By  on July 30, 2007

Frette Inc., the 150-year-old upscale Italian linens, sleepwear, loungewear and home accessories firm, is getting a facelift.

The company, which was acquired in 2006 by San Francisco-based JH Partners, a private equity group specializing in brand development and marketing, is revamping under a new chief executive officer for its North America operations: Paul Raffin, a seasoned top brand merchant with 10 years of experience as president of Express, who also held senior positions at J. Crew and Colours by Alexander Julian.

Raffin, who started in January, wants to expand the Frette name into a brand that will appeal to traditional Frette consumers who love luxury, the romance of Frette's Italian heritage and ornate textiles, and a new, "younger and sexier" consumer from the sophisticated urban community he described as "loft dwellers." The strategy includes bolstering brand awareness and exposure through a new bridge division, retail expansion and beefing up Frette's e-commerce and wholesale businesses, he said.

"One of the changes in our business model is to continue to emphasize the bedroom as the key occasion," Raffin said. "We will continue the linen business as our core business, but will also be extending into other categories such as lingerie, robes, sleepwear, loungewear, bath and spa products and, potentially down the road, personal care products.

"[JH Partners'] goal was to find a ceo for North America because it represents for them the largest market for greater distribution," Raffin said. "We currently have eight [freestanding U.S.] stores and almost no wholesale presence. Among our number-one initiatives is to look for retail expansion opportunities, such as the opening of a Frette store at the Americana mall in Manhasset, N.Y. And we are very excited about working with Bloomingdale's and a stand-in shop in the San Francisco store."

The 1,200-square-foot Manhasset unit will open in November and the 750-square-foot in-store shop at Bloomingdale's will be unveiled in February.

The strategy behind the retail expansion of about 50 stores in the next two to three years is threefold.

"Flagships on important streets are important, such as Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive, as well as strong mall stores in 'A' locations, such as in Houston, Boston and Atlanta," Raffin said. "And then there's Frette Studio stores — a smaller footprint but a larger presentation in very exclusive resort locales or smaller towns like East Hampton [N.Y.], Santa Barbara [Calif.], and Greenwich [Conn.]."The company also hopes to double its business at an existing in-store area at ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan.

"We are also planning a grand reopening of our Madison Avenue flagship, which will undergo a complete restoration, triple the size and use a town house as a showcase of the Frette vision," Raffin said.

The redo, which will begin in February, is expected to be finished by September 2008.

There are around 100 partner-operated Frette stores in the Mideast, Asia and Europe. In addition to Manhattan, the U.S. units are located in Aspen, Colo., and Chicago, and four units in California: Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Palo Alto and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. There's also a retail outlet at Woodbury Common in Central Valley, N.Y.

Raffin declined to give sales projections.

Jeff Hansen, a principal of JH Partners and acting ceo of La Perla Group, a $270 million lingerie and fashion conglomerate acquired by JH Partners this month, said: "For us, the vision for the Frette brand is an easy one. When we bought it, it was much bigger than the company itself. We want to leverage it in the U.S., in Europe and in the Far East simultaneously. Our vision is to develop the retail, wholesale, hospitality and online channels."

He added that the expansion will take place during a "four- to seven-year plan."

"Frette has this incredible heritage, and in that sense, it makes our job easy," Hansen said. "Right now, the biggest challenge is prioritizing the opportunities."

Hansen said on a global scale, Frette generated an 18 percent sales increase in 2005 and gains in the "low 20s" in 2006. Sales increases of 20 to 25 percent are anticipated in 2007.

Despite all of the changes, Raffin pointed out that Frette has no intention of switching its "ultraexclusive" image or the quality of its merchandise. Case in point: a first-time Frette Gift Collection for winter 2007-2008 that will include luxe items for women such as burgundy silk slipgowns, suede slippers with hand-embroidered Frette crests, cashmere shawls with hand-knotted fringes and a sable throw lined with burnished silk shantung silk. The men's line will feature burgundy velour bathrobes, velvet-logoed slippers and cotton pajamas embroidered with Frette's double F motif.Another new introduction for gift-giving will be a Frette gift card in signature brown in a coordinating gift box that can be purchased online and at Frette stores for the holiday season.

Regarding other areas of business, Raffin noted that the hospitality business, which includes bath robes and linens with luxury hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton, has been "extremely important."

"We are trying to create again a very strong relationship between our retail and hospitality divisions," he said.

As for the e-commerce business in North America launched last November, Raffin said, "We're gaining traction. On a percentage basis, it represents 10 percent of our business. We think it's chiefly incremental and will drive customers into our stores."

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