Before Pietro Negra, founder and president of Italian womenswear brand Pinko, settles into his interview with Drapers at his Milan showroom, he asks a few questions of his own. The first thing he wants to know is how Kate Moss's collection for Topshop is performing. Negra's brand is famed for its association with some of the world's most glamorous women - Eva Herzigova, Elle Macpherson, Mariah Carey and Naomi Campbell have all modelled for Pinko in recent years - but that is not the reason for his interest.
Negra is about to launch a fresh push in the UK, having brought his high energy, high gloss take on womenswear to this country in 2005, and he is keen to know how the market is performing. When told that rumour has it the Moss collection achieved sales of £3.5 million in the first week alone, he puffs gently, raises his eyebrows and mutters a quiet "bravo".
While he clearly admires the initiative and understands the value of celebrity association, Negra won't be slugging it out with the likes of Topshop or its rivals, such as H&M and New Look, on the UK high street. "Everybody is making very cheap clothing and using celebrity-designed collections to distract the client from the product. They're all doing the same thing, and to give themselves an identity they use celebrities," he says. "It's become a commodity. Our objective is different."
When Pinko started out as a brand in its own right in the early 1990s (it was previously a "jobbing" manufacturer having been founded as a spin-off by Negra from parent company Crisconf), it was one of the forerunners of the fast-fashion movement and was positioned squarely in the eye of the high street fashion storm - the middle market. But about four or five years ago, as Negra witnessed the growing threat from global players such as H&M and Zara, he made a conscious decision to move upmarket. Pinko is now a "designer bridge-brand".
Its new market position is evidenced by the brand's appearance in some of the UK's top department stores - it has shop-in-shops in Harvey Nichols in London, Edinburgh and Manchester, as well as Selfridges and Harrods in London - and the locations it chooses for its stores. Its first UK standalone was opened in 2005 on Brompton Road in south-west London, and is about to be joined by a second at the Sloane Square end of King's Road in September.
The Brompton Road store got off to a "shy" start when it opened, and Negra admits he was shocked by the expense of running a business in London. The unhappy combination of high rent and a strong pound did not help. However, the store was refurbished and a glamorous party during London Fashion Week in February, which was attended by Mariah Carey, boosted its profile and its profits. Negra is now confident enough to open a second store. "We're convinced that King's Road is going to perform even better than Brompton Road," he says. The "energy and atmosphere" of the location is, he believes, "more similar to the product".
At first glance the product, with its clinging fabrics, short hemlines, glitzy embellishments and bright colours, does look like it will go down well with Chelsea's young and glamorous clubbers, but Negra is adamant that its appeal is broader than it seems. Indeed, the brand's name is a truncation of the Italian phrase "Pinko Pallino", which means anyone and everyone, and is roughly the equivalent of the British phrase "Joe Bloggs". Negra says he likes the term because it means he is not targeting a particular demographic group.
The age of the Pinko customer depends purely on her outlook, he believes. "A woman doesn't really change her style," he says, arguing that if a woman is a classic dresser, a quirky dresser or a statement dresser, she always will be. Things just get tweaked along the way, unless a life-altering event comes along and changes things. "It depends on what happens in a woman's life - if you don't suffer a major trauma, if you don't change your state of mind, you don't change your style. Maybe you wear longer skirts but that's it," he says, adding that a Pinko customer could be anything from 20 to 50 years old.
He despatches an assistant to locate a dress from the spring 07 collection that he feels embodies the Pinko ethos and will prove his point. A fuchsia stretch satin party dress duly arrives, along with a chunky folder of press cuttings showing a variety of celebrities of all ages wearing it (on the street, at parties and in one instance on the red carpet at Cannes) and various fashion shoots in which it is styled with or without its removable straps, on its own, or over a contrasting brightly coloured T-shirt. George Bush's niece Lauren was given her bright blue version (see picture right) to keep after modelling it as she liked it so much.
It is deceptively versatile and, as such, reasonably priced at about £145. Available in black, white, green, red, bright blue, orange and the aforementioned fuchsia, the dress has been the success story of the season. For autumn 07 Negra is predicting that the brand's berets will set the tills ringing at its 750 outlets across the globe. The cute hats come in a variety of colours and fabrications, all of which feature the Pinko brand splashed across them in crystals.
