RIFLE: READY TO MAKE SOME NOISE

Byline: Luisa Zargani

BARBERINO DEL MUGELLO, Italy — Over the last 50 years, Super Rifle has quietly built a name for itself on the strength of the denim and sportswear it produces. Now the company is ready to start making a little noise for its Rifle brand.
Based in this small town outside Florence — known to the locals for its Formula One-style race track — Super Rifle has already shifted its focus into more fashion-oriented products and plans to open its own stores and get more aggressive about marketing.
The Fratini family, which owns the Super Rifle company, in late 1998 brought in new management to help freshen the company’s image and revamp the Rifle label.
“The company has history and reputation, but had been sitting on its laurels for too long,” said Sergio Re, chief executive officer.
To put some zest in the product, Re has created five Rifle sub-brands and hired three creative designers: Piero Turk, Dario Marangon and Renato Grande.
He has also focused the company’s marketing efforts on consumers aged 16 to 23. Previously, it had cast a wider net in terms of age.
The five sub-brands are Heritage, the largest business, which picks up Rifle’s denim tradition with a contemporary touch; Progressive, an edgy, street-oriented line; Khaki’s Spirit, with a rugged outdoor feel; RFL Ready for Life, which focuses on innovative fabrics and materials, and Rifle 4-4teen, aimed at children age four to 14.
Average wholesale prices are around $50 for a jacket and between $17.50 and $27.50 for a pair of jeans, depending on the wash. Dollar figures are translated from the lira at current exchange.
“The five-pocket jeans crisis, which has hit the industry over the past few years, is one of the reasons we thought it was best to diversify our production and add trendy designs,” said Manlio Massa, who joined the company last year in the new position of sales, communication and marketing manager. “The market is saturated, and young people want new styles and materials, and an added touch of atmosphere and lifestyle.”
To provide freshness, the company has begun shipping two collections for its fall and spring seasons, for a total of four deliveries a year in each of its five sub-brands.
To cut costs, last year the company moved its production outside Italy to Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Romania and the Far East.
“These countries have recently improved their skills and their product range is wider,” said Massa, adding that in Italy the cost of labor was 2.5 times higher than in North Africa, for example.
Super Rifle puts out about 4.5 million pieces per year. It maintains its headquarters here, where it also produces samples. The company last year invested about $3 million in automation and logistics.
Super Rifle is owned by Sandro, Marcello and Corrado Fratini, the second generation of the founders of the company, brothers Giulio and Fiorenzo Fratini, who introduced denim jeans to Italy in the Fifties. The elder Fratinis dealt in used Army fabrics from the war, and when they found samples of denim, they decided to launch this material in Europe.
Sandro Fratini, chairman of Super Rifle, owns 50 percent of the company. His cousins Marcello and Corrado Fratini own the other half through a holding company, Fingen SpA. Through that firm, they also manufacture Guess and Calvin Klein jeanswear and the Cotton Belt line, and have a 20 percent share in Van Cleef & Arpels.
Corrado Fratini had been ceo prior to Re and remains active in managing Fingen.
For 1999, Super Rifle reported sales of about $75 million, a 15 percent drop from the previous year.
“For 2000, we estimate sales will be in line with last year, with an increased visibility of the line, though,” Re said.
The company is investing about $10 million in advertising and communication, which began last year and will continue through 2001, he noted.
“At Rifle, marketing and communication were sadly nonexistent before,” said Massa, who is responsible for the company’s controversial ad campaign featuring two prominent figures from the Roman Catholic tradition, Saint Lucy and Saint Francis.
Last year, the city of Milan censored a Rifle billboard featuring a modern, sexy version of Saint Lucy, shot by Erwin Olaf. The blond, voluptuous model chosen to represent the saint — who is believed to preserve eyesight — was clothed in a tight, white Rifle T-shirt and dark jeans, surrounded by a halo and dozens of eyeballs. The photo caused quite a stir in Italy.
“Though I was upset about taking down the ad, which ironically was allowed in Rome, at the same time it had people talking about Rifle,” said Massa, admitting he was pleased about the exposure.
Massa said the company was moving away from billboards and planned to invest in campaigns in magazines and to sponsor television shows.
He added that Rifle was investing in magazine-like catalogs that will feature brief interviews, hot places to visit and new restaurants, in addition to photos of the clothes.
“These are collectibles — catalogs with a new design we hope our customers will want to keep as a travel guide or a magazine,” said Massa. The company expects to release its first such publication later this year.
Massa is also organizing a party to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. The event is to be held in Florence at the end of June, during the Pitti Uomo trade show.
Also to celebrate the anniversary, the company has developed a special collection of 20 designs to be delivered to stores in September.
The company does about 80 percent of its sales in Italy, where Rifle products are available at 1,600 sales points, including casual jeans and sportswear boutiques, and department stores such as Coin and Giacomelli.
This year, the firm will open stores in Milan, Florence and Rome. By 2001, the company plans to open 20 wholly owned and franchised stores in European capitals.
“We want to be able to control distribution through our stores and to receive feedback daily on what our customers are looking for,” said Massa, noting the company was investing about $2 million in this retailing project.
While Rifle has over the years expanded its business in Europe, it is not yet available in the U.S.
“You need to have a strong organization to approach that market, which would also involve a branch in the U.S., unless we find a partner there,” said Massa.