By  on January 30, 1996

MILAN -- Vittorio Giulini is quietly trying to carve a niche for himself in the U.S., hoping his high-end bridge label, Liola, will be able to compete with labels like St. John.

Giulini, owner of the family-run company, said despite a slowdown at retail and a saturated U.S. market, Liola's colorful but conservative clothing should be a big hit, filling a small but significant gap in the U.S. clothing market.

"There is not a wide variety of choice in the U.S. bridge market, which means there are many niches to be filled. Liola offers customers an unusual product, superior service, an exclusive distribution network and the Made in Italy label," Giulini said during an interview at the company's Milan headquarters.

The company's 1994 turnover was $35.6 million (57 billion lire), and sales this year are expected to increase by 10 percent. Liola exports 30-35 percent of its products, and Giulini said he would like to boost that figure to 50 percent.

"In the U.S., we consider St. John our most significant competitor. From what we've seen so far, Liola is selling very well alongside it."

Giulini said the key to Liola's success in the U.S. is and will continue to be an attention to service and tight relationships with clients. Giulini's promotion strategy for Liola fits neatly into a larger, far-reaching project he is heading to promote Italian bridge lines in the U.S. His goal is to encourage independent U.S. retailers to sell a wider variety of Italian bridge collections.

Giulini said his own company has a particular advantage when it comes to customer service and cultivating relationships with clients. Liola, which started in 1870 spinning and weaving cotton, today produces everything from fabric to the finished product. Liola has three different plants dedicated to cutting and sewing, knitting, and printing and dyeing. A creative team that includes color experts, computer whizzes and clothing designers turns out five collections a year. The most popular pieces can be restocked in a matter of days or weeks. The collections -- spring, summer, autumn, evening, formal and Christmas -- begin as color concepts. Liola's color experts choose a theme group of shades and oversee the dyeing of the yarns and fibers. Designers create the prints and knitwear patterns on computer screens and another group of designers creates the clothing samples.Giulini said Liola never leaves clients wanting. As soon as customers finish ordering the spring and autumn collections they receive the biannual Liola catalog, which includes selected items from those collections that can be delivered along with the initial orders.

He said as much as 30-35 percent of Liola's worldwide sales come from the catalog. Liola will also restock the season's core items in two weeks' time at any point during the year. For U.S. customers, there are showrooms in New York and L.A. that stock the season's key items. Liola also has showrooms in London, Dusseldorf, Brussels, Tokyo and Taichung, Taiwan.

"We have the power to satisfy many of our clients' needs because we are practically self-sufficient and therefore flexible. We identify the 'low-risk' clothing -- what we think is going to sell well -- and stock the fibers. "Every Monday we receive the week's orders via fax or modem from our clients, we compare those orders with our stock and, if the merchandise is already sold out, we'll make it up for the clients immediately," Giulini said.

Customers say few companies can match Liola's attention to service. "Liola's service and the follow-through are spectacular," said Cele Peterson, who owns an eponymous chain of stores in Tucson. "If I need an item, I just pick up the phone and call Liola in L.A. and I get it overnight. If they need to send it from Italy it takes a few more days."

Aside from snappy service, Giulini said what will make Liola a hit is the fabric itself. It was Giulini who turned the family's cotton manufacturing business into a jersey manufacturer in 1965.

"I fell in love with jersey. I think its the most modern fabric around. Coco Chanel and Emilio Pucci were the ones who started using it only 40 years ago. It can be super-fashionable or very plain, and it fits every size," Giulini said.

"What really sets Liola apart is the fit and feel of the fabric, which are wonderful," said Peterson. "There are so many beautiful lines out there with lousy fits and that's why Liola stands out. The clothes fall beautifully and never weigh you down."Peterson said she was expecting a 30-40 percent rise in sales of the line next year.

Giulini said being an established jersey manufacturer was a big plus. "Potential competition doesn't scare us. Setting up a jersey manufacturer means an initial investment of $30-40 million dollars in special knitting machines and continued investment in the latest technology," he said.

Liola has sales points throughout Europe and in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its retailing structure is mixed. There are 120 Liola franchises, most of which are in Italy. The bulk of Liola's sales points -- 400-500 stores -- are multi-brand independent retailers. There are about 20 corners.

Giulini said his marketing strategy in the U.S. will focus on medium-sized U.S. cities like Palm Beach, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., "where there is a strong social life and where women like to get dressed up."

"The U.S. market is the most difficult one to break into because the consumer is very spoiled and because she really doesn't need anything. Like in all wealthy countries, her closet is already full," Giulini said.

At the same time, he added, the U.S. is still the land of opportunity. "The U.S. is a multiracial society and therefore a mirror of the world market. That means there are an infinite number of niches in the clothing market. Designers and manufacturers have to be willing to step outside the mainstream."

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