Those who doubt the wisdom of such overt branding on accessories need only look at one of Pinko's other best sellers - the Pinko Bag - for reassurance. The bag, a simple tote that has "Pinko Bag" emblazoned on it, comes in an array of colours and is the label's signature piece. So popular is it that it has spawned a number of imitators ('Pink Bags' are a popular sight on the streets of Italy and even London) and on a recent trip to Tuscan beach resort Forte dei Marmi, where the brand has a store, Negra spotted a stall selling fakes. But rather than send in the brand police, he just laughed. "I'm flattered!" he says, throwing his arms in the air.
But that is not to say the brand does not matter to him and that he won't be fiercely protective when need be. Beyond the addition of a second standalone store in the UK, Negra is looking to add to its wholesale business, which currently stands at 30 accounts serviced from its showroom in London's Bond Street. He aims to take this to about 45 by the end of 2008, via strictly controlled distribution, as well as adding further shop-in-shops and standalones, which should take UK sales to about £8m at the end of 2008 (they are predicted to reach £4.4m by the end of 2007). Franchising is a route he is considering but he is cautious of potentially ceding control of his brand.
Likewise, licensing offers potential for expansion - eyewear and cosmetics are being considered - but Negra feels the need to build the Pinko brand further first. "In order to license the brand has to be very, very strong," says Negra. "The problem is that the licensee wants to sell as much as possible and the one who gives the licence wants to preserve the brand, and these two things are not always compatible." The best brand in the world, he believes, is Louis Vuitton, "because it has one brand, it sells direct, it owns its stores, no licensing, no second line, no mess."
Central to Pinko's brand values is its "Made in Italy" credentials. To design and manufacture on its home turf is a conscious move, which Negra claims helps to distance the brand from cheaper rivals and helps it to retain its unique point of view. "If you go to some stores you can see that the prototype may be made in the UK, but they're going to the same place as everyone else to get it made and it all ends up the same."
A typical Pinko collection is divided into two main phases: Pinko Black forms the main collection; and a mini-collection, Pinko White, comes later in the season. To keep the offering fresh, throughout the season eight to 10 new pieces are made available to its wholesale accounts, via its website, every week. Pinko only uses Italian-based designers and Italian fabrics and the majority of its production is carried out at its Fidenza base in the heart of Italy's textile and clothing district. However, some finishing and hand tailoring is carried out in Eastern Europe to keep costs down.
"If you want to keep to a certain price, product that is hand-tailored has to go somewhere else, otherwise you get into Armani pricing," he explains. "The prototype, the study, the strategy of the line for the season is done by a team in Italy that work together, and that is what makes us different. We want to be strictly made in Italy and put our know-how into the collection."
While he is serious about the "Made in Italy" label, the other key message of the Pinko brand is fun, says Negra. He wants women to have fun in his clothes and in his stores, which is what he hopes will happen in the King's Road shop. "The concept is that the woman should go into the store, enjoy things, spend time trying things on and in the end, hopefully, buy something."
Buying clothes should not be a problem, believes Negra, and neither should the business of selling or making them.
"Problems are war and the environment, not clothing. We're lucky to work in this part of the world and in an industry that is fashion and that doesn't make you stressed," he says. "There are some really, really bad jobs out there and we're not doing them."
Given that it is hard to track down a picture of Negra when he is not flanked by some of the world's most beautiful women, it is not surprising he enjoys his job so much. But would he ever trust one of them beyond a modelling contract and commission them to design a collection? He pauses - such a move might run counter to his philosophy of employing only expert designers - but, perhaps reflecting on those Kate Moss for Topshop sales figures, he replies: "Like James Bond, I never say never."
- Founded in the late 1980s by Pietro Negra as a spin-off from parent group Crisconf
- Launched as a brand in its own right in the early 1990s
- It takes its name from the Italian equivalent of "Joe Bloggs", Pinko Pallino
- Global sales are in excess of EUR100m (£67m), 80% of which are domestic
- Its headquarters is in Fidenza, in the heart of the Italian textiles district
- In 2005 it sold a total of 1.6m garments
- In the UK it has one store on London's Brompton Road, and a second will open shortly on King's Road
- It also runs five shop-in-shops and has about 30 wholesale accounts in the UK.