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Fashion Upstart Leaves Family Business to Create Brand

In order to succeed in the fashion business, you can't just follow current trends, you have to set the trends of the future. It is a fickle business that has seen many smart, hard-working people fail in spectacular fashion.

Gianni Castiglioni, founder and CEO of the burgeoning Italian fashion brand Marni, is one man who has managed to avoid the pit-falls that have tripped up so many others in the business.

Castiglioni entered the family business immediately after completing his studies. In 1973, he joined his parents at CiwiFurs, a fur company they founded in the 1950s. In 1994, he and his wife Consuelo, founded Marni, an eclectic line of women's clothing and accessories that was an immediate success.

"Our fur company has long been producing fur garments for many of the world's top fashion houses, including Fendi, Prada, Dior and Louis Vuitton," said Castiglioni, who was in Shanghai to launch Marni's first mainland boutique at Plaza 66 last week. "However, at that time, we felt that we wanted to produce something of our own."

Born designer

Despite never studying design, Consuelo was named the company's chief designer.

"I would say that she is a born designer," Castiglioni said with a smile. "Consuelo is always ahead of the trend. She doesn't follow the trend, but makes the trend."

With the use of silks, cashmeres, fur and other couture fabrics, Consuelo is creating an avant-garde wave that rides between exceptional couture clothing and a purist approach to materials, lines and silhouettes.

The first collection for Marni was a fur collection. The designer presented fur in an easy to wear way. Although Marni has developed itself into a leading Italian brand with a 360-degree collection of clothing and accessories, fur is still included in every collection.

In recent years, more and more international brands are opening shops in China. Castiglioni's optimism leaves one wondering if he is aware of the fierce competition.

"We're not looking for a huge market in China. As we are all over the world, we're aiming at a niche market," he emphasized. "We focus our energies to reach a growing number of fashion-conscious consumers who are moving away from designer uniforms towards a mix of authentic separates.

"In my opinion, our clothes are very appealing to the Asian women and fit them well. Marni brings a very feminine way of dressing, and the customers here understand it well."

In fact, before launching its very first own boutique in Shanghai, the company has been testing the market by distributing clothes at a shop at Three on the Bund for more than two years.

"Shanghai is quickly transforming itself into a great international city, and we believe it's the right time to introduce the full Marni concept in its own environment to the customers here," he said.

"About five years ago, I came to China for the first time. At that time, I thought the market was not ready yet," he continued. "However, since then, I've witnessed the huge changes happening here. I see new shops, I see changes in people's taste, and their way of dressing, I see the growing of the middle class. The China market is huge, and will become a key market for us in the near future."

The company will launch another boutique in Beijing early next year and plans to open 10 mainland shops within five years.

According to Castiglioni, Marni's target customers in China are those between the ages of 30 and 50. Meanwhile, they also expect to extend the brand to younger generation. The main problem is the price range.

Marni has 220 select clients in Europe, North and South America and Asia. Its distribution strategy is aimed at further development of sales to an even more selective clientele. The idea is to radically develop its retailing capacities in a relatively short time.

The company's sales revenue for 2005 has reached 80 million euros (US$96.83 million), up 30 percent from a year earlier.

Marni opened its first flagship stores in London and Milan in 2000. So far, it owns 45 boutiques around the world, including the new Shanghai outlet. Each store features a unique interior design.

To globalize the brand while accelerating the business development, the company carefully chooses its partners all over the world. In Shanghai, it decided to cooperate with LLN Ltd, the retail company founded by Handle Lee (co-chairman of Three on the Bund), Jimin Lee, and Angelo Negero, a threesome of long-time veterans in the lifestyle and fashion arena.

"The local partners know more about the local market, and how it can be developed to the fullest," Castiglioni said. "Meanwhile, we share our own experiences with them. In this way, we will be able to implement an effective growth strategy focusing on the local market trends, and at the same time be able to maintain our core image and identity."

While the company doesn't advertise, extensive coverage in fashion magazines and the preferences of fashion icons all over the world are perhaps the best advertisement for its products.

Castiglioni said he loves fashion, but he is by no means a "fashion victim." He has never thought of not joining the family business because "in Italy, it is really normal for people to join the family business after their studies."

(Shanghai Daily April 18, 2006)

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