Finding young design talent with commercial potential in Italy is about as difficult as finding a table at Bice in Milan during the women’s collections.

Inordinate start-up costs, manufacturers reluctant to take a chance on an unknown name and a less-than-supportive show calendar are just some of the obstacles new labels encounter. Throw in a world economy where even the major brands are losing market share, and the prospect of carving out a niche seems at times insurmountable.

Despite all the trials, however, there are a few glimmers of hope, like brothers Dan and Dean Caten of DSquared, Victoria Grantham, Stefano Guerriero and Nicola Del Verme. Through grit, sacrifice — and in some cases a well-timed licensing deal — these Milan-based designers, both native Italians and transplants, have been able to construct viable businesses with big potential.

Although the designers featured here would not release sales figures, almost all said they were turning a small profit, which for them is a huge watershed moment.

Dan and Dean Caten, the twins behind DSquared, are the renegade darlings of the Milan men’s collections with their dynamic shows, slim-cut tailoring and sexy layered looks. After launching a wildly received women’s capsule collection last June and entering into a licensing and distribution deal with Renzo Rosso’s (aka Mr. Deisel) Staff International in 2001, the duo from Toronto is set to head full-throttle into women’s wear with their first runway show here next week.

Unfortunately, they’re quickly discovering that what goes on in men’s doesn’t always translate into women’s. Italy’s Camera Nazionale Della Moda scheduled the DSquared show on Feb. 27 — when most buyers and editors will have yet to arrive.

"It’s like the first day of school," Dean said, lighting a cigarette as he leans back on a chair in the lobby of Milan’s Four Seasons hotel. "We have to prove ourselves once again and yeah we’re nervous…" This is when Dan, younger by 15 minutes, would usually jump in and the twins’ verbal volley would go on longer than a Sampras-Agassi match, but today the brothers have a noticeably lower energy level.Call it first-time jitters or corporate growing pains, but the guys are lacking that certain unabashed, in-your-face spirit: No breaking into the soundtrack from "Moulin Rouge," no deep-toned darlings, just a subtle exasperation. "All we can say is that sometimes we feel like a Siamese Nadia Comaneci doing cartwheels on the balance beam, waiting for someone to place the matt underneath us," Dean said.

"No, basta, enough of this negativity," Dan interjected. "We’re here to talk about our woman — she’s sexy, cool and intelligent."

And with that the twins instantly snap back into high-octane mode. (Singing in unison follows within a half-hour).

If nothing else, the brothers know how to make one another tick. It’s very much a twin thing, and the two rely heavily on each other for input, support — and reality checks. They’ve been designing in Italy since 1993 and view women’s as the next adventure in their career.

"This is something we’ve always dreamed about," Dean said. "We’ve been getting great support from the top girls who are doing our show because they want to, not because we can pay them thousands of dollars."

For their debut, Dan and Dean are renting out the dance club Alcatraz and have constructed a scale model airplane for the models to board. They plan 40 exits, ranging from slim jeans and tailored blousons to glam touches like silver fox trimmed silk and wool parkas. "Star 24/7 — that’s our girl. She’s cool, individual, smart — she’s not a sexed-up whore, but she’s not a coy librarian, either," Dan said. "Listen, we understand that there are a lot of choices out there," Dean interrupted. "We’re just an option, either you like us or you don’t, and that’s fine."

That brand-niche philosophy is also helping Stefano Guerriero survive the first few years of his budding eponymous label.

"Before I even decided to launch my line, I asked myself if there was a real need for what I wanted to do," said the 36-year-old, who hails from Naples, but with his fair skin and buzzed reddish brown hair takes more after his Danish mother, a former Miss Denmark, than his Mediterranean father. "What I wanted to do was a bit more than prêt-à-porter but not haute couture. There’s an element of individual pieces, but never too sumptuous or grand."Launched for fall 1998, Guerriero’s colorful, ornate and ultrasexy collections certainly reflect his design training. After attending Milan’s Marangoni Design School, where he moonlighted as a model for Emporio Armani shows, he entered the house of Versace.

He worked alongside Gianni Versace for six years and says that experience was fundamental. "Gianni really gave me a sense of glamour and a sense of creativity within a collection, frankly it was a fantastic education," Guerriero said.

