ITALY’S FUTURE: KNITS ARE IT
Byline: Alessandra Ilari
MILAN — Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe may be only glamorous memories, but the sweater girl is back in a big way in Italy.
Almost everyone seems to want to snuggle into the sexy and body-hugging knits in a kaleidoscope of colors and yarns, from beige V-necks to funky, lime-green, stretch cashmere cardigans. So designers, manufacturers and retailers claim to have seen the future of women’s wear.
It is knitted.
The proof was the Milan spring/summer 1996 collections, according to Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Knits “gives a newness to sportswear and it popped up in every collection,” she said. “I really liked the polo sweaters and cardigans, mock turtlenecks and sleeveless sweaters.”
With the advent of Friday wear and more relaxed lifestyles, Italian designers, knitwear manufacturers and retailers agree that knitwear is one of the liveliest sectors in the apparel business, thanks largely to investment and research in new ideas.
Many designers and knitwear manufacturers reported sales gains averaging 15 percent in 1994 against 1993 and foresee a further 15 percent rise in 1995.
“A continuous investment aimed at innovation and research becomes a necessary element, whether it’s for wool, cotton or man-made fibers,” said Riccardo Osella, general manager at Filatura di Grignasco, a yarn and fabric maker. “Today, people want modern proposals, comfort, easy maintenance and price-quality ratio in knitwear.”
Vittorio Giulini, president of Moda Industria, the association of the knitwear and apparel industrialists, painted a similar picture.
“It’s in knitwear that the most important technological revolutions are made. Knitwear is a functional, versatile and diversified product that requires low maintenance and is easily restocked,” said Giulini. “Today 48 percent of the European apparel sector is made of knitwear and the rest of fabric apparel, while in the U.S. the percentages are reversed.”
Francesco Passadore, strategic marketing manager at Manifatture Associate Cashmere, a manufacturer that makes the Malo and Gentry Portofino lines, said that his company has invested $3.2 million (6 billion lire) in a 24,000-square-foot, high tech plant that will make knits on both circular and flat looms.
“Also, because we firmly believe in the concept of ‘Friday wear,’ we have launched a sportier line called Malo Cashmere Sport, which we’re also heavily backing with ad campaigns,” said Passadore.
In fact, snazzy sweaters are nipping at the heels of classic blazers in the working world. A perfect example are the colorful Missoni sweaters that garnered the company $50 million (80 billion lire) sales in 1994, becoming a favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeremy Irons and Mary Tyler Moore, among others.
Gianni Versace, who regularly sports a sweater and slacks to work (as do many of his colleagues), believes that knitwear is less vulnerable to shaky economies. “The dynamic life that we all lead brings us always more toward destructure, soft clothes that follow the movements of the body,” said Versace.
He added: “Today knitwear can substitute for shirts and jackets; hence it is made with the most incredibly small weaves, which make it light and ductile.”
“Knits are an irreversible trend,” said Brunello Cucinelli, owner of the high-end knitwear manufacturer that bears his name. “Women feel comfortable going to work with a nice twinset, especially because today there is a wide choice of styles.”
Cucinelli sold 16,000 twinsets from the current fall/winter collection with price tags of $600 (950,000 lire). Price, in fact, is no deterrent, say retailers.
“We have clients that spend between $254 (400,000 lire) and $630 (1 million lire) for a nice sweater,” said Pupi Solari, owner of the high-end store that carries her name.
Cucinelli’s high-end knits are made on circular looms, where the knit is modeled around the body, as opposed to flat looms, where the two pieces are sewn together. “We’ve put a lot of energy into research to come up with modern ideas, such as stretch cashmere, which was unheard of until a couple of years ago,” said Cucinelli, whose line is available at Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Maxfield and Linda Dresner, among others.
In 1994, his sales reached $30 million (47 billion lire), with an expected 12 percent increase in 1995.
Lycra mixed with cashmere and angora was fall/winter’s bestseller at Les Copains, where knits accounted for 50 percent of the company’s $150 million (237 billion lire) sales in 1994.
Gianfranco Ferre believes that the boom in knitwear reflects people’s life patterns.
“In tune with the changing lifestyles, the attention toward more informal wear has strengthened and today a nice sweater can easily substitute for a jacket, as long as the situation allows it,” he said. “Knitwear is destined to gain an even more significant role.”
Anna Molinari, whose sexy and colorful knits made up 40 percent of her company’s $38 million (60 billion lire) sales in 1994 and increased 20 percent from 1993, sings the same tune. “Today, knits are worn from morning into night because there’s been an enormous evolution in this field,” she noted. “For example, for working hours you can wear an angora vest or a twinset with a nice pair of trousers and at night slip into a fitted knit dress with satin cuffs.” Krizia’s Mariuccia Mandelli has always been an advocate of knitwear, and today more than ever she believes it’s a favorite of women because not everybody has Kate Moss’s gaunt silhouette to fit the tiny jackets that are ruling fashion. “Knitwear is always more wearable and easier to move in,” said Mandelli. Italian yarn makers largely contributed to the innovation of knits. “Over the past year, we invested money in high tech knitting machinery so we could present new knitting ideas to stimulate the designers’ imagination,” said Giacomo Festa Bianchet, president and chief executive officer of Lora & Festa. A worthwhile investment, since exports at Lora & Festa have grown from 2 percent of its business in 1991 to 45 percent in 1994.
“Because knitwear is fundamental in my collection, I’ve always dedicated a lot of attention to research,” said FerrA. “In fact, it’s never lacked unusual colors, insets, soft hands and new blends. And the wave of the future is stretch knits, in the name of comfort and freedom.”
For their part, retailers concur on the success of knitwear and put lightweight, trend-oriented knits in the spotlight, whether they target a conventional or hip clientele.
Rosy Biffi, co-owner of the Biffi stores, believes that today knitwear eagerly follows fashion and that quirky styles are the hot sellers. “My clients want tiny and body-hugging knits and they steer clear of classic, oversized sweaters,” declared Biffi, who carries such lines as DKNY, Vivienne Westwood, Yoji Yamamoto and Antonio Fusco. So far, her bestsellers have been tweed knits and ones enriched with details such as zips and pockets.
On the other hand, Pupi Solari is selling more classic looks such as short-sleeved turtlenecks and crewnecks, but always close to the body. “Today, there’s a strong demand for knits because fashion is more carefree, with quilted jackets and parkas, so a nice sweater is the perfect complement,” she said. “Furthermore, if you’re on the go, a nice good-quality sweater is the perfect travel companion.”
Marisa Lombardo, owner of the Marisa stores, said that twinsets were selling like hotcakes, in natural yarns such as wool, cashmere and silk. “Classic English knits are out because people want trends also in sweaters,” notes Lombardo.
Knitwear maker Cristiano Fissore believes that knitwear generally becomes less dated than apparel, even if it’s trend-oriented.
But trends can also be very subtle, like the skinny-ribbed turtlenecks or twinsets in delicate sorbet colors that the Prada stores can’t keep on the shelves and that have become a season’s staple.