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Tailors to super rich seek state aid

Everyone in Italy's clothing industry is begging for state aid, but some of the loudest cries for help are coming from the exclusive haute couture segment known more for extravagance than humility.

Rome's couturiers - who included the likes of Valentino and Roberto Capucci in their heyday - are struggling as even the super-rich cut back on the custom-fitted, hand-sewn dresses that can easily cost 10,000 euros (US$12,740) or more.

Couturiers face strong competition in their bid for aid as a growing list of players in Italy's 66-billion-euro fashion sector extend open palms amid a deepening recession.

Italy has already pledged US$1.7 billion in aid to car makers and over US$15 billion for banks, and the fashion sector is lining up hoping to be next, pointing to a 4 percent slide in sales last year and forecasts of a 5 percent fall this year.

At the high-end, Gattinoni, one of Rome's oldest fashion houses, says its haute couture sales slid 40 percent last year to prompt the first loss in its 62-year history.

And organizers of Rome High Fashion week that ended last month say the crisis forced three stylists to abandon plans to participate.

"Until about two years ago you could just about maintain an atelier, but the crisis has dealt us the final blow," Gattinoni Chairman Stefano Dominella said at his atelier, where tailors measured silky fabric and sewed beads on to bustiers.

He rejects arguments that the luxurious world of haute couture is an unlikely candidate for state support.

Rome's couture scene may lack the glamor of Paris and has shrunk to a handful of houses, but the roots of Italian fashion lie in its ateliers that are veritable "museums" housing archives of sketches and time-honored techniques, he said.

"We are the smallest and the easiest to rescue," he argued, citing sales of 1 to 2 million euros a year for most couturiers. "If you had to choose between saving a museum and saving a fashion (chain) outlet, which one would you choose?"


With the help of fashion dynasty member Santo Versace, who is also a law maker in the ruling coalition, Dominella has begun lobbying the government for 30 percent tax breaks.

Miffed that fashion was recently overlooked for aid in favor of the appliance and furniture industries, the head of the fashion lobby Sistema Moda Italia told Senate law makers last month that Italy's clothing sector risked "going to pieces."

Already weighed down by the third-largest debt pile in the world, Italy's government is unlikely to favor haute couture amid all the competing demands for aid, says Armando Branchini, head of InterCorporate, a fashion consulting firm.

"If having culture, craftsmanship and tradition is the reason to get aid, then that would be true for 99 percent of Italian consumer goods," he said.

"Frankly, an intervention for haute couture in Italy would be impossible and meaningless."

Haute couture represents only a fraction of Italy's clothing sector and the government would be more likely to consider help for the broader textiles and fashion industry instead, he said.

While they wait for the government to act, Roman couturiers are busy looking at other avenues to drum up business.

Dominella, for example, suggests opening up the ateliers to tourists or including couture presentations in travel packages offered by luxury tour operators.

Sylvio Giardina of the Rome-based Grimaldi Giardina couture duo favors state aid but says just having the sector overseen by Italy's culture ministry rather than the tourism portfolio would help.

"Fashion is often considered something trivial, but in reality it maintains historic values and ancient craftsmanship," said Giardina, who estimates sales fell 40 percent last year after a sharp slowdown in the last four months.

"If the artisans disappear, so will high fashion," he said.


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