By  on September 14, 2005

MILAN — There's much more to Ballantyne's turnaround than its staple diamond-patterned cashmere sweater.

Melding British heritage and Italian spunk, Ballantyne's new course started in 2002 when Alfredo Canessa, the founder and former owner of Malo, acquired the brand from Dawson and brought in Massimo Alba as creative director, the same post he held at Malo. Canessa is the current chairman.

Two years later, when Italian equity fund Charme bought 80 percent of the Scottish brand, the ball really started rolling.

"Only three years ago, Ballantyne meant a roomy winter sweater in three colors," said Matteo di Montezemolo, chief executive officer at Charme.

That's because since it was founded in 1921, the Scottish brand rarely strayed from that staple look, to the point that, when spring would breeze in and wool cover-ups mothballed away, the factory in Innerleithen, Scotland, came to a standstill.

Ballantyne's current story is very different, as told by a sneak preview of the spring collection: 300 pieces with a significant portion of wovens, fitted and sensual shapes, a 50-color palette, eight footwear styles and crystal embellishments.

"We have a very precise idea for Ballantyne because it is a unique brand with a specific British heritage that we want to safeguard," said di Montezemolo.

His ideas are just as clear in terms of sales, as he predicts year-end volume to reach $37.2 million, up significantly from the $25 million in 2003.

Part of that idea includes reaching out to a selected number of sales points, plus a flagship in London that will open on New Bond Street on Sept. 20.

"It's the exact same spot of the Ballantyne store in the Sixties," smiled 28-year-old di Montezemolo.

If back then the luxurious knits were worn by such icons as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy, di Montezemolo said today's aficionados include Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Julia Roberts.

The store also houses a bespoke area where clients can handpick the color scheme for a personalized argyle intarsia.

"All this has really stimulated the 220 workers in our Scottish factory who have been there for decades," said Massimo Alba, creative director. "They now feel guided and are very proud of their individual know-how."Highlights for spring, which will be presented in Ballantyne's new Milan showroom during fashion week, include garden glory floral prints in pretty pastels that are in full bloom on cardigans, shrunken camisoles, dresses and even espadrilles. Of the 300-piece collection, 220 styles are knits.

Alba said he wanted to convey a wholesome arts and crafts feeling — albeit a luxurious one — and treated each piece in a different way.

Striped or checked, trenchcoats are always piped with a floral motif, while unlined and fitted blazers are a formal alternative to cardigans. The knitwear segment features colored Swarovski crystals, hand-knitted peonies reminiscent of tapestries and light and snug 30-gauge polo shirts. Wholesale prices for the intarsia designs average at $720.

Di Montezemolo's retail plan is based on exclusivity and includes two flagships in London and the same number in Tokyo, plus 300 specialty doors worldwide. "Two years ago, we whittled down the number of doors and we now want to concentrate on shop-in-shops, like the one we just opened in Harrods, next to Prada and Hermès," said di Montezemolo.

Ballantyne, which in the U.S. is carried by Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, is also about to have a men's wear corner in Saks, which is mounting a huge cashmere promotion this fall.

The Ballantyne showroom also reflects the brand's turnaround. The 2,700-square-foot space that will serve as a showroom for the women's line will have lilac walls, lavender carpeting, white lacquered furniture and white leather sofas, plus oil lamps, potted shrubs and informal flower beds on the outside.

"Everyone, including the retailers, is very excited by what we're doing; they feel the energy," said di Montezemolo.

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