By  on January 30, 2006

MILAN — M Missoni is on a roll, and now it's capitalizing on the momentum by opening its own retail stores.

With an average 50 percent growth rate per year since 2003, a recognizable designer look at more affordable prices and an expanding product offering, the brand is quickly gaining market share and catching the eyes of celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Paris and Nicky Hilton and Jessica Simpson. In a move to further expand the business, licensee Valentino Fashion Group is investing in a new retail strategy and will open the first-ever M Missoni boutique in New York this spring, followed by four more stores in Asia and the Middle East later in the year.

And if the growth continues, the company may look to do M Missoni's first fashion show in 2007.

"We are opening in the U.S. first because this is M Missoni's biggest market, accounting for 45 percent of sales," said Michele Norsa, chief executive officer of Valentino Fashion Group, in a joint, exclusive interview with Graziano De Boni, president and ceo of VFG U.S.A., at the company's headquarters here. The New York store will be directly operated.

The 1,300-square-foot store in New York will open in SoHo on West Broadway in April, with a show, an event and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the start of the relationship between Missoni and VFG. "We feel the location is more important than the size of the space, and this boutique is exactly where we wanted it to be," said De Boni, noting the store is located alongside DKNY, D&G and Tahari and opposite Ralph Lauren. "Also, we wanted a modern, but warm and cozy look, where it's easier to shop."

The company worked with Angela Missoni, creative director for both M Missoni and the women's Missoni brand, on the store concept for a young, neutral look, with off-white wood floors and walls. There will also be a mobile area that can be easily shifted around to change the look of the store with the addition of differently colored rugs or cabinets to adapt the store to a particular season's color palette.

In 2006, the company will open franchised stores in Bangkok, Kuwait and Jakarta and in either Shanghai or Beijing. "Asia is where the growth is," said Norsa.To this end, last week VFG signed an agreement with Onward Kashiyama to start distributing M Missoni in Japan. Under the agreement, there are plans to open four shop-in-shops this year and 10 over the next three years. Asia currently accounts for 12 percent of M Missoni's sales. "We want Asia to account for at least 20 percent of sales," said Norsa.

Italy and the rest of Europe currently account for 27 percent and 16 percent of sales, respectively. Norsa estimated M Missoni will have sales of 30 million euros, or $36.2 million at current exchange, in 2006 — almost four times the revenues in 2001. M Missoni, which accounts for about 20 percent of Missoni's total sales, was first launched for spring 1999; the company decided to focus on the women's line three years ago, at which time it terminated men's wear.

The line is currently available at 709 points of sale in the world, including department stores Galeries Lafayette, La Rinascente, Harrods, Selfridges and Lane Crawford. In the U.S., M Missoni is available at 220 doors, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman, and 130 specialty stores, such as Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Scoop in New York.

"M Missoni is a brilliant concept, bringing iconic designs at a wonderful price point and opening up to a new clientele," said Roopal Patel, women's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "No one else at this price point is doing this and no one ever will; it's special and exclusive. The line is very successful, demand is very strong and we've had a wonderful reaction."

Dresses in the collection retail between $495 and $595, knits retail at $290 and jackets, which are a new project, retail between $495 and $795. "Our effort is to keep [affordable] prices, with a Made in Italy production," said De Boni.

Until 2003, Marzotto produced and distributed young and second lines for Gianfranco Ferré. A Marzotto spin-off last year resulted in the creation of Valentino Fashion Group, which is listed on the Milan Stock Exchange. VFG today controls Valentino SpA and Hugo Boss AG, owns the Lebole brand and holds a license to produce and distribute the Marlboro Classics line globally, with the exception of the U.S. market.Norsa also pointed to the strong ties VFG has with the Missonis, a relationship that goes back to 1985 through the production and distribution of the sportswear collection Example by Missoni and the diffusion Missoni Uomo and Missoni Donna lines.

"This is more than a license, we are friends with the Missoni family and this helps grow the business," said Norsa.

Angela Missoni said her goal is "to keep the collection fresh, with a precise customer in mind, someone young, aged between 20 and 30, who would like to wear Missoni but can't afford it yet."

Accordingly, Missoni said there will never be an evening gown within the M Missoni line, but lots of easy pieces that can be mixed and matched and plenty of feminine dresses. "Actually, we are expanding the offer of dresses, which are among our bestsellers," she said. In line with the signature collections, M Missoni covers everything from a wavy patterned kimono-sleeved knit to a monochrome gray coat with a pink rim, and styles from simple burgundy velvet pants to zigzagged printed T-shirts or capes.

"The collections are more complete now, with more wovens and accessories, ranging from scarves to bags, and today's fashion trends are helping us, with the end of minimalism and color being so strong," said Norsa. "At the same time, we are more focused on Missoni, our only designer license today, in terms of investments in human resources and commercially."

Vittorio Missoni, sales and marketing manager of the family-owned company, attributed the success of M Missoni to a "perfect quality/price ratio, a focused design and the expansion of the mix between knits and wovens." Missoni also praised the "excellent assistance and service" in the U.S. that VFG is able to offer in that market. De Boni noted how the group provides up to nine deliveries per year, for example. Missoni said Marzotto's approach to the world of fashion design has evolved significantly over the past few years and that Norsa has "a modern vision," which has helped develop the company into a fashion group from a clothing manufacturer.

"In 2000, M Missoni was zero in the U.S. and it was positioned in the bridge category," said De Boni. "Today, the line is considered modern in the same group as Tahari or Theory."

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