MILAN — His Peter Pan-like frame squeezed into a pair of striped pants held up by suspenders, and his Milanese apartment filled with New Guinea shields, African tables and Moroccan poufs, Romeo Gigli looks anything but litigious.

The designer, however, is once again engaged in a legal battle with the previous and current owners of his business, IT Holding and Fratelli Prandina, respectively — a move that inevitably echoes the bitter dispute a decade ago between Gigli and his former partners, Carla Sozzani and Donato Maino.

It’s a sad state of affairs for a designer who, during the late Eighties, was one of the hottest names around with his slender, small-shouldered silhouettes, egg-shaped jackets and use of ethnic fabrics and inspirations. The question is: Is Gigli simply unlucky in choosing his business partners, or is he a headstrong designer who refuses to adapt to modern times?

Just as in the last battle, the answer depends on who you believe.

Gigli feels he has no choice but to turn to the courthouse to protect his namesake brand. “My job is to design and this is what I want to continue to do: I want to protect my creative world, whether it be revolving around fashion, interior design or music,” he said in an exclusive interview with WWD.

Following IT Holding’s sale of the brand last spring, Gigli has found himself empty-handed, as the new owners of his business are planning to produce and distribute a Romeo Gigli line without the designer’s creative input. But who exactly owns the brand is a matter of controversy and dispute. When IT Holding sold the business, it issued a statement saying it was handed over to a company controlled by Pierluigi Mancinelli, chief executive officer of clothing manufacturer Fratelli Prandina. Mancinelli, on the other hand, claims Prandina only holds the license for the Romeo Gigli brand, which is controlled by the Luxembourg-based company Euroholding. Gigli, and his lawyer, meanwhile, claim the business was sold to the Italian real estate company Immobiliare Esse.

The designer, for now, appears to have been shouldered out of fashion. “I have just found out that my company has been sold to Immobiliare Esse, a real estate company based in the south of Italy — what kind of future does my brand have?” asked Gigli. “I can’t get in contact with anyone, I have no idea who to submit my designs to, I have no design team and no commercial office.”

This story first appeared in the October 1, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But Mancinelli, in a phone interview, claimed otherwise. He said he had no knowledge of any sale of Gigli to Immobiliare Esse. Mancinelli said he submitted a design and business plan to Gigli this summer, which the designer nixed through his lawyer. “I was willing to work with Mr. Gigli — the brand still has a strong appeal and I was looking forward to our business together,” said Mancinelli.

Gigli said Mancinelli wanted to commercialize the brand without his creative help. For sure, Mancinelli is forging ahead and is currently showing the first women’s collection under the Romeo Gigli brand to retailers here this week. “We have not advertised the line with the press yet, as we want to fully launch it next season and are perfecting the brand’s image,” said Mancinelli.

Earlier this month, the courthouse ruled against Gigli in his case against IT Holding and Mancinelli. The designer, however, with the help of Fabio Franchini, a well-known lawyer in the fashion industry and the late Maurizio Gucci’s lawyer, is appealing, demanding a reimbursement of about $54 million for royalties and consultancy fees and a ban to commercialize clothing and accessories under his brand but not designed by him.

“I signed a 20-year contract, so I am still under contract to design the Romeo Gigli brand for another 17 years,” claimed Gigli. “Since April, I have not seen a penny, nor had any design guidance or official communication with anyone.”

Although Gigli does not directly accuse IT Holding’s chief, Tonino Perna, whom he sees engaged in too many different company duties, he believes his clothes over the past few years were “not up to standards” as the production and distribution efforts IT Holding put in were not “satisfactory.” In fact, Gigli is also suing IT Holding for lack of support in growing his business.

In a separate interview, Perna said he “tried in every way to grow Gigli’s business for five years, in terms of financial investments and managerial backing.”

But he was reluctant to discuss the matter in detail for ethical reasons. “It’s always difficult to talk about a divorce,” he said. “I really wanted to make this business grow and I think it means something that I am willing to confess a defeat.”

Perna claimed that it is the market that decides whether a product is successful and that, based on the group’s feedback, Gigli’s design guidelines were in a time warp. “His product did not reflect today’s needs. You cannot use the same codes that were valid 20 years ago. Fashion may look all the same, but it’s made up of tiny differences that matter,” he said.

Perna firmly challenged Gigli’s accusations about the quality of the product. “We are known in the industry for our quality and service and we work with different designers, respecting the identity and creativity of each single one,” he said. IT Holding controls Ittierre, which produces and distributes the Versus, D&G, Just Cavalli and CNC brands and owns the Malo and Gianfranco Ferré businesses. While Gigli claimed his diffusion line Gigli failed because he did not have any say in its design, Perna said that it is the signature line that “leads the way and creative ideas trickle down from the main line to the other lines.”

Upon the sale of the Gigli brand, IT Holding said the deal was part of the group’s strategy to focus on its brands “with high potential.”

Whatever the reasons for the brand’s difficulties, Gigli maintains a die-hard group of fans, who swear to his talent and attribute his predicament to Ittierre’s inexperience in dealing with such a niche, conceptual brand that requires intense care and a hands-on approach. “IT Holding is a public company that needs big volumes, while Gigli’s business is tiny and it needs tremendous and focused support,” said a source who previously worked at IT Holding.

Another previous IT Holding employee blamed Ittierre’s managers for vetoing Gigli’s ideas and distorting his designs. “They even went as far as producing two different collections with two different fits, in an effort to make it more salable,” said the source. “Ultimately, everyone in this business needs to make a profit and designers must keep up with the times, sometimes even with the help of the commercial team, but their designs cannot be completely turned upside down.”

Others, though, fully support Ittierre’s track record in the industry and point the finger at Gigli’s personality. “Perna really believed in the Gigli brand and tried hard to build it, but Gigli is very headstrong in his views and does not easily accept advice or guidance,” said another source close to IT Holding.

Added an analyst: “It can’t always be someone else’s fault. Gigli has a tendency to overlook his own faults, but if his product had been strong, things for him would have not turned out this way.”