Spiked with feminine prints and slinky silk dresses, his collections are starting to take off in Japan, and although he’s broken into the U.S. market, dressing celebrities like Angela Bassett and Kirsten Dunst, he’s still waiting for his U.S. moment to arrive. "I have a huge passion for American women — well, obviously, a certain type of American woman. I’m not talking about checkout girls in Wyoming, but rather women that follow fashion and like to get dressed up."

Guerriero is not afraid to express his opinion or to do what it takes to help his label grow. In 2000, after spending more than $500,000 of his own money to get started, he linked up with Mario Bandiera, chief executive officer of BVM, which owns Les Copains. Bandiera bought 40 percent of Guerriero’s business and BVM became Guerriero’s licensee. As part of the arrangement, Guerriero designs Les Copains women’s line, and for now he says he’s completely satisfied with the setup.

"Today in fashion, if you don’t have money, you don’t count for anything. I wanted to maintain my independence, but the deal with BVM was an important marriage, and we treat each other with total respect," he averred.

Although initially plagued by higher prices, Guerriero’s line has come down by about 30 percent, but he admits it’s still a challenge to win over label-hungry consumers. "Obviously it’s more taxing to sell a fitted black crepe Guerriero jacket than, let’s say, one by Dolce & Gabbana —and it’s not really a question of style" he said. "Young designers don’t cost less than known designers and in some cases actually more because we don’t have the same minimums as the big names — but that’s a reality I just have to get through."Nicola Del Verme, like Guerriero, is one of a handful of Italian designers actually making it in their home country, and he’s doing it on his own.

"Of course there comes a time when you need to enter into a partnership or licensing deal to help your business reach the next level. And I’m looking to do that," Del Verme says, at his showroom-office in Milan.

During the interview, it appeared that Del Verme was close to signing a licensing deal with an unnamed partner, but a day later his publicist called to say that the plans were no longer on the table — so it goes in the world of new designers.

Del Verme may have launched his fiercely tailored, black-toned collection for fall 2001, but his name is just starting to circulate thanks to his new day job — creative director of Vestimenta. The Italian tailored clothing company tapped him to update its image on all fronts, from collections to communications to retail merchandising. The first Del Verme-designed Vestimenta collection bows for fall 2003 at retail.

"Taking on those responsibilities [at Vestimenta] has actually helped me refocus on my own personal goals and has helped me confront my collection in a different way," Del Verme said. For fall, his line is rife with ethnic looks, like a belted black-and-white fur dress and signature tailored pieces, like slim pants and constructed shirts.

For the first time, he’s also doing a test men’s collection during his women’s show.

It’s a scenario that is completely the opposite for men’s wear designer Victoria Grantham. After five stellar VGrantham men’s collections and the recent signing of her first licensing deal with Italian manufacturer Gild, the Milan-based British designer is ready to turn her eye toward women’s wear.

After talking excessively about doing a women’s line with her husband and business partner, Fabio Giudetti, Grantham decided to go for it. Although she is using the precious fabrics and functional details that have made her men’s collections such a must, don’t expect to see a carbon copy, only cut smaller, for women’s.

"The strength of men’s wear is the way things are made, the fabrics, the attention to detail — all those qualities I think are missing in women’s wear right now," Grantham said. "I don’t want to do women’s wear to serve fashion, I’m doing it for the women who will actually wear it."As a career woman and mother of 2-1/2-year-old Jack Carter, Grantham can relate to what real women need. Looks range from a girly belted dress coat to a breezy black minidress. "I don’t want it to be complicated or uneasy — it has to be natural and feminine," Grantham added. Her utilitarian philosophy has helped propel her men’s business, which today counts close to 90 accounts worldwide, including Bloomingdale’s in the U.S. Her number 7 fishtail jacket has become something of a style icon on the streets of Milan.

With her new licensing partner, Gild, and her new representative in New York, Niccolo, Grantham is hoping to develop her business even more, although she admits there are always challenges to sift through and demands to juggle.

"In Italy, doing men’s and being a woman is, well, let’s just say you really feel it some days," Grantham said, declining to elaborate. "Now that I’m doing women’s, everyone has a glimmer in their eyes, like all of a sudden it’s really the right thing."

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