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Valentino Sees Growth Potential in Men’s

When Valentino marked his 45th anniversary in Rome this summer, there was nary a nod to his men's wear business during the celebratory weekend.

NEW YORK — When Valentino marked his 45th anniversary in Rome this summer, there was nary a nod to his men’s wear business during the celebratory weekend. It was all couture. All the time.

There was a similar men’s wear hole during last week’s announcement that the designer and his longtime business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, would step down from the Rome-based fashion house, now in the hands of private equity firm Permira. (The London-based group acquired a majority stake in Valentino’s parent company, Valentino Fashion Group, from Marzotto in May.) While the company immediately named a replacement for women’s creative director, it said only that the men’s wear team would be strengthened in the future.

The announcement of Valentino and Giammetti’s impending exit caught observers off guard, since only two months ago sources indicated the duo was close to sealing a three-year contract with Permira. Those talks appear to have broken down, since Valentino, 75, will now do only one more ready-to-wear collection, for spring 2008, and one more couture show, in Paris in January.

Valentino and Giammetti are renowned for their tough bargaining, as well as their fondness for the high life. One source said Valentino had low regard for Permira, whose subsidiary, Red & Black Lux SARL, currently holds just over 60 percent of VFG.

Although Garavani’s move seemed off script, the industry had been speculating for months that his anniversary bash, which lasted 48 hours and touted such guests as Uma Thurman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Princess Caroline and a bevy of high-profile designers, including Giorgio Armani, would serve as a grand adieu.

In a statement the designer portrayed his retirement as being spurred by his 45th anniversary.

“The great event that celebrated my 45 years of work in Rome in July was a magical and unrepeatable moment,” said Valentino. “It would be impossible to match the emotion and the joy for the friendship and consideration that the whole world expressed. Thus, I have decided that this is the perfect moment to say goodbye to the fashion world.”

He added that he likes to think, “as the English say, of leaving the party when it’s still full.”

On the heels of Valentino’s decision, his new owners quickly issued a restructuring plan based on a design team model. Such a strategy has had varying degrees of success at different houses in the past. It has worked at Calvin Klein but failed at Gucci and Jil Sander.

Ironically, former Gucci women’s wear director Alessandra Facchinetti, who succeeded Tom Ford, will take over as women’s wear designer at Valentino.

In another sign of the changing times at the house, longtime accessories designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli have been appointed creative directors for the fast-growing category.

No marquee names were mentioned to take on the role of men’s wear designer; however, VFG’s CEO Stefano Sassi reiterated plans to strengthen the men’s wear division in the near future.

It’s no secret that Garavani had a much stronger penchant for women’s wear. When it came to men’s wear, the designer preferred to give broad ideas and delegate the specifics to his assistants.

He can’t be blamed: He’s a couturier and an admirer of the female form. And although he doesn’t sketch men’s suits and prefers to wear the bespoke Caraceni suits he’s been having made since long before his men’s line existed, Valentino men’s wear is nevertheless a valid expression of the Valentino lifestyle.

“A man shouldn’t be an accessory to a well-dressed woman,” the designer commented in June from his studio in Rome. “He should have his own identity.”

Indeed. Valentino men’s wear, which represented about 10 percent of total sales, or around 24 million euros ($32.3 million at current exchange) in 2006, is very much about a chic, retro kind of sophistication peppered with just enough hubris

Case in point: During the Milan spring ’08 collection in June, the designer opted to forgo the standard runway format. Instead he staged a gentlemen’s club scene, lined up 35 clean-cut types at the bar and dressed them in cropped chinos, sharp blue blazers, preppie knits and graphic, silk jacquard dinner jackets.

At a certain point, four performers from Paris’s Crazy Horse strolled out—full feathers, no tops—and performed as Val’s men sipped brandy and looked coolly unaffected.

“I have two words for Valentino men’s wear: sheer elegance,” Tommy Fazio, men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, said earlier this year.

Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York carry a small but important offering of Valentino men’s wear. Evening looks in particular are strong sellers, according to retailers.

“Like the house, the Valentino men’s collection is very tasteful. There can be a little flash of sexiness but never in a vulgar way,” said Michael Macko, vice-president, men’s fashion, at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s not trying to be fashion-forward, but it’s for a man who wants to look in season and also appropriate.”

Graziano de Boni, president and CEO of Valentino USA, said in an interview in June that the Valentino’s men’s collection offers a huge growth opportunity and that the company is studying the implementation of a two-year plan to significantly develop men’s wear

“There are very few luxury brands that a guy has no problem wearing,” de Boni said. “Valentino is one of them.”