Catwalk helps brighten Milan gloom

Ignoring the age-old rule that skirts should get longer, not shorter, when the markets tumble, designers exhibiting at Milan's fashion week are countering the doom and gloom emanating from the nearby Milan stock exchange with a series of colourful shows.

Compared with other sectors of the Italian economy, which has endured an awful week after the downgrading of government debt, the €63 billion ($110 billion) fashion industry is booming - with 15,000 buyers, 70 catwalk shows, 150 collections and 2000 journalists.

"In dark times like this, we need joyful and romantic clothes," said Anna Molinari, with a collection covered in rose designs.

Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Molinari have all opened new stores in Milan to coincide with fashion week. Even tyre manufacturer Pirelli got in on the act, with Naomi Campbell opening its new high-end clothes outlet.

"The designers have a good feeling; they are against pessimism and they are not reading the papers," said Italian journalist Cinzia Malvini, who has followed the Milan shows for two decades. "9/11 disorientated the business, but now people are getting used to anything thrown at them and are tougher."

Despite the upbeat mood, there may be trouble ahead. The 4 per cent growth predicted by the National Chamber of Fashion this month contrasts with the 11 per cent figure it was quoting as recently as June.

"There is the fear that we will have 2008 all over again, which caused the market to shrink by 15 per cent in 2009," admitted Mario Boselli, head of Italy's Chamber of Fashion.

Financial expert Roberto Spada, who has rescued insolvent designers, said he was concerned many family-run Italian fashion firms lacked expertise to face up to a long recession. "Apart from the designers bought by French groups like Gucci and Fendi, and firms like Prada and Ferragamo, who have listed on the markets, many firms are still stuck in the 70s when it comes to running things."

But whether 2012 turns out to be another 2009, designers can look for solace to the emerging "Bric" countries - Brazil, Russia, India and most of all China - where fashion retail sales grew 24 per cent in the first half of 2012 and which have just overtaken North America as Gucci's biggest market.

That is why people took notice when popular Chinese actress Yang Mi showed up for the Gucci show. "Of the Bric nations, Russia is still the top destination for Italian fashion, but China is growing fastest," said Boselli.


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