By  on April 2, 2007

MILAN — Russia is increasingly shaping up as the land of opportunity for Italian leather goods manufacturers.

The industry's association, ANCI, reported a 54.2 growth in exports to Russia in the January-November 2006 period to 80.9 million euros, or $107.9 million at current exchange rates.

The number of Russian visitors at Mipel, the four-day international leather goods exhibition that closed here on March 18, grew 11.6 percent. Giorgio Cannara, president of Mipel, also pointed to Japan as a valuable outlet for the industry's business. Visitors from Japan grew 10.3 percent this season.

"This time, after four days of the exhibition and in light of the latest economic data, we feel we are a little more than moderately optimistic," said Cannara. "We are gathering strong positive signals from countries outside Italy, which are always our main markets. Japan in the forefront, but the domestic market has also been showing an interesting vivaciousness."

ANCI estimated sales outside Italy last year showed a 15 percent growth, valued at 2.7 billion euros, or $3.5 billion, with an increase of production between 8 and 10 percent, worth 3.3 billion euros or $4.3 billion. Despite a weak U.S. dollar, sales in the American market grew 8 percent — the best performance from that area in five years.

The data, as well as brisk traffic at Mipel, where visitors grew to 18,204, up 9.5 percent from the March 2006 edition, helped lift the mood of exhibitors at the show, which presented accessories for fall-winter 2007-2008.

"We are working well with Eastern countries, from Russia to China and Japan, where customers have no trouble spending and enjoy showing their purchases," said Mauro Casoni, creative director at Tardini, which specializes in alligator bags. "Alligator stands for luxury just as much as diamonds stand for jewelry."

Tardini bags wholesale for 2,000 to 5,000 euros, or $2,600 to $6,500. For fall, the company presented a shopping bag with a zipped-up, structured compartment on the bottom to store, for example, an extra pair of shoes.

Shiny metallic hides or soft patent calf leather were a trend at Mipel, as were oversize bags, usually deconstructed but always functional, with a plethora of storage pockets. In addition to a woodsy color palette, there were touches of vivid red and eggplant purple. Nickel and other metallic details were also strong. Pony remains a strong hide for the fall-winter season, together with napa, reptile skins and furs — from sheepskin to eco-friendly synthetics."Pony and furs are a must for Russian retailers," said Nives Zanotti, designer at Via Repubblica, based in Italy's San Mauro Pascoli.

Zanotti, sister of footwear designer Giuseppe Zanotti, said shiny patent is also popular with the Russian market. The company works mainly with countries outside Italy, but all production is made here.

"This was our strategy ever since the beginning, when we started out as Zanotti Pelle in 1978," said Paolo Bugli, general manager of the company. "We first started working with Japan and Korea and have been in Russia for the past 15 years."

The brand is also available in the U.S. at Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. Bags made with laser-cut swatches of napa that are then sewn together for an artisanal yet luxurious look were among the hits at Via Repubblica.

Another strong trend was braided leather, especially forming bags' handles. Among the lines showing this trend were Bric's, which is steadily expanding its handbag business from its original focus on travel, and David & Scotti, where designer David Dewar McMillan said the show kicked off above expectations from Day One.

"These retailers are looking for original designs," said McMillan. "That's why I really believe that people should realize they must pursue their own brand image, with original graphics and a unique presentation. It's hard, but Italy's future lies in its creativity and the investment in new designers."

Pierluigi Terrida, chief executive officer at Terrida, based in Venice, also said he was pleased with business at Mipel, adding, "The number of visitors has been steadily growing over the past two or three years."

Produced in Italy, the bags are made with printed crocodile and pony hair in vivid and contrasting color combinations — such as red and brown — and patterns that reproduce giraffe or zebra skins. Bags retail for $500 to $700. Terrida said business in Japan is also picking up, especially golf bags.

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