MILAN — After several slack years, Italian knitwear is gaining a new place in the sun on the U.S. market, according to a number of leading manufacturers here.

Italian knitwear exports to the U.S. were off 16.5 percent in 1990, down a walloping 31 percent in 1991 and off 7.2 percent in 1992, according to statistics from Italy’s national knitwear association.

But with the dollar up an average of 30 percent against the lira in 1993 compared with a year earlier, and a new appetite for designer knitwear on the part of the American consumer, the negative trend may have come to an end.

In fact, Italian knitwear exports were up 5 percent in the first six months of 1993, the most recent period for which statistics are available, and knitwear producers ranging from Benetton to Missoni are optimistic that the outlook will continue to improve.

In the high-end segment, which commands prices ranging from $300-$700 for a cashmere sweater, most of the Italian knitwear companies export between 10 percent and 17 percent of their total production to the U.S.

Brunello Cucinelli, who exports some 70 percent of the production of his fine cashmere collections bearing the same name, said his export sales were up 30 percent from the beginning of the year. Growing demand from American consumers for top-quality knitwear products has even encouraged some Italian producers to make new investments in U.S. distribution and retail networks.

For example, Alfredo Canessa, chairman of Manifatture Associate Cashmere, Europe’s largest producer of luxury cashmere knitwear, recently opened his first U.S. boutique in New York for his Malo label. The Loro Piana brothers also recently opened a custom tailor shop in New York, which also sells Loro Piana cashmere knit accessories.

“The American customer has been developing a stronger taste for designer clothes; this creates a higher request for improved quality and fashion,” said Piero Cividini, chairman of the Cividini cashmere and silk knitwear company.

Cividini said he has focused on quality in all his collections as a strategic principle.

“We strongly believe in ‘Made in Italy’ as one of the essential features that can make our products competitive,” he said. “For this reason, research and innovation, together with an extreme accuracy in manufacturing, have always been our main concern.”

One example, he said, is his research last summer with indigo dye in an effort to achieve varying shades with different oxydations. For the upcoming fall-winter ’95 collection, innovation with natural colors is going to be particularly important, along with new manufacturing approaches rarely experimented with in cashmere knitwear, Cividini said.

Cividini is known for refining the tubular stitch used to finish sleeves, now widely used by knitwear manufacturers. The company has also developed a long-haired cashmere yarn and a silk and cashmere blend.

In order to safeguard the standards of their trade and combat rising competition from countries with lower labor costs and less know-how, Italy’s leading cashmere knitwear producers have recently banded together to form “The Cashmere Club.” “For highly demanding customers, nothing can be roughly done. Quality is a key element, and this is why we also decided to create the ‘Cashmere Club,’ which accepts among its members only producers who impose precise quality standards on their products,” said Brunello Cucinelli, one of the club’s founding members. Other members are Malo, Anna Purna, Zegna and Loro Piana.

Vittorio Missoni, commercial director for Missoni, emphasized the importance of quality and style in differentiating the high-end segment, particularly in view of the widespread imitation market. “For this reason we don’t want our collection to be included in the knitwear department, but only in designer departments, in order to emphasize the quality and style of our manufacturing,” Missoni said.

The favorable exchange rate is also generating growth for the bridge market, according to Patrizia Spadafora, chairman of Spadafora USA. Spadafora, which is known for the Marina Spadafora first line, is also developing a significant U.S. business for its Gispa bridge line, with annual U.S. sales of more than 100,000 units per year, at retail prices from $150 to $300.

“Our strength is that we can offer the style of coordinated collections along with a sophisticated technology capable of any type of manufacturing,” said Spadafora. In the mid-market segment, the Benetton group is also taking advantage of exchange rate factors to boost sales of its colorful knit sportswear. With some 80 percent of production in Italy, where labor costs are notoriously high, the strong dollar/weak lira has enabled Benetton to slash its U.S. prices and go head-to-head with competitors such as The Gap and The Limited.