Floating down the catwalk

Italy's top fashion designers are putting the finishing flourishes on their most important creations to date - their balance sheets - in anticipation of going public.

After years of running their couture and ready-to-wear houses like family firms, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Valentino, Cerutti 1881, and Gianfranco Ferre are considering floating.

The success of Gucci Group, whose shares have risen 323 per cent, and Rome jeweller Bulgari, whose shares are up 372 per cent in the past two years, has made it clear to designers that investors are as willing to snap up their stocks as movie stars are to don their gowns on Oscars night.

"The boom in financial assets worldwide has created a lot of wealth, and when that happens, people buy more Porsches and fancy clothes than they buy caramels," said Pio Benetti, at Ducato Gestioni in Milan.

The most widely anticipated sale is Gianni Versace's company, which said in April that it plans a stock sale in New York, and possibly Milan, by June 1998.

Versace's flashy and flamboyant creations last year raked in sales worth 845 billion lire (pounds 324m), 80 per cent of which was exported. The company expects 1997 sales to rise 20 per cent. Pre-tax profits were 175bn lire.

Investment bankers have been lining up outside Versace's elegant palazzo headquarters on Milan's Via Gesu to underwrite the offering, including Credit Suisse First Boston, BZW Securities, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. The company says it has not decided on who will lead the offering.

The King of Italian fashion, Giorgio Armani, is "considering the stock market as one option for the future", says a spokesman, though no decision has yet been taken. Armani, whose clothes are sold through more than 2,000 stores worldwide, had sales of 1.87 trillion lire last year.

Gianfranco Ferre, the designer who formerly headed up the Paris-based Christian Dior, has also spoken with bankers at Morgan Stanley about an offering. Clothes and other products made using the designer's name pulled in 1.25 trillion lire in sales last year.

One of the hottest Italian designers, Miuccia Prada, has been silent on whether she plans to sell a stake in her company. Because of the company's strong growth rates, a Prada sale would likely be the most successful of all the main Italian fashion houses.

"Investors would fight to the death to buy Prada shares," said Alberto Rolla, an analyst at Pasfin Securities. Prada, which sells leather bags, shoes and clothing under the Prada, Miu Miu and Granello brand names, expects retail sales to rise to 1.391 trillion lire this year.

Yet the path to public ownership is a long catwalk for many Italian designers - especially those that farmed out important aspects of their businesses, including retail stores, to licensees and other companies.

Last week designer Romeo Gigli said his company is in talks to be acquired. While the designer's clothes and jeans grace many a fashionable figure on the streets of Paris and New York, years of mismanagement left Gigli in poor financial shape, with only two of its own stores.

"Designers have to clean up their acts," said Bruce Belfiore, an investment banker at Gallo Advisories in Milan. "That means they have to open up to auditors and think in terms of minority shareholders - not an easy task."

Valentino Garavani and his partner Giancarlo Giammetti have been working with Goldman Sachs for the past year to revamp the company's licensing agreements, the ownership of its retail stores and to plot a succession strategy.

While Valentino and his advisers stay mum, industry observers say the company may warm more to a merger with a fellow designer rather than a public offering because of the company's poor financial situation. It does not own all of the stores selling its goods.

Speculation surfaced two months ago that Valentino might be the target of a planned merger between two clothing holding companies, Marzotto e Figli and Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali, but talks collapsed three weeks ago.

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