By and  on January 15, 2009

FLORENCE — Dawn has broken over fall 2009 as the first luxury collections of the new season were revealed this week to a deeply anxious retail industry at Pitti Immagine Uomo here, the world’s premier trade show for high-end men’s wear.

As the global economy continued its painful digestion of the U.S. home-lending crisis, vendors and retailers alike faced the new season with equal parts trepidation and optimism.

“The truly artisanal Italians really, really stepped it up, adding new product categories, new details, and really differentiating the product and making it compelling for the customer,” said Tommy Fazio, fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman Men’s. “So I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And I must  say Pitti Uomo is still very important for us. There are always these great factories here, and that’s how we create our proprietary Bergdorf Goodman Collection.”

Across the grounds of the Fortezza da Basso, vendors offered tightly focused collections inside scaled-down booths, which, in recent seasons, had been bursting with miscellaneous merchandise. At the same time, vendors were intent on broadening their appeal, especially if it could help them attract a younger,  more cost-conscious or more fashion-forward customer.

Pitti, as it’s called, has historically served as the cocktail hour before the banquet of men’s runway shows, whetting buyers’ appetites with classically luxurious men’s wear based on traditional European tailoring.

But Pitti itself is in transition as some of the big brands that served as its traditional anchors — including Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali, Brioni and Hugo Boss  — have graduated to independent showrooms and runways, leaving a vacuum that largely has been filled with contemporary sportswear brands. Those still rub shoulders with traditional luxury brands, albeit somewhat awkwardly, and more departures — namely Kiton, Isaia and Hackett — could be imminent.

One sign of sportswear’s ascendancy at Pitti was the crowding for Woolrich John  Rich & Bros., the historic American brand revived by WP Lavori in Corso of Bologna. The popular Italian collection of contemporary sportswear and outerwear became available to the U.S. for the first time.

“Pitti has become a great place for sportswear,” said Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I’m looking for versatile, hybrid, multifunctional, high-value pieces. What’s selling for us is modern things with slimmer silhouettes, so that’s what we’re looking for. And personally, I am looking for brands that stand the test of time and that are innovative in reinterpreting themselves, making themselves modern and relevant, like Woolrich has.”

Henry Cotton’s, a 31-year-old brand of tweedy British sportswear, launched a much-expanded collegiate division called Henry Cotton’s University. As the exclusive Italian licensee of Harvard and Oxford Universities, it incorporated the schools’ names and trademarks in a preppy line that it not only markets generally, but also that the universities will carry in their campus outlets. Henry Cotton’s also plans to establish scholarships and intercollegiate competitions between the two universities. Bleachers full of models dressed as rugby players loomed over visitors to Henry Cotton’s exhibition space.

The new focus on sportswear at Pitti has pushed tailored brands to increase their casual and more youthful offerings.

“We wanted a young spirit, something fresh, not flamboyant, something romantic and idealistic to fit the return to a simpler way of life,” mused Brunello Cucinelli, known as the “industrial philosopher.”

That meant slimmer silhouettes and more casual elements such as T-shirts, dress  shirts worn without ties and knitted outerwear for a more relaxed look. “The collection is much more sporty,” he said. Even the formalwear had an underlining laissez-faire feel. Tuxedos, for example, came in light gray or navy flannel and were paired with suede shoes in camel tones. Cucinelli unveiled the label’s first footwear line at the fair. It plans to roll out four  stores this year — in Athens, Rome, Atlanta and Tokyo.

“Brunello Cucinelli had great suiting and sportswear. It’s a younger look, but it’s definitely very chic,” said Tom Kalenderian, general merchandising manager for men’s wear at Barneys New York.

Kalenderian, who also applauded Cruciani for its “youthfulness” and Fedeli’s sexy and sophisticated collection, said he was placing orders and was optimistic overall.

“We have a very big job to activate consumer appetite in the third quarter. The  whole team is here with guns blazing, looking for ideas and ammunition and to come back with as many new concepts as possible,” he added.

Braemar, a century-old label dormant since the Nineties, has been given a fresh  lease on life by its new owner, Massimiliano Zegna Baruffa (a distant relation  of men’s wear dynast Ermenegildo Zegna), who acquired the brand and a controlling stake in J.J. & H.B. 1788 Cashmere Mills Ltd. in October. The 230-year-old Scottish mill, the oldest in continued activity in Scotland, produces the Braemar label as well as intarsia knitwear for leading design labels.

“There is a real demand for handmade products with real value and heritage,” Zegna Baruffa said, adding that one piece could take up to 52 hours and retail for around 3,000 euros, or about $3,900 at current exchange.

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