It's hard to imagine a more perfect face than Franca Foligatti's to represent Avon Celli, the Italian knitwear company whose motto could well be "modern luxury meets old-world craftsmanship." The Italian-born Foligatti looks not unlike the young Jackie Kennedy, via Milano and accessorized in a thoroughly modern vernacular—beginning with the red Prada bowling bag and gold leather broccato Gianni Bravo cowboy boots. "Avon Celli will continue to make its silks and cashmeres in the same wonderful way it always has: by hand and with great care," says Foligatti, who, on a dare from her father-in-law (who heads the company—don't ask, it's a long story), now runs Avon Celli North America. "But we also want it to be modern! And stylish! And the most luxurious piece of clothing you can put on your body."
A quick glance and you might think Foligatti just another fashiony New York powerbroker: She has standing reservations at the best restaurants and starts and ends each day with yoga. But she also has an ability to connect intimately with both her customers and her extraordinary product.
Founded in 1922 in Milan, Avon Celli produces some of the most beautiful knitwear in the world. Cashmere, silk, and Super 150s Tasmanian wool are used to produce shirts and sweaters—some of which are woven on 36-gauge (36 needles per inch) looms, the same machines that wove women's stockings in the 1920s. Each garment is painstakingly hand-detailed; women's sweaters, for example, are often adorned with intricate embroidery or crystal beading. Avon Celli specializes in indulgently soft knits, from lightweight "millionaire cashmere" and "white baby camel" (the superfine hair found under a camel's coarser outercoat) to the "large macaroni" sweater ($2,200) that requires 24 hours of hand-knitting.
"When Mr. Celli started the company in the twenties," Foligatti explains, "it was a time of the avant-garde and great cultural ferment in Italy. People were talking about culture, art, movies, and they were looking for new ways to dress. Knitwear was seen as a way of reinventing the wardrobe for men, and sweaters were starting to be looked at as dresswear."
Avon Celli didn't begin importing its knits into the United States until 1957, but they caught on immediately, especially in Hollywood among the likes of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn. In 1998, the Italian knitwear company FBP S.p.A. purchased Avon Celli, and Franca Foligatti was appointed president of FBP USA Inc. Since then the company has grown nearly eight-fold, and the label is now carried in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Louis Boston in Boston, and Stanley Korshak in Dallas. Foligatti's next challenge, she says, is to cater to a younger customer through the introduction of Andrea Fenzi, a more easygoing men's sportswear line to be launched this fall.
"I adore America," Foligatti adds. "It's where you have to be today if you want to understand the future."
For information: 212-246-6022.