Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — Helmut Lang is not only ready for his closeup, he’s ready for his blowout, too. And Patrizio Bertelli is the man he’s counting on to help it happen.
On Wednesday, Lang shed some light on his joint venture with Prada Group, elaborating, for the first time since the deal was announced in March, on his reasons for striking the alliance.
“This is the way I want to progress to the next level,” Lang told WWD. “Our problem was that we were growing really fast. It’s very important when you get a lot of volume out, you have to concentrate on the production, you have to concentrate on distribution and you have to build up customer service. It’s important that you go into the high-end market the right way.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Lang outlined some of his plans with his new partner — and fashion’s man of the moment — Bertelli:
Opening freestanding Helmut Lang stores in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Rome, Milan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, and in-store shops at key retailers.
Launching a collection of women’s and men’s shoes, bags, accessories, leather goods and belts, produced by Prada Group, for spring 2000 retailing.
Centralizing production and distribution, converting most licensing agreements to supplier contracts.
Opening showrooms and press offices in Milan and Tokyo.
Increasing “substantially” the advertising budget, which already was doubled last season.
Reflecting on his decision to sell a 51 percent stake to Prada, Lang said he entertained a lot of offers, but chose Bertelli because “he understands the culture of a high-end product. His line is very, very well managed.”
While fiercely protective about his business, which is believed to have approached $100 million at wholesale last year, Lang said he could not avoid the fact that consolidation was having a ripple effect in the luxury sector — and business issues were consuming a lot of his attention.
“It’s nearly impossible to handle both [the business and the creative] with full attention,” he said. “The business today is very different than what it was in the Eighties.”
That need to step back from the numbers game was felt by Bertelli’s latest addition, Jil Sander, who, as reported, sold 75 percent of her business to Prada Group last week. Sander told WWD the deal would enable her to concentrate on design and styling. Sources indicated Sander had grown weary of the financial distractions that go with running a publicly traded company.
Under the Prada/Lang arrangement, Lang has sole responsibility for the creative work, including design, image and advertising, and the designer said he could focus on what interests him most. “My purpose is being artistic in the first sense.”
Asked if he thought consolidation was having a positive or negative impact on the industry, Lang replied, “For me, I think it is a good development. It is the structure which is necessary at the moment.”
Lang acknowledged that Bertelli’s approach — to avoid licensing, and manufacture almost everything himself — was different from the network of licenses that had characterized his business.
But Lang said he had been moving to convert licensing and distribution agreements to direct control even before the joint venture.
“It’s important to start out with licenses, but it’s important at one point to have everything under control,” he said. “If you have to deal with a lot of different licenses, it’s very complicated. It’s difficult to centralize production and distribution. It’s more difficult to talk to a lot of partners than with one partner.”
Lang declined to say which of his licensing agreements were converted to supplier contracts and which might remain intact. He said the business plan was still being formulated.
Lang’s principal licensing partners have been Italy’s Gibo SpA for his signature men’s and women’s collections, and GTR Group SpA for jeanswear, casual sportswear, sport bags and underwear. In January, he announced an agreement with Manifatture Associate di Ponte Felcino 1862 SpA, based in Perugia, Italy, for men’s cashmere sweaters and knitwear.
The designer’s other licensed products are women’s and men’s shirts, produced by CIT SpA, and men’s and women’s sunglasses and optical eyewear, licensed to Murai.
Lang also has a fragrance deal with Procter & Gamble’s German prestige-fragrance subsidiary, Eurocos Cosmetic GmbH, based outside Frankfurt. The designer said Wednesday that the full launch was planned for spring 2000, although a limited edition of a Helmut Lang perfume may reach the market later this year.
Lang had indicated more than a year ago his desire to have all products under one trademark. For the past three years, the Helmut Lang Jeans name has appeared on products manufactured by GTR.
In a brief press release Wednesday, Lang said there would now be one trademark, Helmut Lang, on all product lines, regardless of price.
Asked for more details of his plans for an expanded retail network, Lang said he hoped to establish the 12 locations listed above within two years, starting in 2000.
He declined to provide more specifics about a second New York location; however, he said it “might not necessarily be for clothing. It could be another product.”
Asked how his New York flagship on Greene Street was performing, the designer said, “very, very well. We have very good sell-throughs.” There also are freestanding Helmut Lang stores in Munich, Vienna and Milan.
Bertelli has boasted that Prada, with about 120 stores, directly controls about three-quarters of its sales, which are approaching $1 billion.
Lang did not indicate if he were seeking a similar ratio, but said, “It will be a healthy mix of our own stores and very good retailers.”
Among U.S. retailers Lang sells to are Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Maxfield’s, Jeffrey, Ron Herman Fred Segal, Louis of Boston and Susan of Burlingame.
Bertelli declined to comment.