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PARIS — It looks like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton went fishing in Italy again for its latest high-profile designer.

According to sources close to the deal, the French luxury group is finalizing a contract to name Roberto Menichetti as the new designer for Celine. He would succeed Michael Kors, who had a successful if bumpy six-year run at the house that ended in March when his contract expired.

This story first appeared in the April 26, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It is understood Menichetti will present his first collection for Celine in October during Paris Fashion Week. An official announcement is expected shortly.

Neither Menichetti nor Celine officials could immediately be reached for comment on Friday. LVMH has shown a penchant for Italian designers lately, having appointed the Sardinian Antonio Marras as the new women’s designer of Kenzo last fall. The French luxury group, which has in the recent past preferred young talents with buzz, also seems to now gravitate to more seasoned and cultured talents.

Menichetti, 37, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and burst onto the fashion radar in 1998 when he was tapped by Burberry chief executive Rose Marie Bravo as creative director of Burberry. With the Burberry Prorsum line showcased on the runways of London and Milan, he helped elevate the firm’s iconic plaid and increase the brand’s fashion currency. Before that, Menichetti headed the design team at Jil Sander and was Claude Montana’s protégé in the Eighties.

Menichetti left Burberry after his three-year contract expired, and was succeeded there by Christopher Bailey.

Following a two-year hiatus, Menichetti returned to the fashion scene with a namesake collection that debuted in New York during Fashion Week last February. Richard Fischer, the chairman emeritus of Morgan Stanley and his wife, Jeanne Donovan, an independent theater producer in New York, financed his project.

Menichetti is expected to continue his own collection, with plans to stage a fashion show in New York this fall.

His fashion approach is of the less-is-more variety, with a collection stretching from luxurious basics to laser-cut dresses and outerwear in unusual fabrics. Menichetti’s collections at Burberry, as well as his own line, have drawn inspiration from activewear, with influences ranging from motorcycle apparel to swimwear, as well as such elements as heraldry. The designer lives and works in Gubbio, a medieval town nestled in the Umbrian hills where his family owns an apparel factory.

Menichetti arrives at Celine at a time when the house is experiencing strong momentum, with annual sales growth estimated at 30 percent and the profit picture improving rapidly. Market sources estimate Celine’s sales at about $200 million a year.

The brand, which celebrates its 60th birthday next year, started as a children’s footwear firm. Kors was only the second designer at the house after founder Celine Vipianas. Luxury czar Bernard Arnault acquired it in 1987 and made it part of the LVMH fashion universe in 1994. Celine president Jean-Marc Loubier has kept a tight lid on his search for a successor to Kors. Early speculation had centered on the Milan-based Canadian design team of Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared, as well as Paris-based Australian Martin Grant.

In an interview prior to Kors’ last show in March, Loubier said over the last four years he has focused on cutting lead times, improving Celine’s retail network and revamping the design, merchandising and marketing functions at the company. “We worked a lot on the product, and pushed the teams,” he said at the time. “It’s very easy to do beautiful $5,000 bags, but how do you do a good one at $800?”

Ready-to-wear represents about 42 percent of Celine’s sales, followed by leather goods at 41 percent, footwear 11 percent and the balance from other products and royalties.

In discussing the choice of Kors’ successor, Loubier said in March that the designer would be asked to remain faithful to Celine’s optimistic spirit, French flavor and smart clientele. “She’s a woman with a brain, energetic and witty, involved as much in her work as in her leisure,” he said of Celine’s customer. “We know exactly the person we are targeting.”

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