will act as watchdogs over the brand.All this coincides with two seasons of strong Ferré’ collections, where the designer tempered his signature over-the-top drama and glamour by using a cleaner and more contemporary hand.

"My approach to the collections has changed because I wanted to steer away from clothes that were too couture-oriented. My focus is on basic and separate pieces that are interchangeable, complemented with stronger seasonal pieces," Ferré said. "That’s the direction the world is moving in and I’m going along."

This philosophy has enabled the designer to keep a lid on prices.

During Milan fashion week in October, Patricia Fields, the stylist for "Sex and the City," swung by Ferré’s showroom and picked out about 20 looks from spring’s sophisticated collection that embraced two of the season’s top trends: the sportif movement and the Asian motif.

The changes afoot at the licensing contracts are numerous. As reported,Ferré plans to discontinue the Gieffeffe, Gianfranco Ferré Studio, Jeans and Forma lines next year when the licensing agreement with Marzotto expires.

At the same time, it will also amicably end its 20-year relationship with De Silva for fragrances and body lotion. Starting in January, ITF, IT Holding’s fragrance division, will get to work on a new women’s fragrance, slated to bow next year.

And rather than an overdose of lines, Ferré plans to regroup its existing labels into two collections: a top-tier Gianfranco Ferré line that includes the ready-to-wear and Forma, and Ferré, a line aimed at a younger crowd that will include the jeans and Gieffeffe.

"From Ferré, the consumer wants extreme quality, details, and distinction," Ferré said.

IT Holding, which also owns Romeo Gigli, Malo, Gentryportofino and Exté, boasts a vertical structure articulated in various divisions: ITC for the production of top-drawer apparel lines; eyewear manufacturer Allison; the ITF perfume division; PAF for accessories, and Ittierre, which churns out jeans lines, including Versus and D&G.

Mambelli and Ferré are eager to exploit the synergies and resources of this setup.

"On one hand, we’re bringing in-house the various divisions to have more control over image and quality," Mambelli said. "On the other, the industrial side will be controlled by IT Holding."The retail expansion and the new store concept also represent a big leap in raising brand awareness.

"Architecture is mybackground I wanted to emphasize quality, a more accessible luxury for every day and in the products carried in the various areas," Ferré said.

From a technical standpoint, the project was supported by Gabellini & Associates, the New-York based interior design studio.

The project, which will be carried out through 2004, comprises the opening or refurbishing of a string of new generation stores, starting with Paris in January and Capri next spring.

To inaugurate the new boutique in Paris, the designer will stage a small runway show spotlighting key looks from spring for his longstanding clients. It will be held at the Jeu de Paume museum on Jan. 21.

Also next year, the existing Ferré stores here and in Cannes, Porto Cervo and New York will be restyled according to the new model, while eight new franchised boutiques will open at all latitudes, from Seoul to St. Petersburg and Shanghai to Athens.

Mambelli quantified the company’s retail investment as about $2.5 million for every store that measures an average of 5,400 square feet.

Starting next spring, clients shopping at the newly refurbished store here will be in for a surprise: an adjacent, 2,160-square-foot spa, the fruit of an agreement between Ferré and Espa, a leading British spa company.

Clients can unwind with a two-hour relaxation session that includes a massage, a steam bath, and a dip in the vitality pool or special mud treatments.

"This project is strategic because our client comes in to buy an emotion, whether it’s a massage or a dress. We want to offer a service and get the consumer more involved in the Ferré world," Mambelli explained.

For the occasion, Ferré will develop a full line of towels, terrycloth robes and beauty creams.

Structurally, the blueprint for the stores resembles that of a home and its many rooms, decorated with different elements, at times in harmony and at others in contrasts, to house the full array of products.

"This is a young company but it still has 25 years of history," Ferré said. "This new store concept was the most logical and appropriate way to express the product range."Yellow Tunisian marble floors contrast with lacquer red shantung silk panels while fixtures and tables in light honey briarwood are juxtaposed against darker brown rosewood tones.

Decorative elements include crystal chandeliers, mother-of-pearl mosaic trays, stuccoed details and silver ornaments.

Ferré plans to update the display of the merchandise, normally styled around a theme, every few weeks to keep the store presentation lively.

About 30 percent of the stores’ space will be dedicated to accessories, which will greet customers as they walk in.

"This entryway of accessories is strategic because it allows customers to enter the Ferré world more frequently," Mambelli said. "It’s easier to buy a scarf or a fragrance than a dress."

Mambelli is channeling resources and energies to boost Ferré’s accessories division, which also includes footwear as well as small objects for the home, to ultimately increase its share of total sales from today’s 5 percent to between 20 and 25 percent over the next year to 18 months.

"Quality materials are fundamental for the accessories," Ferré said, "with a range from crocodile to goatskin colored with vegetable dyes that give it a natural structure without extra support."

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