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Knits’ Next Move

After a season of sartorial-like knits, Italian knitwear brands have pared back their collections and are championing refreshed classics for next fall.

MILAN — After a season of sartorial-like knits, Italian knitwear brands have pared back their collections and are championing refreshed classics for next fall.

Though super-luxury knitwear continues to gain traction, knitwear’s silhouette has returned to more traditional looks; buttons are favored over zips, superfine gauges are predominant, and color and small jacquards have made a comeback.

The turnaround is also being perceived by the industry as a safeguard against the euro’s soaring value, which currently threatens Italian knitwear exports to the U.S. and Japan.

Cashmere aficionado Brunello Cucinelli says that, though he was forced to increase prices of his line by 10 to 12 percent for next fall, he didn’t expect to lose U.S. clients.

“I can’t do anything about the dollar, but I can give the customer great service, creativity and quality. I say to my employees, ‘Let’s make beautiful things that will captivate our clients,’” says Cucinelli.

The Solomeo, Italy–based brand, which predicts a 31.6 percent hike in turnover, to hit 120 million euros, or $178 million, this year, will open the doors to its first Milan flagship in February. The 700-square-foot space on Via Della Spiga will house both men’s and women’s collections.

The strong euro is forcing others to look at growing markets beyond the U.S.

Gran Sasso has said that its fall in sales from U.S. clients has been offset by an increase in sales in ex-Soviet countries, Germany and France. “But I still have faith in the American market. Customers there are getting tired of lesser quality cashmere coming from the Far East,” says Carlo Distefano, marketing manager of Gran Sasso. The shift in destination market sales has allowed the firm to achieve a turnover of 50 million euros in 2007, stable on 2006’s figure. Gran Sasso is also looking to diversify into other men’s wear product categories following its relocation to a new 400,000-square-foot headquarters on the east coast of central Italy in September. “But it’s a bit early to talk details,” adds Distefano.

Meanwhile Cruciani, the Trevi, Italy–based label, is looking to expand in the U.S., despite the economic circumstances. “We’ve studied the market for a while and we are ready to invest in it [next year] so we are prepared to make some sacrifices, like absorbing the exchange rate until it bounces back,” says Luca Caprai, CEO and founder of Cruciani. The firm is looking to double its sales in the U.S. in 2008, after growing overall sales by 20 percent in 2007 to 15 million euros.

“Like our competitors, we are happy with the way the Russian market is performing,” says Caprai. He added the ex-Soviet market was the main destination for Cruciani’s top-notch cashmere sweaters knitted with ultra-long cashmere fibers. The brand has sold 400 such garments at 1,500 euros a piece, alongside 200 made-to-measure sweaters.

For next fall’s collection, Cruciani has united knitted cashmere and shearling in a double-face, slim-fit jacket with long, curly black Tuscan lambskin on the inside and a biscuit-colored cashmere sweater as the outer layer, topped with horn buttons. The label has also produced a cashmere sweater with an intricate micro-geometric jacquard pattern that takes more than 50 hours to knit and that will sell for 5,000 euros. Cruciani’s cashmere cardigans in lavender, eggplant and prune also come with horn buttons. “Zips have become a basic knit’s accessory,” says Caprai.

For Visano Brescia, Italy–based brand Avon Celli, its super-luxury cashmere sweaters, that are knitted with 24-karat gold and feature fur details, continue to do well in Russia, where the company has already sold around 100 priced at 2,500 euros. “The new rich are different. They have to show off extreme luxury,” says Cesare Ferrari, marketing manager for Avon Celli. Elsewhere in the collection, the brand purveys the classic, revisited trend that other brands have picked up on. Avon Celli’s fine cashmere and cashmere/silk blend knits in deep V-necks, zipped polos, and round necks or cardigans with handcrafted black horn buttons are all cut closer to the body. Designs include micro jacquards inspired by coats from the ’50s. Avon Celli has also used 15.2-micron Tasmanian merino wool for a line of gossamer-fine knits.

Following the catwalk’s lead, knits are also slimmer next fall. Brunello Cucinelli’s collection includes cardigans and sleeveless vests with small geometric and diamond jacquard designs, in fine cashmere gauges of 7, 12, 18 and 30. “Knitwear that’s fine enough to layer under today’s silhouette,” says Cucinelli.

Color has encroached steadily back into Italian knitwear, many producers favoring mottled shetland shades of pale orange, violet and blue blended with gray and natural hues. “The market is a bit tired of not having color,” says Distefano. For next fall, Gran Sasso has used a palette of pastels like sky blue, lilac and apple green in its cashmere knits with gauges from 12 to 27. Gran Sasso’s classic diamond jacquard is given new shapes, and the firm has also introduced a washed, vintage-looking merino line knitted from carded yarns.

Cucinelli, who finessed a luxury-looking beige, gray and white color palette last winter, has added blue, orange and chocolate touches to his collection for fall.

And while other fashion sectors look to employ ecologically sound methods and product, high-end knitwear isn’t quite ready to jump aboard the green train although some manufacturers have already integrated vegetable dyeing for their collections—as have Gran Sasso and Cruciani.

“We’ve been dyeing organically for several years now, but we don’t advertise it. This organic trend is too fashionable for us to make it a marketing tool. Clients know we have it and they ask for it,” says Caprai.

Others believe their product already adheres to organic principles.

“I’ve been visiting Mongolia for 25 years to see the shepherds in the mountains that grow the fleece I buy. You can’t get more natural than that,” says Cucinelli.