Worn in comfort, eyed with pleasure: Sentirsi bene when in Artisti Italiani

Forget painful fashion – sexy «torture» tools such as high, uncomfortable heels, or tight corsets. Think of fashion as relaxing and smooth, where «Sentirsi Bene» (To feel good) becomes a mantra for being comfortable. «We don’t buy clothes because we need them, we buy them because they make us feel better,» says Lena Papalexopoulou-Unver, owner and vice president of Concept, the mother company of ARTISTI ITALIANI, a well-known clothing brand. For Artisti Italiani clients, the company’s «Sentirsi Bene» motto is a feel-good factor which translates into a combination of fashionable clothes and accessories, sensible pricing and the best possible quality. It is a kind of awareness and expectation which helps the brand develop. «You must know what the brand stands for, it must have a clear personality and everything you do must support and build on that,» says Papalexopoulou-Unver. Destined for an audience of opinion leaders, rather than stand-out trendsetters, the Artisti Italiani brand is all about discreet sensuality, rather than oversexiness. And this has not changed over the years. Born in Florence, Italy, at the end of 1960, the Artisti Italiani brand initially evolved around two expert shirtmakers, who concentrated on making top-quality shirts for men. In 1985, two Greek businessmen brought the brand to Greece, where the label acquired a new dimension. Ten years later, Artisti Italiani was the top-selling brand in Greece, having developed full-range men’s and women’s collections. For internal reasons, however, the company went bankrupt in 1996, closing down all 26 Greek outlets – with the exception of one. Enter the highly dynamic husband-and-wife team of Papalexopoulou-Unver and Zeki Unver (currently president and general manager of Concept). Having bought the corner shop which at the time housed the last remaining Artisti Italiani store, the couple took a look at the brand, and discovered the label’s enduring power and potential. In 1999, their company, Assoluto, acquired the rights for the Artisti Italiani brand in Greece, while last year, it purchased the Italian company which owned the brand worldwide. These days, an in-house design team develops two main annual collections, which are then produced in Greece and abroad, and eventually sold in 14 shops scattered in Athens, Thessaloniki, Larissa and Crete (including one busy store in Kifissia and another due to open in Omonia Square)as well as a franchise store operating in Bulgaria and a licensing agreement for a chain of 14 shops in Poland. «Clients are thirstier and there is less competition,» says Papalexopoulou-Unver of the Eastern Europe development, adding, nevertheless that «without underrating the importance of Eastern Europe, if we have to raise the image even further, to establish the brand as an important player in the fashion business, we have to start with Western Europe.» Projecting sales for 1.2 million units to be sold this year, Artisti Italiani’s mother company, Concept, is currently absorbing Assoluto (owner of Artisti Italiani) as well as Cool Brands, which includes a majority stake in the Greek branch of Maui & Sons. Founded in California in 1980, Maui & Sons soon became a must-have label for the surfing crowd, while its European branding is based more on street-style looks. Managed by Dimitris Xanthakos, the local branch of Maui & Sons is master licensee of Maui & Sons for all of Europe (except Italy). For the European market, the collections are designed in Greece, with local designers working closely with the California design team. With a clientele ranging from teens to those in their early 20s, the Greek-based company is now serving 1,600 selling points in Greece and the rest of Europe. How tough is it to operate in the Greek clothing business, besieged as it by foreign brands, which in the final analysis caters to a particularly brand-conscious clientele? «With a market which shrinks on average by 2 or 3 percent a year, it’s extremely tough if you don’t have a good brand name,» says Papalexopoulou-Unver. Artisti Italiani’s seasonal collections include the City line, a combination of top-quality garments defined by a classical and discreetly modern silhouette; the Casual line, which includes practical yet elegant clothes; the Jeans line, featuring easy-to-wear items, and the women-only Trendy line, cool and comfortable, incorporating seasonal fads. The season’s look is further enhanced by high-quality fabrics – pure 100-percent wool, linen or cotton or combinations such as wool and elastan – Italian knitwear and belts and shoes made in Italy with mostly Italian fabrics. Production takes place in many countries around the world. In the modern, spacious and inviting Artisti Italiani outlets, where new deliveries arrive every two or three weeks, the season’s colors include framboise, lilac and lavender for women, while the little black dress comes with a touch of lace. Also for women, there are pinstriped pant suits and diagonally striped shirts. In the men’s department, top-quality Italian fabrics account for well-tailored suits, while colorful shirts, warm suede and traditional corduroy define the current classic Artisti Italiani look. Though the company is not ready to go public – according to Papalexopoulou-Unver this could be feasible in two years’ time, and not just limited to the Greek stock exchange – Concept’s, and consequently the Artisti Italiani, brand is clearly a business with an international scope, playing according to global rules and standards. Yet in an era of supreme luxury brand addiction and fashion designer adoration, what kind of comfort dream are companies such as Artisti Italiani selling? «People are attached to the glamour and the names, of course, but what we have to strive to do is to make sure that our customers have the attachment to the brand, for other reasons, such as the ‘Sentirsi Bene’ idea for instance; by delivering what they want at the right prices, in fashion, we will gain their loyalty,» says Papalexopoulou-Unver. Constantly balancing between creativity and business and following two years of investment, at the tender age of three, the revived Artisti Italiani brand is about to turn profitable. With current expansion in eyewear and a brand-new division of leather goods, including PC cases and other practical items, on the one hand, and persistent long-distance calls asking for collaborations in France, Spain, Mexico and Cyprus, on the other, Papalexopoulou-Unver remains as focused as ever. «You have to keep reinforcing the brand everyday, while always being ahead of the game, determining what fashion will be like 18 months in advance, for instance, and adapting it to your brand’s personality, while being there before anyone else,» she says. «You are always racing against time, and keeping in touch with your consumer is crucial.»