MILAN GETS UNDER WAY LOOKING FOR BIG BUCKS FROM U.S. RETAILERS

Byline: Samantha Conti

MILAN — The Americans have their checkbooks out and the Italians can’t wait.
Fashion houses here are looking forward to a bumper spring season driven by demand in the U.S., where there’s a voracious hunger for luxury products — not to mention the international appetite for luxury companies — and the Italians are right in the thick of it.
Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of some mega deal, the purchase of one major house or plot twists where moguls vye for control of another. Giorgio Armani, who had been flirting with LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault about possible joint venture projects, appears to be spreading out on his own, and just launched an ambitious plan to produce luxury accessories.
In fact, nearly everybody seems to be busy building their own luxury goods group. Arnault, who lately announces a deal a day, just snapped up French shirtmaker Thomas Pink (see related story, page 2) and British shoe firm Church & Co.; he launched a bid for Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer, took control of American niche beauty brands Benefit, Hard Candy and Bliss and is a major player in emerging internet businesses thorughout Europe.
Meanwhile, Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli is out to construct his own luxury conglomerate, and recently took control of Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. Bertelli, along with Arnault and his rivals, Domenico DeSole of Gucci, and Francois Pinault of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, are all circling around Italian fashion’s latest plum — Fendi — and are wooing the five sisters for their stakes in the house. And manufacturing giant Holding di Particepazioni, still digesting its acquisition of Valentino, has yet to announce its next meal.
The buying bonanza has never been so intense.
As for the business at hand, the focus on the U.S. has Italian executives projecting some of the most aggressive gains in recent years.
Vittorio Missoni, the chairman of Missoni U.S.A. and head of the company’s commercial division, said sales of the pre-spring collection rose 10 to 15 percent, and that he was expecting similar results for the main line. And the Americans are buying edgier, more expensive clothing. “Americans are buying the most fashion-forward pieces,” Missoni said. “Whereas other countries look for the more commercial elements in the collection, the Americans buy exactly what they see on the runway.”
Andrea Pinto, the managing director of Mila Schon, confirmed the boom in the U.S., but said his customers were drawn, instead, to a new, more basic collection called Essential.
“Pre-spring orders are up 18 to 20 percent. The news from America is very good.” Pinto said. Essential is priced about 20 percent lower than the Mila Schon signature line and is sold together with the Mila Schon pre-spring collection.
Marni, which is launching new lines and expanding existing ones in the U.S., expects sales to rise 90 percent in America this season. “The American market already represents 30 percent of our business, but we’re not stopping there,” said a spokeswoman for the company. “This season we’re looking to acquire new clients.”
Marni is adding a shoe collection and a broader handbag collection to its offerings this season. The spokeswoman said that U.S. customers are gobbling up the edgier looks. “No one comes to Marni for basic pieces, even our simplest fur coats are a lot more fashion-forward than Fendi’s, for example.”
Italian fashion houses aren’t the only members of the industry looking forward to this week.
After seasons of action-packed shows that used to start at 9 a.m. and end just shy of midnight, Italy’s National Chamber of Fashion has finally begun to listen to the tired moans of buyers and the press, and put together a tighter, leaner calendar.
This season’s calendar, with just over 80 runway shows, is a cakewalk compared to past seasons when shows numbered more than 100. Gone are the overlapping shows that sent panic-stricken merchants and editors criss-crossing the city and gone are those shows scheduled for 9:30 p.m.
The Chamber also asked designers not to hold news conferences during their colleagues’ shows, and performed the miracle of releasing the show calendar a full three weeks — and not 10 days — before the shows were set to start.
“We really tried hard this season to come up with a calendar that made sense,” said Beppe Modenese, the spokesman for the Chamber. The Chamber’s job was made easier, in part, by the fact that Versace and Armani are holding one show this season — instead of three separate ones. The Versace show will be held in an industrial space — a former General Electric plant — in the Navigli district.
Armani plans to stage his show at his soon-to-be new headquarters at a former Nestle plant in the same neighborhood. The show will serve as a preview of the new space — where construction work is due to begin later this year.
The calendar is more manageable this season for other reasons, too. Italian or Italian-based collections including Versus, Lawrence Steele, Victor Alfaro and Bottega Veneta showed in New York this season. Other labels, including Ferragamo, have opted for presentations, rather than shows in town.
In the future, the calendar could even become whisper-thin as many companies are experimenting with showing on the Internet.
Ferragamo’s presentation this week can also be viewed on the company’s website: salvatoreferragamo.it, while Krizia plans to broadcast her Sept. 29 show in real time on krizia.net.
In Japan, buyers will be able to order Krizia’s looks by computer directly after the broadcast.
As the curtain rises on show week here, the intensity will only build. Watch the front rows to see who’s next on who’s acquisition plate.

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