FASHION: RAISON D'ETRO

Italian design house Etro has been printing luxury fabrics for three decades. This year may be the making of them, says Tamsin Blanchard orld

As I walk into the Milan headquarters of Etro, a name that until now I had always associated with paisley prints and perfume, I suddenly become aware of the candy pink, striped silk shirt I am wearing. It fits in just perfectly. Of course, I remember - it is by British designers Clements Ribeiro, but made out of an Etro furnishing fabric. It would look great as curtains, but the stiff, raw silk works even better as a shirt.

Clements Ribeiro are not the only ones; Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and numerous other big-name designers have been using luxury prints from the venerable Italian design house for years. Why? "Etro are really good at meticulous printed fabrics," says Inacio Ribeiro. "Few can do it with their degree of precision. They have developed the paisley print and jacquard to a degree that nobody else has."

Since 1958, when Gimmo Etro began the business of rep- licating designs found on travels around the world onto lengths of cashmere, silk and linen, the name Etro has stood unashamedly for luxurious, bohemian textiles. More recently, the firm has started to produce its own line of clothes for men and women: the sort that requires peacock-painted eyes, and a chaise-longue - draped with antique fabrics and cushions picked up on travels from the Orient and the Middle East - on which to recline. With a recently opened shop on London's Bond Street, and the January release of The Wings of the Dove (an Edwardian-set film whose lavish, Oriental-inspired costume designs might have come straight from the Etro collection), this is a design house worth watching.

At Etro's Milan office - a fine example of Art Nouveau architecture that is filled with an extensive collection of sculpture, paintings, murals and furniture from the period - there are libraries full of antique paisleys collected by the family. Huge leather books bind together layer upon layer of fabric samples no longer in production. Collecting runs in the family. Gimmo, 57, collects everything from African masks and Art Deco glass to military uniforms. His eldest son, Jacopo, who heads up the textile division, is also an art collector, while middle son Kean, who designs the company's clothes collections, read history at Cambridge and collects 17th, 18th and 19th-century travel books.

Walking through Etro's warren-like offices, browsing through the textile library and pausing in front of a 1920s Japanese lacquered screen, you only have to breathe the air to feel inspired. No surprise then that Kean's daughter, Veronica - at 23, the youngest member of the family - earned herself a place on the fashion degree course at Central Saint Martins. She graduated last summer, after a stint of work experience at Clements Ribeiro, and is now being cultivated as a womenswear designer to work alongside her father. Ippolito, Veronica's uncle and the youngest of the three brothers, launched an Italian fast-food restaurant in New York, before taking over the administration of the family business.

The knowledgeable nature of this learned family - steeped in a love of art, history and textiles, and largely eschewing the pursuit of new trends - shows in their collections, which are packed full of clothes for intelligent women not afraid of indulging in a little pure, unadulterated sensualism. Etro's new London shop is in a similar vein: just the place for anyone who feels they have overdosed on unadorned utility clothing. From the shop windows - displays of mannequins topped with animals' heads - to the eclectic mix of print, texture, jewel-like colours and iridescent fabrics that hang on the rails inside, there is nothing minimal about it. That includes the price: over pounds 1,300 for a dress, pounds 55 for a pair of paisley gloves.

If The Wings of a Dove is a hit (and preview screenings suggest it will be), a public taste for its Etro-like style is likely to follow, and the company's luxurious kimonos in contrasting reversible fabrics, damask scarves, fading chintz wraps, antique-looking Chinese embroidered bags, velvet wraps with gold-leaf paisley, ikat prints, and rich floral velvet trouser suits will be on everyone's fantasy shopping-list. Dressmakers who are confident enough to cut into a length of Etro paisley viscose at pounds 135 a metre can buy material from Liberty and knock up something of their own. Others can look out for the tell-tale precision printing in designer collections. But if you really want to be a step ahead, invest in the real thing: a gold embroidered velvet Etro scarf to wrap around yourself, before everybody else sees the film and is inspired to do the same.

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