Betta Carrano Makes a Comeback

At the height of his brand’s popularity in the 1980s, Italian shoemaker Andrea Carrano was running a $35 million business, juggling design licenses for Christian Dior and Alberta Ferretti and selling his eponymous line in nearly 400 stores around the world.

But when an illness struck the designer in 1992, he and his wife, Betta, downsized the 40-year-old business to focus on Carrano’s declining health. By 1999, less than two years after his death, Carrano’s wife was forced to shutter the once-booming brand that, at its peak, operated more than 25 branded boutiques, including doors on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., and New York’s Fifth Avenue.

“Looking back, maybe I should have kept the business open,” Betta Carrano said. “I had three kids who were in their teens. At the time, it was super difficult, and I had to choose.”

Now, nearly a decade later, Carrano has brought her husband’s name back to the shoe world and is focused on slowly and judiciously rebuilding the brand. A Rome native who has lived in New York since the 1980s, Carrano relaunched the collection in spring ’08 with a small offering of her husband’s trademark ballerina flats.

“We first opened a little store [in New York] and started doing wholesale,” she said. “I saw that people were remembering us [and] saying, ‘Oh, I got married in your white shoes,’ or ‘I was wearing these when I got my first job.’”

The initial success was small (about $1 million in wholesale) but tangible, and in the seasons since, Carrano’s three-person team has parlayed the collection into more than 50 styles of made-in-Italy flats retailing for less than $300.

Carrano and the brand’s managing director, David Zuravsky, also have sold the collection into about 65 retailers in the U.S. and another 10 internationally, slowly introducing the resurrected Andrea Carrano name to countries such as Australia, Japan and the Philippines.

Those moves, combined with the October 2008 unveiling of the Andrea Carrano store on New York’s Upper East Side and the planned debut of the Betta Carrano collection at FFANY next month, are some of the ways Carrano hopes to make her foray back into footwear a lasting one.

But in an increasingly shaky economy, with scores of small businesses being forced to downsize or close, Carrano said she knows there are big challenges ahead.

“Times are very difficult — I’m not telling you everything is flowers — but when you put it in your head to do it, you do it,” she said. “The economy is what it is. The most important thing is containing expenses, [and] our only expenses are [the team] and the store. That’s it.”

Retailer Ben Cardillo, owner of Boston-based Cuoio, carried the Andrea Carrano label 30 years ago and has picked it up once again. He said he was happy to see the line relaunched, and was glad it is still made at the same factory in Naples and offered at an accessible price point.

“Everything coming out of Italy has gotten so expensive, and considering the quality of the beautiful suedes and leathers they are using, [it was nice to see Betta] was able to keep the prices within reason,” he said.

That, Cardillo added, could be a critical selling point during a challenging economic environment.

“[With the terrible economy], some of these tried-and-true names matter,” he said. “The whole nostalgia thing can definitely be marketed and played on.”

But finding success during a poor economy is about more than just keeping costs down, Carrano said, and it’s one of the reasons she’s been zigzagging down the East Coast, personally meeting with retailers that carried Andrea Carrano at its height and approaching new potential customers.

Sarah Kesler, co-owner of Raleigh, N.C.-based clothing and shoe store Fleur, took on about five styles for fall ’08 after hearing Carrano’s story about reviving the brand. “I can sell her shoes better because I can explain why she makes them this way,” said Kesler, who has committed to another eight styles for spring ’09.

When not meeting with vendors and working at the New York store, Carrano also is preparing to launch an eponymous collection of boots and heels — an expansion to the flats offered in the Andrea Carrano line. She expects they will be picked up by many of the same retailers.

Craig Blattberg, owner of New York-based shoe store Diane B, said he was buying Andrea Carrano 20 years ago for another company and is planning to stock the new line. He said he expects good things from Betta Carrano, which will be produced at the same factory making the Andrea Carrano collection.

“Her shoes are well suited to sell in a time when people don’t want million-dollar shoes,” he said. “Her shoes are made in Italy, and the look and price are there. People don’t want to spend $900 on a pump anymore.”

Zuravsky, meanwhile, said he and Carrano are slowly building relationships with smaller retailers across the country before taking the Andrea Carrano line back to its previous department store clients, including Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“You have to make sure all your ducks are in a row,” said Zuravsky, who has worked for Cole Haan and Birkenstock. “You don’t get a lot of second chances with the majors, and we want to make sure everything is perfect before we go after them.”

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