MILAN — The forecast for the eyewear market is hazy these days, but that’s not stopping fashion houses like Versace and Armani from fine-tuning the style of their shades.

Over the years this fast-growing category has become an important vehicle for brands to extend their reach. Despite sluggish market conditions, the sector has generated plenty of buzz lately as a couple of key brands dramatically shifted their alliances with the eyewear manufacturing heavyweights.

Versace earlier this year inked a 10-year licensing deal with industry giant Luxottica, which was looking for ways to compensate for losing its Giorgio Armani license late last year. Meanwhile, Armani is working to redesign and better distinguish its signature Giorgio Armani and younger Emporio collections with new partner Safilo.

But new deals weren’t enough to lure visitors to Milan’s Mido fair, which ran April 26-28. The number of visitors dropped 33.4 percent as buyers feared SARS and opted to take advantage of the long holiday weekend and skip the event, although Mido organizers claim that those present at the fair did good business. Concern over SARS dominated much of the fair. Bathrooms were disinfected every 10 minutes. Fresh air was continually pumped into the pavilions and some fairgrounds personnel wore masks. Chinese exhibitors and buyers stayed home this year, but the Asian retailers who did come could get special badges to show they passed health inspections.

But gloom or no gloom, Versace was bent on having a good time at Mido. The firm is betting on eyewear in a big way. Donatella Versace hosted Luxottica chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio and a slew of eyewear distributors in her Milan apartment for a risotto and fish dinner followed by drinks and dancing in her private garden. The festivities included an appearance by a troupe of rapping break-dancers.

“This is not a typical licensee,” Versace said in her downtown Milan office. “[Del Vecchio] wants fashion from us…I make sunglasses to work with the outfit.”

Del Vecchio said: “Glasses must reflect all of the values of a fashion house, drawing on its style elements. To do this, we are focusing on creating a style that takes advantage of the brand’s ornamentation, as well as the creative use of colors, shapes and materials.”Versace is also making sunglasses to flex its financial muscle.

“Even if the market is the weakest it’s been in 20 years, Versace is beating its targets,” said chief executive Santo Versace, who predicted that Versace eyewear sales will reach $103.5 millionto $115 million this year. The goal is to double that figure in the next three years. (Dollar figures have been converted from the euro at current exchange rates.)

Luxottica snared the Versace license by buying IC Optics, the company that previously produced and distributed eyewear for the Milan-based label. Versace is serving up a diversified palette of eyewear, ranging from elegant evening models in pink with rose and purple jewel accents to more sober pairs in black, tortoiseshell or bone. Frames are metal, plastic or a combination. The younger Versus line tends toward the sporty in basic black or eye-grabbing metallic hues of purple or red. The line’s new logo in gothic lettering is emblazoned on the stems.

Armani, in keeping with its comparatively less flashy image, took a decidedly more conservative approach at Mido as it rolled out its first Safilo-produced eyewear line. Models of the Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani collections were kept under fairly tight wraps at the fair and shown to the press on request only.

Armani is opting to sell the collection “unseen,” in the words of a company spokesman, who said an ad campaign will break in September.

The Giorgio Armani collection features large oval or rectangular-shaped lenses with frames in colors like cobalt and cherry. There are also sportier wraparound styles and retro models with thin wire frames. Similarly, Emporio offers bold oversize or extra-small designs, some embellished with rhinestones or tiny studs.

“We’ve already sold the collection to the majority of key clients and the response has been very positive,” said a company spokesman. Safilo shared that optimistic tone.

As reported, Armani terminated its 14-year partnership with Luxottica over disagreements about the design and the mass distribution of its eyewear lines. Luxottica said the Armani business had generated about 7.2 percent of its total sales, which, based on 2002 numbers, would come to about $259.35 million.Both Versace and Armani’s plans to grow sales in today’s market present a tall order. The latest statistics show an industry at a standstill amid war and the outbreak of SARS. Eyewear production in Italy rose just 1.2 percent in 2002 to $2.14 billion, according to data from industry organization Anfao. Uncertainty over the future in Iraq, the spread of SARS and potential conflict between the U.S. and North Korea are setting the stage for a second half 2003 of “ups and downs,” according to Vittorio Tabacchi, president of Anfao and chairman of Safilo.

“The outlook is certainly not very optimistic and is placing many companies, especially small- and medium-sized concerns, on their knees,” he said in a speech kicking off Mido.

Maurizio Dessolis, chief financial officer at De Rigo, which makes eyewear for the Prada group, said his group expects 2003 sales in line with year-ago figures.

The focus at Mido was on individual touches. Plastic frames predominated, many in rounded retro styles, but there were also plenty of aviator models. Two Gucci-owned labels are branching into eyewear, as reported, and were on display at the fair. Stella McCartney’s label features touches like synthetic leather borders around the lenses and metallic stars, while Bottega Veneta’s has oval shapes in tortoiseshell and wire-rimmed versions studded with metal accents.

Salvatore Ferragamo got glitzy with a floral motif of crystals on its sunglass frames. Dolce & Gabbana went Eighties style with smoky lenses surrounded by frames in summery colors like melon and candy pink. IT Holding’s Allison unit showed a series of gold-filled frames in yellow and white for Gianfranco Ferré, Romeo Gigli and Extè. Prada displayed inverted wire frames that attach on the bottom-side of the lenses.

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