MILAN — As many Italian fashion companies turn to the Far East for low-cost manufacturing and target products more toward active and sportswear, the new owners and management at Belfe are going in the opposite direction.

This story first appeared in the July 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Belfe is bringing production of its Post Card and Belfe brands back to Italy and other European countries and is moving away from a technical, sports-oriented image toward fashion collections more in line with the trends.

“I want to put to good use the company’s core know-how, which is its upscale leather craftsmanship,” said Alfredo Passariello, the company’s new chief executive officer. “Sports has always been intrinsic to the clothes, but the brands were never before identified only with activewear, as they are today.”

Belfe, one of the first companies to produce coats with down feathers, manufactures activewear for Chanel and has done the same for Christian Dior. It was a longtime leather licensee for Giorgio Armani and still produces leather pieces for Gianfranco Ferré. The company is based in Marostica, in northeastern Italy.

Passariello joined Belfe in January, tapped by Medinvest International, an investment fund based in the Netherlands, which last November took an 85 percent stake in Belfe for 15.5 million euros, or $19 million at current exchange. The Festa family, founders of Belfe in 1920, retains 15 percent.

Passariello, who worked for 18 years at Giorgio Armani as ceo of Simint, the designer’s jeans and sportswear manufacturing arm, and as general manager at Armani’s licensee Vestimenta, said Post Card is perceived in the U.S. as a “very technical brand to be worn in the mountains,” as a result of the visibility of its Aspen store. Post Card is available at 45 U.S. locations, including Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.

The U.S. accounts for 9 percent of sales, and Passariello wants to double that figure by 2006. He intends to distribute the Belfe brand in the U.S. market with the spring-summer collection and to adopt a more selective distribution of Post Card by focusing on better retailers. “We want to offer an alternative to formalwear, along the lines of Kiton and Avon Celli,” he said.

“The brand had become self-referential and repetitive,” said Rosanna Buccaro, in charge of style and image at the company. Post Card is comparable to a designer line and Belfe is the more commercial line, Buccaro said.

Buccaro also worked with Armani as a designer. She defines the new Post Card and Belfe brands as “sporty ready-to-wear,” focused on a feminine fit and clean silhouettes.

Passariello is set on bringing production back to Italy and Europe, in Romania and Greece. “No more than 70 percent of production should come from outside Italy,” he said. “I don’t want standardized, mass-market products.”

Italy accounts for 70 percent of sales, and Passariello plans to reduce that to about 30 percent over the next two years by expanding outside the country. Last year, the company registered sales of 50 million euros, or $61.5 million at current exchange rates.

“This company has a huge potential: By 2007, I’m aiming at sales of 80 million euros ($98.4 million),” said Passariello, who wants to increase the number of Post Card points of sale to 600 from 287 around the world and for Belfe to 1,000 from 567. There are four stores for the brands in Rome, Milan, St. Moritz and Melbourne.

Passariello and Buccaro are focused on researching innovative materials and treatments. For spring-summer 2005, the first collection to bow under the new team, cotton is washed with tiny beads that convey a sandy, dusty effect or are combined with nylon or viscose for an opaque-shiny look similar to fabrics employed for parachutes or sailboats.

“With this treatment, however, the fabric is superior, with transpiring membranes,” said Buccaro, who will employ it for feminine motorcycle jackets that she sees worn with an evening dress. Another example is a shirt made with bamboo fabric.

“Sports is almost a pretext, I want to feel sporty in situations that are not sporty, but I want to feel free and comfortable, without being ridiculed,” said Buccaro. “After all, in fashion we play with the image of others.” To add unique touches, she employs lacquered buttons different from one another on the same jacket or “the most expensive” zips.