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WWD Men's Collections issue 01/15/2009

FLORENCE — Dawn has broken over fall 2009 as the first luxury collections of the new season were revealed this week to a deeply anxious retail industry at Pitti Immagine Uomo here, the world’s premier trade show for high-end men’s wear.

This story first appeared in the January 15, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As the global economy continued its painful digestion of the U.S. home-lending crisis, vendors and retailers alike faced the new season with equal parts trepidation and optimism.

“The truly artisanal Italians really, really stepped it up, adding new product categories, new details, and really differentiating the product and making it compelling for the customer,” said Tommy Fazio, fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman Men’s. “So I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And I must  say Pitti Uomo is still very important for us. There are always these great factories here, and that’s how we create our proprietary Bergdorf Goodman Collection.”

Across the grounds of the Fortezza da Basso, vendors offered tightly focused collections inside scaled-down booths, which, in recent seasons, had been bursting with miscellaneous merchandise. At the same time, vendors were intent on broadening their appeal, especially if it could help them attract a younger,  more cost-conscious or more fashion-forward customer.

Pitti, as it’s called, has historically served as the cocktail hour before the banquet of men’s runway shows, whetting buyers’ appetites with classically luxurious men’s wear based on traditional European tailoring.

But Pitti itself is in transition as some of the big brands that served as its traditional anchors — including Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali, Brioni and Hugo Boss  — have graduated to independent showrooms and runways, leaving a vacuum that largely has been filled with contemporary sportswear brands. Those still rub shoulders with traditional luxury brands, albeit somewhat awkwardly, and more departures — namely Kiton, Isaia and Hackett — could be imminent.

One sign of sportswear’s ascendancy at Pitti was the crowding for Woolrich John  Rich & Bros., the historic American brand revived by WP Lavori in Corso of Bologna. The popular Italian collection of contemporary sportswear and outerwear became available to the U.S. for the first time.

“Pitti has become a great place for sportswear,” said Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I’m looking for versatile, hybrid, multifunctional, high-value pieces. What’s selling for us is modern things with slimmer silhouettes, so that’s what we’re looking for. And personally, I am looking for brands that stand the test of time and that are innovative in reinterpreting themselves, making themselves modern and relevant, like Woolrich has.”

Henry Cotton’s, a 31-year-old brand of tweedy British sportswear, launched a much-expanded collegiate division called Henry Cotton’s University. As the exclusive Italian licensee of Harvard and Oxford Universities, it incorporated the schools’ names and trademarks in a preppy line that it not only markets generally, but also that the universities will carry in their campus outlets. Henry Cotton’s also plans to establish scholarships and intercollegiate competitions between the two universities. Bleachers full of models dressed as rugby players loomed over visitors to Henry Cotton’s exhibition space.

The new focus on sportswear at Pitti has pushed tailored brands to increase their casual and more youthful offerings.

“We wanted a young spirit, something fresh, not flamboyant, something romantic and idealistic to fit the return to a simpler way of life,” mused Brunello Cucinelli, known as the “industrial philosopher.”

That meant slimmer silhouettes and more casual elements such as T-shirts, dress  shirts worn without ties and knitted outerwear for a more relaxed look. “The collection is much more sporty,” he said. Even the formalwear had an underlining laissez-faire feel. Tuxedos, for example, came in light gray or navy flannel and were paired with suede shoes in camel tones. Cucinelli unveiled the label’s first footwear line at the fair. It plans to roll out four  stores this year — in Athens, Rome, Atlanta and Tokyo.

“Brunello Cucinelli had great suiting and sportswear. It’s a younger look, but it’s definitely very chic,” said Tom Kalenderian, general merchandising manager for men’s wear at Barneys New York.

Kalenderian, who also applauded Cruciani for its “youthfulness” and Fedeli’s sexy and sophisticated collection, said he was placing orders and was optimistic overall.

“We have a very big job to activate consumer appetite in the third quarter. The  whole team is here with guns blazing, looking for ideas and ammunition and to come back with as many new concepts as possible,” he added.

Braemar, a century-old label dormant since the Nineties, has been given a fresh  lease on life by its new owner, Massimiliano Zegna Baruffa (a distant relation  of men’s wear dynast Ermenegildo Zegna), who acquired the brand and a controlling stake in J.J. & H.B. 1788 Cashmere Mills Ltd. in October. The 230-year-old Scottish mill, the oldest in continued activity in Scotland, produces the Braemar label as well as intarsia knitwear for leading design labels.

“There is a real demand for handmade products with real value and heritage,” Zegna Baruffa said, adding that one piece could take up to 52 hours and retail for around 3,000 euros, or about $3,900 at current exchange.

In contrast, some brands are taking a more price-conscious approach.

Want Les Essentiels de la Vie, a brand of leather accessories favored by fashion insiders, picked a good time to reintroduce all of its bag styles in organic Turkish cotton. Prices for the cotton items with leather trim are about  40 percent lower than for the all-leather versions.

“The mood here is a little somber, but not in all quarters,” said Holt Renfrew’s Lanita Layton, vice president and gmm for men’s and men’s footwear. “Some booths are really busy, like [Want les Essentiels]. That’s the perfect example of stealth wealth. There’s great quality, and there’s a story. What I like at Pitti is finding those small, artisan-crafted lines that give the store  a point of differentiation. And this time it’s really about those niche brands.”

