NEW YORK — Saks Fifth Avenue’s Andrew Jennings believes Americans have an enduring love affair with Italian fashion and has suggestions on how to keep the romance alive.

Jennings, Saks’ president and chief operating officer, received the Friendship Award from Gruppo Esponenti Italiani, an organization of Italian entrepreneurs, at a luncheon at the Rainbow Room here last week.

In his speech, Jennings said he’s optimistic about the future for Italian brands in America, but that they’re faced with challenges. He advised Italian firms to “have both a physical and personal presence in every market they operate in….The powerhouses in Italian fashion, whether it be Marzotto, Armani or Dolce & Gabbana, appreciate that people make or break businesses,” Jennings said.

“Zegna is a good example of matching people with local presence. They moved quickly in the U.S. in 1980 to establish a ‘footprint’ with a smart team of professionals in sales, merchandise and design. And by so doing, showed they meant business. This requirement may sound simple enough, but you would be surprised by the number of organizations that assume technology can replace human contact.”

Jennings also said the best Italian companies think globally, but act locally. “They develop market intimacy. They truly connect with their customers and develop long-term, profitable relationships….Show me a consistently successful Italian brand in America, and I’ll show you a management that has invested time and resources to understand its partners’ retail operations.”

Jennings stressed that “genuine partnerships” are driven by shared knowledge, that the fastest-growing firms are those that embrace “the power of supply chain management” and diversify by selling across men’s, women’s, accessories and fragrance at both contemporary and designer price levels.

His other points: Understand market complexities, be open-minded, flexible and willing to update the business model and have the right resources. “Establishing a presence takes people, time, money and patience.”

Jennings concluded on a cautionary note. “The authenticity of products is a universal issue. So too is the increasing pressure for European luxury companies to outsource the manufacturing of components or final assembly to more cost-effective jurisdictions.” While Americans may be used to having German cars created by a multinational team, “care must be taken with luxury items from fashion houses that remain inextricably tied to a country of origin. Customers may be willing to accept changes in the manufacturing location but they must be given reasons to continue to believe in the inherent value of Italian products.”

This story first appeared in the March 22, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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