Versace ready to float on

Brother and sister will pick up listing plan, reports Robert Cox

As Italian fashion mourns the passing of one of its favourite sons, Gianni Versace, Milan's financial circles are buzzing with scenarios on how to proceed with his ultimate show - a stock offering.

While Mr Versace's murder in front of his Miami Beach mansion on Tuesday will certainly postpone a planned flotation in 1998, investment bankers and analysts agree that the designer's siblings, Donatella and Santo, can move quickly to assure the longevity of Italy's number-two fashion house.

The most important move will be to install a top designer to take over the high-end couture and atelier activities that defined the company's image of flamboyant and flashy clothing emblazoned with off-beat designs in unconventional materials.

"The key to Versace's success is whether they can call in an important and well-known fashion designer to oversee the core lines," said Roberto Casoni, an equity analyst at Robert Fleming Securities. "It's still quite risky, because the new guy would have to prove his skills are as good as Versace."

That gamble, though, has worked for some other design houses that have lost their founders and key creative geniuses. The houses of Christian Dior and Chanel both continue as high temples of Parisian fashion even without their namesakes. Closer to home, Gucci Group remains at the forefront of fashion without the family, while Moschino has also survived the death of its namesake.

Versace's status as a family company, with Santo as its chief business brains and Donatella as a fellow designer, may help the transition. In recent years, Donatella has come into her own as a stylist, overseeing the company's lower priced Istante and Versus lines, which accounted for 16 per cent of the company's $500m turnover in 1996.

While Donatella is often mentioned as her brother's likely successor at the helm of the company, bankers say her experience first as a model and later as a designer might not give investors the confidence they are seeking.

Versace officials are mum on the company's plans for now. In a statement released on Thursday, Donatella and Santo said: "We would like the world to be assured that the indomitable spirit, the amazing vitality and the faith in creativity that makes Gianni Versace so important to everyone, is something that we are completely committed to and most capable of continuing, as he would have wanted us to."

Dior has kept its image in recent years by hiring first Gianfranco Ferre to shoulder its image, and most recently by bringing in John Galliano, a British designer with a reputation for flash and flair. Chanel's top stylist is the German designer Karl Lagerfeld.

A more recent example is the house of Moschino, the Italian designer who died last year. Rather than close down the firm, his scissors were passed to a rising star in the field, Alberta Ferretti, and sales have continued to rise.

One key to Versace's future will be whether the company can change its image from that of the designer to that of a brand name, a path successfully trodden by Gucci, which rose from the ashes of a bitter family quarrel and murder of its heir apparent to become one of the hottest properties in fashion, and on Wall Street.

In 1995, Maurizio Gucci was gunned down by a hired killer outside his office in Milan, and his wife is currently awaiting trial for the murder. His killing came as the maker of luxury leather-goods and clothing was rebounding from years of losses.

Mr Gucci, the grandson of Guccio Gucci who founded the company earlier this century, was still working at the company although he had sold his half of the company to Investcorp in 1993. The Bahrain-based Investcorp had acquired the other half of the company from other descendants of the founder a few years before amid a family squabble over the company's future.

Gucci's new management quickly brought in a young Texan designer, Tom Ford, to revamp its product line and add new life to its ready-to-wear clothing. Since going public in October 1995, Gucci shares have surged as much as 366 per cent.

"Versace has to be thinking if there are any other Tom Fords out there somewhere," said Mr Casoni at Flemings.

Transforming Versace from legend into brand, of course, will be no simple task, mainly because the appeal of his clothing has been its characteristic flamboyance which the designer developed over 50 years, and which attracted celebrities such as singers Elton John and Michael Jackson to don his threads.

"It's a devastating blow both to the company and the family. In fashion, the founder or creator of a line of products is its main attraction," said Shelly Hale Young, an equity analyst at Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco.

"There will need to be a transition period before the company can start thinking about an IPO [initial public offering]."

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