To be sure, Holt Renfrew and other retailers still come to do business with key  tailored clothing brands, but more of these could be leaving the Pitti nest. Isaia and Kiton both said they’d like to spread their wings and fly solo next season, leaving Pitti to look for new talent to nurture.

“We’re thinking about leaving — this season could be our last,” said president Gianluca Isaia. “We have grown, we have our own showrooms in key cities worldwide and now our first flagship, so we must consider if it is still relevant for us to be here.

“It’s still the most important show for men’s wear in the world, but in today’s  climate, you have to be careful how you are spending your money, and if the results are not good, then you have to consider other options,” he added.

Kiton president Antonio Paone concurred. “We have our own distribution network in place….Today, you have to go after customers. You can’t wait for customers to come to you.” With that in mind, Kiton plans to open stores in Rome in March  and Las Vegas in November. Two more units in China also are planned before yearend. Last year, sales at Kiton increased 10 percent to 83 million euros, or  $122.1 at average exchange.

Both Kiton and Isaia said they were looking to extend their customer base to a “younger” clientele with slimmer and more expressive styles. At Isaia, bright colors such as green and purple highlighted gray and brown suits, and a sports jacket was named after the seminal British punk rock band The Clash. Kiton, meanwhile, focused on slim looks for next fall and introduced five-pocket cashmere trousers in vivid tones.

Corneliani took a similarly youthful approach, with its “leader jacket,” which combined a wide lapel with a slim silhouette. “It adds a modern touch,” said creative director Sergio Corneliani. The brand also unveiled a line of voluminous bags in soft leather and alligator.

Pitti Immagine general manager Raffaello Napoleone said he respected brands’ decisions to leave the fair, if need be.

“They are following their business strategy to invest in private showrooms and open flagship stores. They are not leaving Pitti to go to another trade show,” he said.

Napoleone added that attendance was at record levels — and there were 917 exhibitors, despite “a hard year” — the fruits of targeting new retailers in emerging markets.

London-based Hackett, which has occupied its own building in the center courtyard for seven sessions also, is considering its options, which could even  include a Milan runway instead of the twice-yearly trip to Florence.

“We’re debating right now,” said managing director Vicente Castellano, citing London or Milan as the mostly likely show venues.

Hackett launched its new Mayfair collection of tailored clothing and accessories at Pitti.

“It’s a new high-end collection which mixes casual with a luxury,” explained Michael Sondag, Hackett’s creative director. Hackett plans to open Mayfair stores in the short to medium term. Meanwhile, it is eyeing Savile Row locations for “as soon as a good opportunity arises,” Sondag said.

Hackett also plans to continue to expand its retail reach, with its first Tokyo  store penciled in for this year. The company expects to open its first U.S. store, on Madison Avenue in New York, in 2010. Castellano said sales for the brand were up 20 percent in fiscal 2008-09 to 67 million pounds, or $124.3 million at average exchange.

A handful of established brands at Pitti attempted to present a fashion-forward  visage. For example, outerwear maker Herno promoted its collaboration with designer Neil Barrett.

Additional high-fashion brands to be found at Pitti, including Comme des Garçons Homme Deux; Samsonite Black Label’s designer collaborations; Lanvin neckwear; a limited edition of Globe-Trotter luggage by Erdem; Engineered Garments; Christian Lacroix; footwear from Prada, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Kris Van Assche, and Thom Browne, who staged an unorthodox postmodern presentation — showing repetitions of just one look — as the fair’s featured guest designer.

Pitti’s concurrent women’s pre-collection show, another mark of its recent evolution, boasted a Giambattista Valli runway.

Luxury eyewear maker Linda Farrow offered cutting-edge designer collections from Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto and others. Across brands, aviators are still the best-selling style, but the latest trend is toward “geeky” plastics and futuristic metal-plastic combinations, according to press and marketing director Tracy Sedino.

Like sportswear brands, traditional outerwear brands strived for youth appeal.

Aquascutum’s spring ad campaign depicts a dozen post-adolescent couples in a make-out session. For fall, men’s creative director Graeme Fidler took a “very easy and commercial” approach, inspired by the look of actor Terrence Stamp in the 1965 thriller “The Collector.” Fidler developed dark, hand-finished suits, basic knits with distinctive pick-stitching at the shoulder seams and pared-down outerwear staples including a military trench, a straight trench and  a camel overcoat. Mannequins featured nylon jackets with fitted waists. Aquascutum, which is still sorting out the details of a potential management buyout, conducted business within remarkably simplified quarters.

Mackintosh, maker of English and Scottish rainwear since the 1830s, has enjoyed a revival recently, especially through strategic partnerships with designers and the retailer J. Crew. But with new Japanese ownership and 120 accounts in Japan, it is simultaneously heading in a very fashionable direction, issuing its styles in bright colors and striking fabrics, including paisleys and Liberty prints.

Valstar, which claims credit for the trenchcoat Humphrey Bogart wore in “Casablanca,” employed its own strategy for attracting younger customers. It set up a separate booth, in a separate hall, just for its Valstarino jacket, a bomber style from the Seventies that comes in a slimmer fit and 25 fabric options, including sartorial patterns, solids and leathers.

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