Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK — Being hailed for quality leather goods and classic ready-to-wear isn’t enough for some Italian firms. It seems that everyone wants to duplicate the success of Prada and Gucci.
These days, Ferragamo finds itself lusting after the glory of full-blown runway shows and the full court press attention that can propel a respected brand to frenzied cult status.
And for the first time in its history, Ferragamo, an insular family-owned business, has turned to an outsider, Nicole Fischelis, to help engineer its re-creation as a bona fide fashion house.
Fischelis, the former fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, says her goal is to infuse Ferragamo with “attitude,” a code for edgy, youthful designs that take up where Ferragamo’s traditionally tasteful styles — which seemed tailor-made for fashion icons such as Faye Dunaway and Anjelica Huston — left off.
“We have never hired an outsider in Nicole’s capacity, where she oversees the whole design team and design direction,” says Massimo Ferragamo, president and vice chairman of Ferragamo USA. “What we can build is really unlimited. Hopefully, there will be things that people will say are right for Ferragamo, not things that look like something another company would have done.”
Ferragamo dismisses the idea of Prada- or Gucci-envy. “We only want to be Ferragamo, and it will be up to the customer to decide what that means,” he says. “It’s rare that you hire new people and remain static. Obviously, there is a continued search to constantly upgrade what we think is right for Ferragamo. That is an ongoing process, and there is a way of achieving that without alienating old customers.”
But change is definitely evident at the Florence-based company. In February, Ferragamo dumped its typical low-key show at the last moment and switched to a new, high-profile venue at the Triennale Gallery, where the fall-winter 2000 collection of slim, elongated silhouettes and trapeze shapes was paraded down the runway to the strains of arty 18th-century Indian music from the film “Le Salon de Musique.”
“There were 47 pieces,” says Fischelis, who has a strong interest in art and is quick to identify connections — often whimsical — between fashion and culture. “The collection had a reason for being and a point of view.
“When I took over the rtw project, we had a lot of reflection with the family of where we were and what the competition was doing,” says Fischelis, whose title is senior vice president of fashion worldwide. “I don’t think the rtw product should be about trends, but rather about style.”
A key decision was hiring Marc Audibet, a French designer who started his career at Cerruti, spent six years at Prada and was recently a consultant to Trussardi. Audibet works with Fischelis and Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo, who oversees rtw.
For Fischelis, the fall collection was about much more than revamped classics such as the perfect trenchcoat. “There was a statement about the return of the suit, the return of the dress and blouses,” she says. “It’s not about sportswear, although there is great sportswear in the collection, great knitwear and lots of separates. The presentation was much more chic, with great new silhouettes, lots of trapeze dresses and the play on volume and mixing of proportions.”
The collection, which received generally favorable reviews, is expanding its distribution in the U.S. with accounts such as Janet Brown, Linda Dresner, Ultimo and about 10 other small specialty stores.
“Rtw is a steady business, but will now have a growing potential,” Fischelis says.
Fischelis also plans to introduce new classifications and intensify existing lifestyle categories, possibly under a new label. She envisions apparel and accessories for the beach, weekend, travel and home. Each area will have signature pieces and strong essential items. For example, weekend could include foulard-print shirts, quilted jackets and jeans.
“We want to pull these categories out of the main collection, refocus them and do more of them,” she adds.
Also on the product front is a sunglass license featuring leather-covered aviator rims and the company’s first watch for men and women. Jewelry has been redefined by Dominique Aurientis, who designed bold logo-oriented cuffs, necklaces and belts of leather, wood and resin.
“It’s beyond the logo,” Fischelis says. “Jewelry is becoming about beautiful objects. The jewelry collection is very chic.”
Shoes, of course, are still an important part of the business, which was founded by Salvatore Ferragamo in the early 1900s. While there will always be a classic Ferragamo pump and loafer with signature grosgrain bow, Fischelis has brought shoes into the 21st century with an eye toward trends such as colorblocking, python, embroidery, patchwork, logo chic and laser-cut pony skin in graphic motifs such as zebra and panther.
“It’s a whole new world, but linked to the same rules of fashion,” Fischelis says of the shoes. “It’s about proportion, style and fit.”
One of Fischelis’s goals was to create more cohesion between the different areas of business. Now, rtw relates to jewelry, accessories and shoes “so that when you merchandise a store, you can tell a story and romance the product,” she says.
While Ferragamo stresses the importance of its wholesale accounts, the company, like other Italian fashion houses, has been adding company-owned stores in recent years.
Ferragamo unveiled a new store prototype in San Francisco in April. Gone are the signature black lacquer fixtures that framed the merchandise. The new design integrates natural woods and maple shelves against light beige paneled walls. There are freestanding display fixtures in darker mahogany and display elements, like hanging rods, in stainless steel. Leather furniture is dark gray, and the floor is a dark gray custom ceramic tile.
“We’re trying to accomplish a differentiation,” Fischelis says. “It’s very contemporary with the warm culture of Ferragamo. After all, it’s an Italian company.”
This, despite the French invasion Fischelis set in motion. In addition to Aubidet and Aurientis, Fischelis enlisted two Gauls to produce the company’s new ad campaign, photographer Patrick Demarchelier and Carolyn Cerf de Dudzeele, a stylist. In contrast to Ferragamo’s current campaign, which was shot outdoors, the new one was photographed in a studio. The highly stylized shots of models dressed head-to-toe in Ferragamo have an element of fetishism.
Fischelis downplays the idea of a French invasion, saying, “It is a coincidence that so many French people have come to the company. There is an aesthetic sensibility between Italians and French in terms of culture and a sense of quality, craftsmanship and tradition.”
“We are an Italian company that was started by my father in America,” adds Ferragamo. “For us, the main thing is talent.”
While Fischelis herself seems to have adapted to the new corporate culture, some old habits die hard. At four in the afternoon, when other employees are having cappuccino, Fischelis is ensconced in her office filled with Italian tapestries and Venetian furniture, sipping a cup of tea.