Italian labels aim for foreign buyers as Milan opens

Milan Fashion Week kicked off on Wednesday with celebrity-filled parties and dazzling displays as top brands look to sales in emerging markets to overcome a slump in Italy from Europe's debt crisis.

Seventy-three fashion houses are taking to the catwalks with their spring-summer 2012 collections this year and several leading names including Gucci are opening new hi-tech stores in Italy's main fashion hub.

But industry leaders say the sector faces a period of uncertainty.

"We have to respond with vigour and optimism to the situation of uncertainty that characterises the current economic juncture," said Mario Boselli, head of the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, which organises the event.

"The problem of Italy and of Europe as a whole is growth and since countries that are growing are now those that are far away, our maximum attention will be on promoting Made in Italy exports to the whole world," he said.

"The month of August was as bad as the one that came before that terrible September 2008" - the start of the global financial crisis, he said.

The Italian fashion sector had been banking on eight-percent growth this year but investor pressure has forced the forecast down to four percent - still a major improvement on the drop of 15 percent seen in 2009.

The show opens its doors with Gucci and Rocco Barocco on Wednesday, followed by Prada and D&G on Thursday, Versace and Moschino on Friday, Jil Sander on Saturday, Missoni on Sunday and Roberto Cavalli and Giorgio Armani on Monday.

A series of boutique openings in the city started off on Tuesday with an inauguration party attended by Naomi Campbell for tyre maker Pirelli - famous for its nude calendars - which is now launching itself into fashion.

Despite the glitzy openings and the buzz of fashion week, the main brands make no secret of the fact that they are mainly looking abroad for growth.

"This first half has been fantastic for our labels with foreign sales rising 30 or 40 percent, particularly in Asia, in Kazakhstan and in Russia," said one participant, Gaetano Marzotto, head of the textile group Marzotto.

Exports of Italian women's fashion were up 17.4 percent between January and May compared to the same period last year. While France and Germany remain the top export markets, Russia has now become the third largest buyer.

"In Italy, where consumption has lowered, sales have been supported by tourists. In the Milan fashion quarter, where the most prestigious brands are concentrated, 60 percent of purchases were by foreigners," Marzotto said.

He still noted a slowdown however in the past two months in sales even to foreign buyers "due to uncertainties linked to Europe's debt and a lack of clarity from the (Italian) government, which undermines consumer confidence."

Prada is one label that has made a successful switch to emerging markets.

The company listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in June and announced a 74.2-percent jump in first-half profits this year, due mainly to Asian buyers.

Prada's sales in the Asia-Pacific region except Japan were up 35.4 percent - by far its sharpest rise in the world - and the group said that by 2013 it aims to have 550 stores worldwide, with around half of them in Asia.

Others like Missoni - with its "Missoni for Target" range for the US supermarket chain Target - have launched themselves into cut-price ventures and many have taken to the Internet with online boutiques to lure foreign buyers.

Giuseppe Angiolini, head of the association of Italian fashion buyers, said: "We can no longer think about fashion developing in Italy. In terms of sales, we are no longer number one. Our market has reached its ceiling."

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