By  on February 15, 2007

When Giorgio Armani won the coveted rights to dress the TomKat nuptials last year, he delegated much of the responsibility to his 36-year-old niece, Roberta Armani. She even flew to Los Angeles to oversee the final fitting for Katie Holmes' crystal embroidered silk dress and Tom Cruise's handmade tuxedo.

"I was proud and lucky to be involved in dressing their wedding," Roberta said. "I was naturally involved in helping them as much as I could with the organization of the event," which was held in a castle outside Rome.

Roberta, who has logged more than a decade working for her uncle has seen her role evolve from that of model to celebrity liaison and even muse. She, like many other next-generation heirs such as Allegra Versace Beck, Margherita Missoni, Matteo Marzotto, James Ferragamo, Gianguido Tarabini and Alessandro Benetton, are starting to assert themselves in their respective companies and prove that they're more than mere products of nepotism. While fashion's old guard is hardly rushing into retirement — Italians often work into their 70s and beyond — it's at least starting to make space for the younger set.

Although there are plenty of question marks surrounding the future of the Giorgio Armani group, there's little doubt that Roberta and her sister, Silvana Armani, 52, are playing increasingly important roles at their uncle's company.

Roberta has worked for the company for 14 years, first as a model and later in the public relations office. Last month, she confidently walked the runway for the Giorgio Armani men's show, accompanying Spanish bullfighter Cayetano Rivera. Over the years, she has grown into an ambassador for her uncle's brand.

"Lately, my role has been expanding and I have become sort of a muse, a face of the company, engaging in special projects and representing my uncle all over the world when he physically can't be there, as he is so busy all the time," Roberta said. "I only hope to be able to live up to what my name represents."

Meanwhile, Silvana is head women's wear designer for Emporio Armani and oversees the Armani Junior collection. She also sits on Giorgio Armani SpA's board and executive committee.Giorgio Armani's nephew, Andrea Camerana (cousin of Roberta and Silvana), also plays a critical role at his uncle's company, where the 37-year-old is the licensing and marketing director.

Silvana said her uncle's confidence in her has grown over the years, in tandem with her own, as she finds her creative point of view. "Giorgio is as much an icon in my eyes as he was 20 years ago, a role model and a personality to respect, love and admire, rather than slavishly imitate. It is always difficult to relate to a genius on exactly equal terms."

Although Versace Beck, 20, leads a far less public existence than the Armani women, she is just as busy as the largest shareholder of the company her late uncle Gianni founded.

Gianni Versace bequeathed half of his company to his beloved niece and she assumed full control over her stake in 2004, when she turned 18. (Her uncle, Santo, owns 30 percent, while her mother, Donatella, has the remaining 20 percent.)

Versace Beck doesn't hold a managerial post at Versace and keeps an extremely low profile while she attends a university in the U.S. True to form, she declined to comment for this story. She returns to Italy frequently, however, for shareholder meetings.

Over the last two years, since Versace Beck obtained her voting rights, the company has hired Giancarlo Di Risio as chief executive, cut wasteful costs and drastically restructured.

While the women of Versace and Armani are emerging on fashion's landscape, plenty of other companies are starting to sort out potentially thorny succession issues. Some families are already taking steps to map out the solution — like Ferragamo and its decision to go public — while others, such as Missoni, are just beginning to chart the future. Clearly this task is increasingly difficult as the size of the family grows.

It's critical for companies to tread carefully when it comes to handing down stakes and responsibilities, as one fashion ceo noted.

"The problem with Italian companies is that they just think of passing on a company to their children as if it were a bank account," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The important thing is that the kids are able to manage the company. They are also capable of destroying it."Missoni wants to make sure that doesn't happen. Siblings Angela, Luca and Vittorio Missoni currently run the family business, which they inherited from their parents, Ottavio and Rosita. But plotting a succession strategy is bound to get tricky, since there are nine heirs to the family business. The eldest, 23-year-old Margherita, is currently studying acting in New York. She already has a starring role in Missoni's fragrance ads.

Vittorio Missoni, sales and marketing manager at Missoni, said the company has started thinking about a hand-over strategy. Obviously, there's still time since the third generation of the family is still young, studying and determining their own interests.

"It's an issue that we are evaluating and facing. It's not that imminent [of a problem], but it's not all that far away, either," Missoni said. "It's not as if everyone who has the right to enter the company can do so."

Regardless of what the future will bring at Missoni, there is new blood in the boardroom. Last month, the company tapped former Gucci executive Massimo Gasparini, 47, as managing director. He replaced a recently retired Umberto Monte, who had been with the company for 40 years.

"Gasparini's arrival will add to the renovation process that the company continues to carry forth," Vittorio Missoni said.

Until recently, the Ferragamos were facing a similar generational dilemma — albeit on a grander scale, since their brood counts 36 descendants.

In August, the company tapped its first non-family member chief executive, former Valentino chief Michele Norsa. Ferragamo also announced plans to list on the stock market soon, resolving a potential stalemate among numerous shareholders.

"It's important that the company can stand on its own two feet and have an organization that is modern and adept for today's world," said Fulvia Ferragamo, vice president of Salvatore Ferragamo Italia SpA and a daughter of the founder. "We have been preparing for this moment for years. We wanted to leave our kids something that was [properly] organized."

But even before the Ferragamo clan decided on the IPO route, it began to carefully vet the next generation. It was a vast pool, since the late founder Salvatore and his wife, Wanda, who is now 85 and still active in the company, had 23 grandchildren.Eager to avoid a chaotic situation, Wanda and her children decided that it would be best if only three of the most deserving younger family members were allowed to join the company. The chosen ones were James Ferragamo, Diego Di San Giuliano and Angelica Visconti.

James, 35, son of chairman Ferruccio Ferragamo, oversees the handbag division, coordinating the designers and marketing and merchandising divisions. Di San Giuliano, 36, son of Fiamma Ferragamo, is currently on sabbatical after working in the footwear department and serving as a personal assistant to his uncle Ferruccio. Visconti, 32, Fulvia's daughter, works in marketing and has spent the last year at the company's Hong Kong subsidiary.

James Ferragamo, like many other members of his family, began his induction to the company early in life. At the age of nine, he began spending his summer holidays boxing shoes, and a few years later, he worked his way up to other projects, like hand-sewing sandals.

Those memories brought him back to Florence after working in the buying office at Saks Fifth Avenue and at the London branch of Goldman Sachs.

"I missed the product aspect of it, so when I finished my master's degree, I decided to try the family business," James said. "It was something that I always wanted to do. It's such an honor to work in something that was created by my grandfather."

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