By  on May 25, 2006

MILAN — A new generation of Italian denim and sportswear brands, from Nolita and Franklin & Marshall to Seal Kay, Mash Jeans and Take Two, are elbowing their way through a highly competitive and saturated market.

Despite their Anglo-Saxon names, these companies are as Italian as it gets. Their volumes are still small compared with Diesel or Replay, for example, but they are positioned in top boutiques around the world, and some already have enough cachet to cater to celebrities.

Whether more established or up and coming, these companies share the same facilities offered by a web of craftsmen and manufacturing plants from Verona and Vicenza to Treviso and Padua, in Italy's northeastern Veneto region. Veneto is home to some of Italy's most famous production districts, such as Belluno for eyewear, Vicenza for jewelry and the Riviera del Brenta for footwear — hubs equally as powerful as Tuscany's Scandicci district is for leather goods and Biella for cashmere.

Although this area has generated tailoring and manufacturing giants such as Marzotto and Benetton, these denim brands go back to a single entity and three visionaries: the Genius Group, which included the Diesel and Replay brands, and was founded in 1978 by Adriano Goldschmied, Renzo Rosso and Claudio Buziol.

"Before anyone else, they elevated the work-related denim material to a fashion fabric used for everyday wear," said Gianmarco Bortoletti, chief executive officer of Replay.

In 1981, the late Buziol founded Fashion Box Group, taking control of the Replay brand, in Asolo, northwest of Treviso.

"In order to carry their project through, Goldschmied, Rosso and Buziol created a web of infrastructures around them to produce the clothes," said Bortoletti.

Renzo Rosso, who has grown the Diesel brand into a $1.2 billion business, described the district as undergoing a natural evolution.

"People working together absorb information and skills. More often than not, we see a spin-off, talented young people setting up their own separate business with the know-how they've acquired," said Rosso, who is himself one such example. "It helps that people who live here are usually very industrious."

Rosso said entrepreneurs and designers need "all the assistance and complements they can get" and thus create a network of suppliers close to their companies that will provide anything from studs to washes."Denim is one of the most difficult materials to treat and it needs sophisticated machinery, artisans with the right mentality and know-how, but also high-end technology," said Rosso.

While Diesel, based in Molvena, north of Vicenza, still produces more than 60 percent of its collections in Italy, the high cost of labor has pushed most manufacturing to countries such as Romania, Morocco or Tunisia. Samples continue to be produced in Italy and plants outside of the country are controlled by Italian management. Washing and dyeing, however, remain a pivotal step of production that companies don't want to outsource.

"We invest more than 1.2 million euros (about $1.5 million) on research, machinery, travels around the world scouting for old jeans and updating our technology," said Andrea Petrin, sales manager at Martelli, which treats and washes denim for a who's who list of industry players, including Diesel, Meltin' Pot, Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, Yves Saint Laurent and Dsquared.

"This is the only way to survive [against low-cost competition]," said Petrin.

Based in Vedelago, west of Treviso, Martelli offers 20-year experience and between 180 and 200 styles per client, producing about seven million pieces per year. With sales of about 60 million euros, or $75.8 million last year, Martelli counts four production plants in Italy and three outside the country.

Research, technology and a high-end product are also goals for those companies that want to be able to compete in a market filled with denim looks. However, this may not be enough to compete globally and many new players have focused on conceptualizing the brand.

"If you are a small company, a concept behind the brand is the only chance you get to be noticed, otherwise, lowering your prices is the only ammunition you have," said Rosso.

Replay's Bortoletti agreed. "In such a global market, it's important to tell a story, pick ideas from the past and create an identity, because the consumer is more attentive and informed than 20 years ago, is always looking for something different and doesn't want to be part of an army of clones."Franklin & Marshall is a case in point. Named after one of the oldest American colleges, in Lancaster, Pa., the brand is quickly expanding with its collection of jackets and cardigans modeled after the original college designs from the Fifties. Some items are even produced in the U.S. by laboratories that work with the college. These iconic looks are completed with more trend-oriented denim jeans and sweatshirts embellished with prints of the original school photos.

Giuseppe Albarelli, ceo of the company and co-owner with Andrea Pensiero, who worked with Fiorucci in the Eighties, said he launched the brand in 1999 because he felt "there was a gap in the market for such a product." The company, which registered sales last year of 20 million euros, or $25.2 million, opened its first store in Milan this spring.

Luisa Bertoncello, one of the owners of Flash & Partners, which produces the Nolita, or Northern Little Italy, and Rare brands, believes in creating a relationship with the customer.

"We had some models made with a crinkled fabric a while back and we created tags made with parchment paper explaining the reasons, how the pieces were made and how they should be treated and washed," said Bertoncello. "Customers are curious to understand what is behind a product."

Julia Roberts, Lenny Kravitz and Paris Hilton are some of the celebrities spotted donning Rare and Nolita. The company, established four years ago, is growing quickly with sales in 2004 of 67 million euros, or $84.6 million, and expected revenues of 90 million euros, or $113.7 million, this year. Nolita jeans retail between $200 and $300 and are available at stores such as Nordstrom, Sharon Segal at Fred Segal and Lorenzo in Los Angeles, and Lulu's in Florida.

"Everything goes, but you do need the added details to make the difference," said Walter Savio, one of the owners of Seal Kay, based in Valdagno, nestled on the hills outside Vicenza.

Savio, who worked at Diesel and Meltin' Pot, founded the company in 1997.

"Buyers and customers have no patience to go through a lot of clothes," he said. "You need a strong identity to stand out, provide a lifestyle concept, with fewer but more focused models."Accordingly, Seal Kay jeans are all about the quality of the materials and the details, eschewing the more fashion-oriented designs. In the U.S., the brand is available at Fred Segal, Louis Boston and Stack House in New York, among others. A pair of jeans retails at around $200.

Perhaps flexibility is one of the strongest assets these companies are banking on, a resilience that has helped most of these competitors overcome hurdles along the way.

"We had to reinvent ourselves when the German market imploded [after the fall of Berlin's Wall in 1989] and we turned to a brand new category for us, the denim and streetwear product," said Bertoncello, whose company had previously specialized in fast fashion.

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