By  on March 1, 2002

MILAN -- As the Milan season kicks off, the key message is "business as usual" -- even if business remains tough.

International buyers are all expected to return and Italian fashion houses are operating normally again after the disruption following Sept. 11, but with streamlined strategies and a sharper focus.

"We are expecting our fall season to be very positive since our brand is in an overall upward cycle," said Gabriella Forte, who last month joined Dolce & Gabbana USA as its president. "As of January, the market has picked up and our spring retail sales are extremely positive, with significant requests for reorders," she said. "With regard to fall, our sales are trending according to our expectations with a growth rate estimated at about 10 percent, without incremental door distribution."

Forte expects all the company's usual American buyers to be present in Milan this season, as do most of the Italian houses.

Santo Versace, chairman and chief executive officer of Versace, said that, although the company felt the crisis in the U.S in September and October, sales were better in the following three months than in the same period of the year 2000 and sales were in line with the rest of the year. "2000 was a readjustment year for us and in 2001 and 2002 we started to run again," said Versace. "Our challenge now is to grow and recapture the position we had before Gianni's death, when we registered a 25.3 percent growth each year."

Versace said his brother had signed an agreement with Morgan Stanley to do an initial public offering on July 11, 1997, four days before his death. Versace said the company went through two "hard" years after Gianni Versace's murder. "The past two years were pivotal for us," he said. "Donatella is now more sure of herself."

The U.S., which has 26 Versace stores, accounts for 25 percent of sales. For 2001, Versace said he expected overall consolidated sales of $432.8 million, which is 10 percent higher than the previous year.

"We are optimistic and expect a 10 percent increase in sales this season," said Gianfranco Ferre. "There is a general feeling of optimism and things are picking up in all our markets." said Ferre

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