By  on January 12, 2006

ASOLO, Italy — It's been almost a year since Claudio Buziol, president of Fashion Box Group and the founder and creative force behind the Replay denim and sportswear brand, died of a heart attack at age 47.

As Replay marks its 25th anniversary this year, a team of designers and executives is working to ensure that Buziol's vision endures.

"There was a real, deep concern [for the future of the company], as Claudio was our mentor and a driving force for us," Attilio Biancardi, chairman of Fashion Box, said during an interview at company headquarters here, a three-hour drive east of Milan. "But he had created a management and design structure around him."

Biancardi and his colleagues face the challenge of maintaining Replay's heritage while mapping the company's global expansion and the growth of its retail network. The task is well suited to Biancardi, who started working with Buziol in 1978 when Buziol founded the Genius Group with Adriano Goldschmied and Renzo Rosso. In 1981, Buziol founded Fashion Box Group and took control of the Replay brand. Prior to Buziol's death last February, Biancardi was vice chairman of the group.

Since then, Biancardi and Marco Bortoletti, chief executive officer, who has a 10 percent share of Fashion Box, have continued to grow the company. Sales rose more than 30 percent to $386 million, or 310 million euros, in 2005, compared with sales of $286.4 million, or 230 million euros, the previous year. Dollar figures have been converted at average exchange for the year.

"We expect a double-digit growth in 2006," Biancardi said.

He is counting on extending Replay's global retail network and bringing the brand back to the U.S., a market neglected over the past two years, to jump-start sales gains in 2006. The company appointed Thierry Andretta president of Replay U.S. in October. Andretta was ceo of high-end sportswear company Belfe, and before that was vice president at Gucci Group in charge of its emerging brands division. Andretta grew up with Buziol and was one of his closest friends.

"The brand has enormous potential in the U.S., where its awareness is still strong," Andretta said in a phone interview, noting that the Replay store in New York registered a 36 percent sales increase last year compared with 2004, which had a 40 percent gain for the year.Andretta said the company has "ambitious plans" to open 30 stores worldwide, including six in the U.S. in 2006. Last fall, the company opened a store in Costa Mesa, Calif., joining its first shop on Prince Street in Manhattan. A third U.S. store is to open Feb. 1 at the Beverly Center, near Beverly Hills. Stores in Miami and New Jersey are slated to open in the spring, with another planned for 2007 in Las Vegas.

The spring-summer collection will also be available at 54 multibrand stores in the U.S., expanding to 100 points of sale the following season.

"The stores include everyone's dream list, from Fred Segal, Thesis Boutique and Theodore in Los Angeles to Jeannery in San Diego, Mario's in Seattle and Atrium in New York," Andretta said.

Buziol shut down the brand's wholesale distribution in the U.S. in 2003 in an effort to slash prices and make it more competitive in the American market. Management believes it has a new strategy for success.

"You just have to be in certain locations and certain stores," Biancardi said.

Worldwide, Fashion Box counts more than 6,000 points of sale, including those for the new, more trendy We Are Replay line.

Global retail expansion has also been a priority. Last year, 25 new Replay branded stores opened around the world, including Lisbon, Venice, Moscow, London, Prague and Hong Kong. For 2006, stores are slated to open in Dublin, Cairo and Ankara, Turkey. Biancardi also said he is in talks with a potential partner to open 30 stores in China, adding to the three in Shanghai.

Denim continues to be Replay's bestseller, accounting for about 50 percent of sales. Biancardi said for fall-winter 2006 denim is "cleaner, more straightforward, without over-the-top washes." The trend is toward a dark, almost black denim and, when blue, never too light.

"Comfort continues to be a priority, however," he said. Today, the fit is tighter to the body — a departure from the baggy styles that "were considered a must until yesterday."

Retail prices range from $160 to $300 for Replay and from $345 to $800 for We Are Replay.

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