NEW YORK — Retail Brand Alliance is revving up Adrienne Vittadini.

Moving fast to establish a beachhead in the bridge arena, RBA will open 17 Vittadini stores this year starting Aug.1 and sees 50 operating in three years.

"This should be a $100 million business within three years," said Claudio Del Vecchio, president and chief executive officer of Retail Brand Alliance. The Enfield, Conn.-based vertical retailer, which also owns Brooks Bros., Casual Corner and Carolee, purchased the Vittadini brand from de V&P Inc. in February 2001 for $8.5 million.

In an exclusive interview on Friday, Del Vecchio projected that the Vittadini stores would post $2 million in annual sales on average, with about 30 seen operating by October 2003, 50 in three years, and possibly as many as 80 across the country.

He said the brand would represent "appropriate luxury," meaning a designer look at less-than-designer prices.

Eraldo Poletto, chief merchandising officer added: "The collections are designed with a Euro-American point of view, with the ready-to-wear taking a woman from career to weekend, casual to evening. The emphasis is on separates, enhancing a woman’s sense of style and her active lifestyle."

The opening of the stores coincides with the relaunch of the Adrienne Vittadini rtw collection, which will only be sold in the Vittadini stores, Del Vecchio said. The stores will average 4,500 square feet and will also sell Vittadini licensed products, including footwear, jewelry, watches, legwear, intimates, belts, handbags, scarves, sunglasses and fragrance. Handbags, eyewear, watches, scarves and fragrance are sold at department and specialty stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Rtw prices will run from $300 for jackets and $180 for knitwear, to $150 for skirts and $190 for trousers.

The stores will be designed in neutral tones of ashwood paneling, stainless steel fixtures and brushed aluminum and woven wall coverings. Most will be in traditional malls. However, Del Vecchio said some will be tested in lifestyle centers, which don’t have department store anchors, including Aspen Grove, Colo.

Launched in 1979, Adrienne Vittadini became a prominent label in the Eighties. The Vittadinis sold the business in 1996 to Marisa Christina, which created two product lines: a bridge collection reflecting casual career dressing with sweaters in novelty yarns, stitches and textures, as well as a better-priced, knitwear-driven line including casual weekend and weekday dressing alternatives.In July 1999, Marisa Christina sold it to de V&P, which went bankrupt.

Adrienne Vittadini herself is not actively involved in the business anymore.

The company was best known for classic luxurious knitwear and hit its peak in 1990 with a volume of around $110 million wholesale. It was an important fashion resource at department stores, but the collection disappeared as the bridge market sank in the late Nineties due to overexposure, too many lines coming onto the scene and too much similarity among collections. Lately, the bridge market has shown some signs of revival.

With the relaunch, the brand joins just a handful of specialty retailers selling bridge merchandise.

Asked who Vittadini will compete with, Del Vecchio said, "If you look at price point, it would be Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, and not far in price from Brooks Bros. women’s [although it’s more classic and mainstream while Vittadini has more of a fashion edge]. It’s higher priced than Ann Taylor, but we believe the quality of Adrienne Vittadini is on the same level as designer. It’s a designer business."

Currently, Banana Republic is about the biggest specialty player in the bridge market, not counting Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, which most consumers consider luxury department stores. Yet, in their quests for distinct identities and healthier sales trends, other specialty players like J. Crew and Club Monaco have been dabbling in higher price points and chicer styles.

As for other divisions, he said Carolee, which has seven stores operating so far, will open six or seven more by the end of the year, including some that will be adjacent to Vittadini in shopping centers. Asked how Carolee stores are performing, he replied, "Every month the performance improves. We are learning there."

Brooks Bros, he said, is doing "very well, better than expected," though the merchandise and the stores will take another year to get to the point where the company feels the stores and the merchandise are restored to Brooks Bros. historic classic and quality image.

"It’s getting closer to where we want it," Del Vecchio said. "There is a lot of heritage there and we want to take advantage of it, but we are very happy where we are today with Brooks Bros. Sales for spring were over projections."Casual Corner, he said, weathered the storm pretty well. "It’s still in the black. Hopefully, it will improve. As with Adrienne Vittadini, we are taking advantage of some great real estate that’s become available. We are opening some locations and we got out of some locations. We are still improving the product."

The first Vittadini store opens Aug. 1 in West Farms, Conn., followed by other August openings in Kansas City, Mo.; Tampa, Fla.; Schaumberg, Ill.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Santa Clara, Calif.

September openings include Geneva, Ill.; Birmingham, Ala.; Littleton, Colo.; Hackensack and Marlton, N.J.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Des Peres, Miss.; and Coral Gables, and Palm Beach, Fla.

October openings include Orlando, Fla., and a West Coast flagship at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. The company has been searching for a Vittadini location in Manhattan, but hasn’t found one yet.

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