By  on September 7, 1994

NEW YORK -- Italian sportswear giant Max Mara forged into the fray of designer retailing on upper Madison Avenue as it opened an American flagship Tuesday.

The boutique, covering the first two floors of the six-story building at 813 Madison Ave. at East 68th Street, has 3,800 square feet of sales space.

The shop should generate $4 million its first year, said Luigi Maramotti, vice chairman of the Max Mara Fashion Group, which includes six manufacturing companies and a distribution firm.

With annual consolidated sales of more than $700 million, Max Mara is Italy's largest women's apparel maker, he said.

Maramotti was in town for the store's opening-week festivities, which include cocktails, supper and a special screening of "L'Amore," a Roberto Rossellini film, on Thursday.

The first floor of the new boutique features the weekend collection, coats and accessories. On the second floor are Max Mara, the framework of the company, representing about 40 percent of inventory; Sportmax, and Pianoforte, a dressier line. The I Blues collection of basics will be on both floors.

Retail prices range from $600 to $1,200 for coats, $350 to $500 for jackets, $500 to $850 for suits, $150 to $300 for pants, $125 to $280 for skirts, $150 to $300 for blouses, $175 to $400 for knitwear and $100 to $500 for scarves and handbags. Fur-trimmed coats run as high as $2,300.

The store uses the basement and third floor for storage, office and tailoring space.

Max Mara is distributed in New York at Bloomingdale's, Charivari and Saks Fifth Avenue, and Maramotti said the presence of its own store should enhance sales at the other venues.

The 43-year-old company, based in Reggio Emilia, near Milan, has more than 500 stores in 80 countries. About 180 are owned by the company, and the rest are licensed, franchised or run through joint ventures, Maramotti said. Max Mara has been in retailing since the mid-Sixties.

Max Mara has other North American boutiques in San Francisco, Palm Beach, Toronto and Mexico City.

Maramotti said the challenge in coming to a large market like New York was to build a knowledge of the U.S. market."We must have the right space and the right people," he said. "It was good experience to open stores in the other markets first.

"It's very different from European retailing," he commented. "American retailing, particularly in New York, is very competitive and faster-paced. There is also a very high need for personalization and service."

Max Mara will have its hands full with the competition; that part of Madison Avenue is rife with designer and bridge-price shops. Max Mara is within a few blocks of such boutiques as Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferré, Yves Saint Laurent, Missoni, Gianni Versace, Valentino, Tahari, Nicole Miller, Polo Ralph Lauren and Polo Sport.

Maramotti added that merchandising at the Manhattan store is strikingly different from that at Max Mara's shops in Milan or Paris.

For example, black and white is a very strong image in New York, but only a few customers in Milan would choose it. European customers would consider an all-black daytime suit too dramatic. In Milan or Paris, women would prefer black and camel, or navy and camel, he said.

The company has renovated the Manhattan building, which is on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 68th Street.

The lower façade is limestone, and the rest of the building is red brick with brownstone window trim.

Inside, floors are walnut and a beige French stone called moulin à vent.

Walls are white with a hand-finished surface, and fixtures are light maple, steel and glass. There are display tables and a few suspended bars for hanging outfits. Merchandise is housed in small niches.

Photographs by Martine Barrat dot the store. They all feature a classic Max Mara cashmere and wool coat, shot in various environments -- with children on a beach or old men playing cards.

Max Mara is using three of the photos in its ads on billboards, bus shelters and bus sides, which run through the end of October.

The shop does alterations, ships merchandise, provides local personal delivery and serves espresso.

Max Mara is in the midst of international expansion, as well.Its first South American shop is opening within a week in Caracas, Venezuela. The company is interested in South America, Maramotti said, because economies there are growing. He noted, however, that the greatest opportunities for growth are in the Far East, particularly in Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. A Max Mara store opened in Tokyo about a year ago.

"Those economies are growing faster than anywhere else in the world, and they will probably continue that pace," he said.

European and U.S. expansion is also on the books. In November, Max Mara will open a 7,000-square-foot store on Rome's Via Condotti, its seventh unit in that city.

Max Mara also plans shops in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and Houston, and another store in the New York metropolitan area. Maramotti said there is no specific timetable for opening these stores.

"They all depend on the right space being available and the right opportunity," he said.

Like many Italian companies and many apparel firms, Max Mara is a closely held family business. It was founded in 1951 by Achille Maramotti and today is run by his children: Luigi, Ludovica and Ignazio. All are on the board of the parent holding company, and all are involved in product development. Luigi manages the Max Mara division and coordinates worldwide strategies. Ludovica runs Penny Black, a $90 million company producing less expensive, younger-styled ready-to-wear that is distributed only in Europe and the Orient. Ignazio heads operations and is product manager in certain divisions.

The family has been in the apparel business since the mid-1800s, when the great-grandmother of Achille, Marina Rinaldi, had an atelier. The company's large-size line is named for her. His mother ran a sewing school.

"In Italy, it is easy to pass a business through the family," Maramotti said. "You learn from your family everything about the business, and about your family history. It's all about keeping alive the tradition, which is very important."

He said the siblings and their spouses, who are also involved in the business, have continuous -- if very informal -- communication about all aspects of the company."If one of them is traveling in Hong Kong, for example, and sees a window that they don't like in one of our stores, I hear about it," Maramotti chuckled. "It's very good to have that input."

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