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 FerreHe added that he now has 20 new clients and expects all the usual buyers from the U.S. to attend the Milan shows. The American market accounts for 15 percent of the company's export sales and the designer is investing in the U.S. to renovate and reposition his label there. Ferre just opened a boutique in Bal Harbour and has reacquired direct control over its New York and Beverly Hills stores.

"All our clients are here, but they are more careful and cautious in their orders," said Vittorio Missoni, marketing manager of the family-run company. "Their budgets are more focused on their main stores and they are pushing to increase sales in their most important branches."

Missoni said the company's pre-fall collection sold "very well. Buyers expect pure Missoni from us: colors and knits."

As for the U.S., which accounts for 20 percent of sales, business is recovering at last. "We registered a 20 percent drop in sales in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks, but we are back to where we were a year ago, and we've recuperated most of our losses with discount sales -- that's when people excuse their purchases more easily," he added.

In 2001, Missoni SpA registered sales of $52.2 million, a 10 percent increase compared with the previous year and an additional $54.5 million derived from licenses. The company will open a store in Cannes next week. There are five Missoni stores in Europe, one in New York and a dozen boutiques in the Far East. The dollar figures are converted from the lire.

Despite most designers' optimism, a cautious note was sounded by Aldo Pinto, Krizia's general manager: "I just came back from the U.S. and my feeling is that business in general has not completely recovered from the events of last year," he said. "The consumer seems to be cautious but needs to be convinced to spend and this is the same feeling I got from store managers. We like to be optimistic by nature, but we do not expect the same volume of sales in the U.S. as in the year 2000."

Pinto could not say how much business was to be expected this season from buyers in the U.S., which accounts for about 15 percent to 20 percent of Krizia's sales. But, Pinto said "things are looking a little better than last season." Krizia's pre-fall orders were "definitely showing some improvement over last season" and Pinto is confident the American economy eventually will recover.

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