Off the rails | Monocle

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As Victor La Fleur, 59, paces the cobbled streets of Verbania in Italy, locals stop and greet him. La Fleur is a well-known figure in his home town, having launched three clothes shops under his Viwa brand in the town over the past 24 years. The shops – Viwa, Viwa Due and Viwa Mix – sell menswear and womenswear, and are located within five minutes’ walking distance of each other. He’s also one of the most-admired fashion buyers in Italy – which might mean the world.

At a time when independent retailers continue to suffer at the hands of the multiples, La Fleur has built a business empire by taking a more thoughtful and gradual approach, skilfully differentiating each shop by carefully editing the mix of stock. With ambitions to launch his first shop outside Italy, La Fleur is redefining the concept of a retail chain.

“I’ve been in the fashion industry since I was born. My parents worked in the sweater business during the 1950s and 1960s. They exported clothes to Germany, Austria and Belgium, and also to California. If you go to Milan, you’re able to find so many shops. I didn’t want to be too commercial by having my shop there. I wanted to introduce good brands, of high quality, here in Verbania, because this is my home town. I opened Viwa, my first shop, in 1983. The name is a combination of the initials of the two business partners: myself and Walter Stanglini, my friend.

At Viwa, we stock 70 per cent menswear and 30 per cent womenswear. The collection is chic, classic and modern, with brands such as Aspesi, Zanone and Piombo. At Viwa Due, which we opened in 1993, we sell just womenswear and the stock is sportier, with brands such as Acne, Engineered Garments and Steven Alan. Viwa Mix opened in 2003 and stocks the new womenswear collections from younger brands such as Golden Goose, Humanoid and Notify. Adalberto Pironi did the interior for Viwa and Viwa Mix, and we change the window displays every 15 days.

It’s been a strategic move to open three shops with different propositions, and it’s helped us to improve and enlarge our turnover each year. Long term, I would like to open a shop in either Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Shanghai.

A good buyer must be informed, not only in fashion but in everything that surrounds him. I’m inspired by different things, such as my travels, reading and speaking to people in the fashion industry who keep their eye on the future. For spring/summer 2008, I think the hippie style could be a key look for the young. For women, I’ve been buying wide silk trousers, long jumpers, shirts with bows and leather jackets.

In the 1980s, the fashion industry was new and interesting. There are no big changes any more. My perception of the Italian market is that people are confused. My challenge is to bring good taste to the high street.”

The analyst’s view

“The Italian retail market is fragmented and full of small retailers. It is a difficult market to develop,” says Richard Perks, a senior retail analyst at global market research group Mintel International. According to Mintel, the Italian clothing market is worth €54bn, and is the third largest in Europe. Between 2007 and 2012, Italy’s retail market is expected to grow 12.2 per cent, with clothing retailers forecast to increase sales by 8.1 per cent. Italians are known for their promiscuous shopping habits. “These days, a retailer is only as good as this season’s ranges. Loyalty is not what it was,” adds Perks. Global expenditure on luxury products is expected to increase by 70 per cent to reach €316bn by 2012 – more than double its growth in the past five years.

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