Mondi’s New Owners Seek To Reestablish Brand

<CS:BOLD>NEW YORK -- As the bridge market sunk in the late Nineties, Mondi went right down with it. Now the Munich-based brand, bolstered by new ownership and a revamped, more skillfully detailed collection for fall, has begun showcasing itself again...

NEW YORK — As the bridge market sunk in the late Nineties, Mondi went right down with it. Now the Munich-based brand, bolstered by new ownership and a revamped, more skillfully detailed collection for fall, has begun showcasing itself again at 530 Seventh Avenue, in a showroom opened Jan. 2.

The new owners also project a return to respectable volumes, but the company has a long way to go to reach its historical highs.

“We have the potential to do $50 million in wholesale in three years,” said Fehmi Chama, owner of Mondi, and a Munich-based agent and distributor, who has worked with Escada, Laurel, Joop and Louis Feraud in the past. Mondi’s volume last year was about $10 million wholesale, including U.S. volume of $2 million. A decade ago, Mondi peaked at around $250 million.

Overexpansion, management changes and a failure to find a fashion identity that would stick nearly killed the bridge brand. Mondi did file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection in September 1999, when its parent, Investcorp, gave up funding the money-losing operation and negotiations with banks collapsed. A month later, Chama bought Mondi out of bankruptcy, purchasing the trademark and inventory. Chama, who had been Mondi’s agent in the Mideast, blamed the brand’s decline on sharp design shifts, from glitzy brights to overly simple, minimalist looks, and prices that were too high.

Last December, Chama sold the rights to distribute Mondi in the Western Hemisphere to Skender U. Perolli, a former senior executive at Escada, Merona and Chams who lately has been on the prowl to buy apparel brands. Under the arrangement, Perolli must buy $1 million of Mondi goods each year, with the figure rising to $5 million to $10 million over the next several years. Perolli attempted to buy the Joan & David business when it was bankrupt and before it was liquidated.

“Mondi does have a shaky past and had to overcome some bad publicity,” said Perolli, who holds the title of president of Mondi. “Now it’s time for a revival. We’re enhancing the character and qualities. There’s charm and elegance to the collection. It’s a complete lifestyle collection for well-to-do, successful women, ranging from classic to contemporary, from morning to night. You can be sporty one day and conservative the next day, and there’s still an overall personality to it.”

Perolli projected a U.S. volume of about $7 million in 2003.

He said Mondi fragrance and personal care products will be launched next month in Europe and in April in the U.S., and a makeup line is in the works. The fragrance retails for $35, for a 2.5-ounce cologne. A body cream, shower gel and body lotion also are sold. Cosko, a perfume and cosmetics manufacturer and distributor, has the worldwide license for Mondi fragrance, while Mondi also is considering a licensed footwear program, possibly for spring 2003 selling.

Moving on several fronts, the company is planning a return to retailing in the U.S, where, at one time, there were a total of 58 full-price units and outlets. Perolli said this time around, the buildup will be slow. Only four retail locations are currently being considered — in Palm Desert, Calif.; Dallas; Las Vegas, and Orlando, — all potentially operating within 16 months.

Mondi produces about 100,000 units twice a year, for spring and fall, and most of its business is conducted in Asia. In China, there are six freestanding Mondi boutiques and three in-store shops. Lane Crawford is among the Asian retailers selling the collection.

It would seem like a good time to resurrect Mondi, with the designer market hurting and the outlook for bridge appearing better for fall. Retailers and designers have said that novelty looks as well as items with casual and festive appeal and colors are expected to upstage designer-looking career clothes and more uniform wardrobe builders, and much of Mondi’s fall 2002 collection fits the formula. The collection features themed groups, including Silver Sky, with wool pinstripe suits with the stripes of varying widths, wholesaling at $200 for a jacket; Indian summer, with beaded jeans at $205, and Bohemia, a group of sheer silk blouses with wool cuffs and collars, priced at $101. Wholesale prices range from $220 for novelty trousers with red pleats; gabardine, handpleated suits for $237; leather jackets, $534, and wool coats with fur, $370.

Perolli said the collection commands a retail markup of 2.5 times the wholesale price, adding that the markup on most bridge brands is 2.2 times cost. The design team is headed by Annette Vogt, who returned to Mondi about a year ago after a hiatus of several seasons, including a stint at Escada, also based in Munich. Much of the old Mondi team has returned to work with her.

No major U.S. chains carry the collection. Key retail accounts are smaller specialty store operations, notably Daniel Foxx, located in Palm Desert and Dallas, with plans to open in Las Vegas; Julian Gold, which has four stores in Texas; Village Set, in Highland Park, Ill., and Tres Mariposas, in El Paso, Tex. which orchestrated Mondi’s biggest trunk show, taking in $70,000 in spring orders in about eight hours selling over two days last January. The ready-to-wear collection has 300 stockkeeping units and requires a minimum purchase of 75 units.

“That’s not to force customers to buy a lot,” Perolli said. “It’s so they have a proper presentation.”