Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK — Agnona, which has been fond of animals since the early Fifties, when it began spinning the wool of sheep, llamas, goats and rare vicuna into a thriving fabric business, has a new passion — retailing.
Agnona’s entire range of knit and woven apparel and home furnishings is being showcased in its first U.S. freestanding store, a 1,200-square-foot unit at 744 Madison Avenue that opened Sept. 11. The store is expected to post $2 million in sales its first year, according to Alberto Ilorini Mo, a vice president and son of the founder.
The Madison Avenue shop was designed by Alberto Gardino with pearwood fixtures, frosted glass shelving, brushed stainless steel tables and white brick walls.
Agnona’s ready-to-wear is also sold at Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York, and at six company-owned and franchised stores around the world. The Italian vertical company sells its fabrics to Jil Sander, Chanel, Hermes, Valentino, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, among other high-quality design firms.
Agnona has been promoting itself with newspaper and magazine ads that feature a goat, with the tag line, “If I were a woman, I would wear Agnona.”
The clothing speaks softly in understated earth tones. Agnona limits its color palette to natural shades because dying causes a fabric or knit — especially cashmere — to lose its softness, explained Nandita Michi, the boutique’s manager.
“True cashmere wearers know the difference,” she said.
The classic rtw collection is mostly sweaters and coats, but Michi said more separates are on the way. So far, bestsellers include coats and jackets in cashmere and short-haired alpaca that the company nicknamed “spazzolino,” or toothbrush.
Garments made of such luxurious fabrics command premium prices. A double-faced knit cashmere coat in navy is $3,965, a pastel cashmere and silk robe is $1,340, and cashmere sweaters start at $400. Cashmere teddy bears are $90 to $600 for a two-foot bear.
Unlike other upscale Italian retailers, such as Prada and Versace, which have stepped up their retail activity in the U.S., Agnona’s growth has been slower.
“We are a family business,” said Mo. “We are a smaller company than Prada. We want to stay at the very high end of the market. In our plans, we don’t foresee tripling our sales. We go step by step and don’t have an aggressive policy. We think everything should be done very carefully.
“We are in the best stores in America, but we want to do better with them,” Mo said. Outside the U.S., the company has wholly owned boutiques on Milan’s Via Spiga and in Milan’s Malpensa and Rome’s Fiumicino airports. It has franchised boutiques in Venice, Osaka and Tokyo, as well as corners in the two Japanese cities.
Lanerie Agnona was established in 1953 in the northern Italian village of Borgosesia by Francesco Ilorini Mo. The company, which did $40 million wholesale worldwide in 1996, is now run by Alberto and his brother Massimo, also a vice president. Their sister, Federica, oversees the rtw area, which employs an in-house design team.
Agnona is one of three members of the International Vicuna Consortium, a group that has exclusive world rights to trade the wool of the rare vicuna, the most precious of wools. The once-endangered vicuna live in the Andes Mountains in Peru. The wool of the vicuna is considered the most expensive in the world — the fabric made from the silky hairs is 10 times the price of cashmere.
Fabric sales still account for 50 percent of Agnona’s worldwide volume, Mo said.
Agnona’s retail business recently expanded with a 1,000-square-foot shop-in-shop at Paul Stuart in Chicago, marking the first time the retailer is selling a label other than its own house brand. The shop will carry men’s and women’s rtw, home furnishings and accessories, and could be duplicated in other Paul Stuart locations, such as here and Tokyo.
Agnona is searching for a retail space in Los Angeles. In 1998, the company plans to open stores in Berlin and Dailan in Manchuria, China. Mo said there is a community of wealthy Japanese and Europeans living in Manchuria. The company has also targeted Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo, he said.
A number of Italian firms, including Gucci, Versace, Zena, Valentino, Fendi and Ferragamo, have agreed to open stores in a retail complex inside a luxury hotel in Manchuria, Mo said. An Italian association called Alta Gamma, which means “high quality,” organized the project. Alta Gamma was developed as Italy’s answer to Comite Colbert, the French trade group that promotes French luxury goods.
Mo got the idea for the Manchuria store during a buying trip to China.
“I realized the area is growing very fast, and a small part of the population is very interested in high-quality goods,” he said. “We studied the area with other Italian companies. It’s very important that we all be together in a shopping center. It’s a very good idea because we can create a new Via Spiga in China. That is very important for the global market.
“America is also a very important market for us,” Mo said. “Now is the right time for expansion in America. For us, Madison Avenue and New York have worldwide importance. It is really a fantastic window to the world.”

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