ITALIAN MAKERS STAKE OUT THEIR U.S. GROUND
Byline: Alessandra Ilari
MILAN — The labels couldn’t be more English-sounding — CP Co., Stone Island, Henry Cotton’s, Outrage and Avirex, to name a few. But don’t be fooled: These sportswear companies are as quintessentially Italian as spaghetti bolognese.
Over the past decade, a handful of high-end Italian sportswear manufacturers have developed or established a package that includes image, style, function and quality and that is as different from T-shirts and chinos — the bread-and-butter of American sportswear — as baseball is from soccer. Most of these brands were a cult among hip Italian teens in the mid-Eighties. Now, fueled by solid reputations, they are consolidating distribution and branching into new markets, including the U.S.
Aside from each company’s desire to make inroads into the U.S., Italian makers are well aware there’s a big difference between the concepts of sportswear on either side of the Atlantic. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that Europeans, and Italians in particular, want to feel just as sexy in their weekend khakis as they do in a steamy designer number. Anything too basic simply won’t cut it.
And while U.S. customers value lower price tags, the overall wholesale prices for these collections start at $50 for a cotton shirt and climb to $250 for a high tech winter jacket. “The ruin of American fashion has been casual Friday. It has led people to mix-and-match disasters with no taste,” said Martino Scabbia Guerrini, marketing manager for Sportswear Co., which produces CP Co. and Stone Island.
According to Mario Massetti, chief executive officer at Belfe, a high-end sportswear company, the Italians want sportswear that is permeated with creativity.
“It has to be in between sportswear and ready-to-wear, where the added value is in the design, fabrics and shapes,” he said. “For example, in the U.S., jeans come with a size and a length, whereas the Italians want to choose their hem lengths to personalize the item.”
Belfe recruited Massetti, formerly of Gruppo Gilmar and Gucci, to spearhead a short-term project that includes boosting the 1999 wholesale volume of $94 million by concentrating on higher-end retail stores and giving an edgier look to the company’s image. Belfe’s higher-end line, Postcard, is available in 62 doors in the U.S., including Bergdorf Goodman, Perfor-mance in Aspen, Colo., and Gorsuch in Vail, Colo.
Two other companies that found fertile turf across the ocean are Sportswear Co., with its CP Co. and Stone Island labels, and Finpart with Henry Cotton’s. CP Co. built its reputation with men’s wear, but in 1996 introduced a women’s collection to broaden its market share. It quickly gained a female following with 420 retail outlets around the world, including Bloomingdale’s, Fred Segal, Barney’s New York and Theodore in Los Angeles.
CP Co. accounts for 15 percent of Sportswear Co.’s $53 million in wholesale sales in 1999, but Scabbia Guerrini said he expects it to reach 25 percent in two years.
Finpart’s Henry Cotton’s line is also enjoying U.S. exposure.
With an winning formula of Italian design, American fit and English heritage (Sir Henry Cotton was a close friend of the Duke of Windsor and a famous English golf player of the 1930s who designed his own clothes), Henry Cotton’s is in fast-forward mode.
The collection registered a $3 million sell-in for spring-summer 2000, but Gianluigi Facchini, managing director at Finpart, said he expects that to rise to $10 million with the fall-winter 2000-01 season.
Bolstered by such positive results, Facchini opened an office and showroom in New York. “That’s our secret to success,” said Facchini. “I gave our U.S. representatives free rein to market the product according to the needs of their market, where efficient service and punctual deliveries are vital.”
Henry Cotton’s is carried in all of Bloomingdale’s 23 doors with shops-in-shops, at Dayton Hudson and Marshall Field and a slew of specialty stores throughout the country that include Mitchell’s, Fred Segal, Bullock & Jones and Button Down in San Francisco.
Facchini has another ace up his sleeve: the fit of the Henry Cotton’s sportswear.
“I adapted the fit for the American customer who won’t compromise when it comes to comfort. It required a big production effort, but the response and number of orders made it feasible,” said Facchini.
At Avirex, the historical American brand known for chinos, field jackets and dapper leather jackets worn by U.S. Air Force pilots during World War II, it’s a whole different story. Knowing that Europeans shun baggy chinos, Avirex had to play with the shape and fit of its hallmark styles to score points here.
“For me, it would have been so much simpler to import the real thing from the States instead of cutting new paper patterns for our European clientele,” said Alfredo Cionti, managing director of Avirex in Italy. “Here, there’s no culture for workwear as there is in the U.S., which is why the Europeans don’t want the genuine product. They want a revised version that has a similar flair.”
Women appreciate Avirex’s form-fitting styles that use a small percentage of Lycra spandex and have smaller side pockets that don’t add extra hip width. Cionti’s efforts are paying off, with 4,600 doors in Europe and sales that increased fivefold from $9.4 million in 1995 to $47 million in 1999.
Avirex is owned by Edwin, a Japanese jeans maker that bought the trademark for Europe, setting up a branch office near Modena in central Italy, where the collections are designed, produced and distributed.
Operating in Italy calls for top quality.
“We discovered that the best double-twist cotton gabardine comes from Colombia, for example,” said Cionti. “We’re not here to copy the American product, but we do realize that chinos are smart and sturdy at the same time because they had to feed the needs of the army.”
CP Co.’s Scabbia Guerrini also cited the history of American uniforms and workwear as a major inspiration.
“During our research, we ripped apart and studied more than 40,000 uniforms, including ones used in the desert by German soldiers and ones used by Norwegian soldiers in the mountains,” said Scabbia Guerrini. “Uniforms are elegant and functional at the same time.”
Highlights for the spring-summer women’s collection include fitted and cropped sports jackets available in either cotton muslin with nylon mesh lining or in rubberized silk, cotton jackets with patch pockets and Velcro closures with matching long drawstring skirts, and a cotton ottoman dress with Tactel coating and zippers.
“That’s the challenge. We have four fabric mills that work exclusively for us and an in-house dyeing plant so that we can experiment with all the weird finishes and hands that we want. We don’t want to ‘massify’ the product a la Benetton,” said Sabina Rivetti, image director of Sportswear Co.
The color palette for spring-summer includes champagne yellow, sage green, ecru and white.
Aside from flagship stores in Milan and St. Tropez, Sportswear Co. will open one in London around Christmas and plans openings in Tokyo and New York by the end of 2000. When the influence doesn’t come from the trenches, it sometimes comes from the sea.
Tomasoni Top Sail, for example, racked up a wholesale volume of $44 million in 1999 with projections of $72 million in the next three years, thanks to North Sails and Henry Lloyd, two labels from the sailing world.
“It all started when hard-core sailors that used North Sails’ sails started requesting T-shirts and polo sweaters to wear during their regattas,” said Stefano Gambini, export manager for the group. “We simply pushed that concept a step further by making collections that are attentive to design, quality, detail and function.”
North Sails is the company’s top engine, with 1,000 retail doors in Europe and 1999 wholesale volume of $28 million. In Italy alone, the spring-summer 2000 collection registered a 35 percent increase. The best-selling item, for men and women, is a nylon sports jacket lined with cotton jersey or polar fleece in colors ranging from navy to pumpkin orange.
In April, Tomasoni acquired Outrage, an Italian line of urban sportswear and is pushing Terrae, a women’s collection of high-end sportswear, that will be marketed in the U.S. “Today sportswear and fashion are getting increasingly closer. Wearing sneakers with gray flannel pants today is fully accepted,” said Gambini. “It’s a global concept, and our job is to mix function and comfort with great design to make people feel part of the sporty world while living in the city.”