By  on January 15, 2009

MILAN — Umberto Angeloni, the soft-spoken but high-profile former chief executive officer of Brioni, has returned with a new luxury venture, and he’s not letting the recession hold him back.

In October, two years after his acrimonious split with the family-owned Italian label, Angeloni purchased a 35 percent stake in men’s wear manufacturer Raffaele Caruso SpA. One of Italy’s best-kept secrets, Caruso manufactures men’s formalwear for prominent brands, including Dior, Lanvin and Ralph Lauren, and sells private label as well as the Caruso brand to retailers such as Barneys New York. All told, the company produces more than 180,000 pieces a year at its three plants, all located near Parma.

In an interview, Angeloni unveiled ambitious plans for the Caruso label and the framework for a new men’s wear concept dubbed UMAN, both of which he hopes will capture imagination and market share once the downturn passes. Last year, Caruso generated revenues of 61 million euros, or $81.5 million at current exchange. Angeloni plans to double that figure in five years.

Caruso is known for its handmade quality, but until now has had limited distribution, predominantly in Italian and German specialty stores. With an eye toward distributing the 50-year-old label to top retailers in America and Europe as early as this summer, Angeloni  enlisted the image of Enrico Caruso, the century-old Italian opera star — once lead tenor at the Metropolitan Opera — as part of a rebranding exercise.

“We needed a new identity for the brand,” Angeloni said. “There is no relation between Raffaele Caruso and Enrico…But the link is, he was the first Italian point of excellence in the world in 1904. He represented Italy and all its values and passions, a symbol of the Italian way of life, which is exactly what [the] Caruso [label] wants to be. We don’t want to overlook the fact that Caruso has a heritage, the prominence of a tailor, but that’s not particularly different from the other tailored brands. We wanted to link it to higher values than just needle, thread and thimble.”

Caruso will unveil key pieces of its new collection in June, including a jacket named after the legendary opera singer.

Angeloni has also enhanced Caruso’s back-office operations, adding 15 customer-service employees to its 600-person staff. “The company’s mission is to be the best supplier of formalwear for brands and the best supplier to retailers,” Angeloni explained, noting service is “paramount.”

He added that Caruso would be sold exclusively through multibrand channels, bucking the trend for direct distribution. “Retailers are professionals at retail,” he said. “Brands are not.”

As ceo of Brioni, Angeloni epitomized the luxury lifestyle, presiding over the Brioni Polo Classic and writing a book on the pleasures of single-malt Scotch. Now, with UMAN, he is seeking a new way to serve a consumer not unlike himself.

“We’re not launching a brand or a label, we’re launching a concept,” Angeloni explained. “At the moment, the affluent consumer has a choice between a custom tailor who will make him something very traditional, or a fashion house that will make something very seasonal. But nothing relates to his way of life, to his passions, to his skills, to his values…. I believe that the affluent customer is looking for something entirely different when it comes to creating his wardrobe…. UMAN will be like a club which works with its members, giving them suggestions on how to develop their own unique look.”

He cited a Tyrolean jacket by Viennese tailor Knize, a Zhongshan suit by Hong Kong emporium Shanghai Tang or a Norfolk jacket by Henry Poole of Savile Row as examples of wardrobe staples UMAN could source and/or reinterpret.

Angeloni said UMAN would unveil its first “concept room” on Via Gesu in Milan’s Golden Triangle shopping district in June, showing a limited selection of iconic wardrobe pieces addressing men’s passions and hobbies.

“There will be a completely new affluent consumer waiting at the end of the [recession]…who wants to show status skills, not status objects,” Angeloni said.

Five retailers worldwide will be selected to distribute the line, Angeloni said. He declined to give further details.

“One must start a dialogue with the consumer. It’s no longer ‘I make; you buy. I talk; you listen.’ It’s, ‘This is what I can make, and this is why I want to make it. Tell me what you think about it. Tell me what you like. Tell me where you are coming from. Tell me what your skills are,’ and I’ll create a wardrobe for you.”

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