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Westwood Plots U.S. Return

Vivienne Westwood is getting herself into a New York state of mind for spring.

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NEW YORK — Vivienne Westwood is getting herself into a New York state of mind for spring.

This May, the iconoclastic designer, who rarely travels to Gotham, will make a pit stop here to attend the opening gala of “AngloMania,” the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition, where many of her works will be featured, and take in some of the sights.

“Whenever I visit somewhere, whether it be business or pleasure, I try to take the opportunity to visit museums and exhibitions,” Westwood said. “For the opening of my retrospective in Düsseldorf in February, I managed to see the Matisse exhibition and am hoping to visit the Frick in New York and am obviously very excited about the Met.”

Westwood’s trip couldn’t come at a better time. After 9/11, the London designer closed her SoHo boutique here and decided to largely pull out of the U.S. wholesale market. Come fall, the designer will reenter the U.S. market, which will be largely driven by Anglomania, her younger-skewing contemporary collection with a focus on denim and washed cotton pieces. Westwood also is seeking to rebuild sales of the more formal Red Label, and eventually reenter the retail business to offer the top-tier Gold Label again.

“I was looking at the hits on our Web site and, surprisingly, over 40 percent of hits come from North America,” said Christopher di Pietro, Westwood’s marketing and merchandising director. “Financially, the potential in America is enormous, even if you are a niche brand.”

Westwood once had a U.S. business in partnership with Itochu. The company opened a store on Greene Street here in 1998, and operated a showroom to develop its U.S. wholesale and retail business. At the time, Staff International was manufacturing the more upscale Red Label, while GTR was making Anglomania. Both had financial problems in the late Nineties and were hard-pressed to deliver a quality product on time.

“Then 9/11 happened and it all compounded,” di Pietro said. “Itochu wanted to pull out of America. We didn’t feel our manufacturing backup in Italy was serious enough to be in the States, and, much to our sadness, we put America on the back burner.”

Since then, the company has been focusing on Europe and the Far East, with success, said di Pietro. In 2005, the company’s sales grew 37 percent worldwide to $131 million. That figure includes wholesale, retail and licensing revenues worldwide.

In addition, Westwood has re-signed a manufacturing agreement for Red Label with Staff, which has since been bought and boosted by the Diesel Group, and tapped GFM, a division of the Mariella Burani Group, to make Anglomania.

“We have reached a point where we are ready to put our full commitment to America again,” di Pietro said.

Di Pietro is putting together a strategy for U.S. expansion, and the model will likely resemble the company’s Asian business, which has developed through manufacturing partnerships with local vendors. Such local production deals can result in better prices because the company can avoid paying import duties and transportation costs, make more frequent deliveries and have garments made specifically to fit local body types.

“Made in Italy will always be a core business, but we would like to develop a more local global strategy,” said di Pietro. “We’d like to supplement the collections distributed globally from Italy or the U.K. with lines that are produced for the local markets.”

Westwood said, “I am convinced that, as elsewhere, there is a market for what we offer in America. More so now than ever, in fact, as consumers move away from overmarketed brands toward ones which value, quality and creativity above pure branding. We are aware that America is not an easy market. Competition is tough and retailers can be conservative. However, I think the time is right for us now.”

In the U.S., the lion’s share of growth is expected to come from Anglomania. “British fashion has had an enormous influence on fashion worldwide, and the word Anglomania, coined in the 17th century to describe the French court’s love of everything English, is still alive today,” Westwood mused, adding her streetwear line is inspired by her 35 years of archives.

Anglomania is wholesaled through the Scatola Sarotiale LLC showroom here at 33 Little West 12th Street, which recently opened branches in Dallas and Los Angeles. Red Label continues to be wholesaled through the U.K. and is available at retail stores like Traffic here and Riccardi in Boston.

Andrea Lieberman has started consulting on Anglomania with the fall collection. According to di Pietro, the celebrity stylist, who also collaborates with Gwen Stefani on L.A.M.B., went through the archives and pointed to shapes she felt were most suitable to the U.S. market, nixing the tougher, avant-garde clothes in favor of Westwood’s more feminine side, including the hourglass silhouette and corset pieces. “We are very English in the way we put clothes together, which sometimes is a little extreme for American women,” di Pietro said. “Andrea made us understand the way American women put clothes together. We were able to identify certain silhouettes that would have been easier for the American market.”

Anglomania is slated to be wholesaled to 45 to 60 doors for fall, including Eva and Utowa in New York, and Scout and Diavolina in Los Angeles.

The collection wholesales from $220 to $295 for dresses, $380 to $800 for coats, $145 to $270 for tops and $130 to $300 for skirts. Within five years, the U.S. wholesale sales potential for Anglomania is between $70 million and $80 million, according to Valentino Vettori, Scatola’s owner.

Di Pietro added that the company is looking to reenter the retail business with the right partners.

“A store in L.A. and New York would be imperative in the short to medium term,” he said.

America is clearly a major focus for the brand in other ways, too. The designer is being honored for her contribution to tartan and Scottish design at the Johnnie Walker Dressed to Kilt 2006 fashion show on April 4. Head judges and honorary chairs Lady Michelin and Sir Sean Connery will be joined by celebrity judges and models Alexander McQueen, Zac Posen, Peter Som, Nicole Miller, André Leon Talley, Vivienne Tam, Anait Bian, Anne Hathaway and Michael Kaye. This year’s event at Synod House at St. John the Divine Cathedral Garden in New York will benefit Friends of Scotland.

Then there is the Vivienne Westwood exhibit, which had its debut at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, and will be traveling to San Francisco’s De Young Fine Arts Museum in early 2008. Di Pietro said he is looking for a location to bring it to New York. “It’s a large exhibition, which makes it more difficult for us to find a venue,” he said.

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