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Sferra looks ahead after 110 years

Fine linen importer Sferra Bros. reached a major milestone this month as it celebrated its 110th year in business. Building on its long history, Sferra looks to expand its business with new marketing approaches, as an increased focus on its best customers and their needs, said Paul Hooker, president.

Now a significant player in the luxury market, Sferra will celebrate the anniversary all year long, Hooker said, starting with the January winter markets, where it will roll out a number of new introductions.

Hooker also added that, for the first time, Sferra will "target who we consider our very best customers, region by region, with the intent of growing their businesses in 2002."

Previously, Sferra didn't focus heavily enough on its core group of customers, he said. However, "We plan to change that in our 110th year with new marketing approaches that we are very excited about." That will include additional market support, as well as a yet-unnamed select private label line that will be regionally exclusive. Hooker hoped to unveil this new concept in the first quarter, and the line will include mostly percales, ranging from 200- to 410-count, and sateens, including a 300-count, in such colors as white, ivory, celedon, butter and shades of rose. The products will also have exclusive hem treatments such as pleating, scalloping and various types of drawn hems.

In addition, Sferra will also introduce an expansion of upscale basics, including an Italian Egyptian cotton 300-count hemstitched sateen and Sanforized pique program in an assortment of soft colors. (An oversized queen flat sheet, 96 " x 114", will retail for less than $120, and the Sanforized queen pique blanket cover will retail for less than $260.) A coordinating Italian print on the same sateen fabric will also be available, retailing for less than $150 for an oversize queen printed flat sheet.

Sferra will also slowly expand its group of classic prints to create collections instead of singular introductions, and the recent addition of JoAnn Piccininni as director of product development will help in this effort, he said.

Hooker added, "We are not interested in opening Sferra retail outlets, as our competitors have. Rather, we want to work with our existing customers, not compete against them." Based on that, he added, Sferra's website, to be launched in January, will be strictly informational.

The site will instead lead visitors to nearby retail stores that carry Sferra.

Brothers Enrico and Albert Sferra started the business in 1891 importing Italian handmade table linens and lace cuffs and collars that were made by nuns in the convents throughout Northeast Italy. The company later expanded its product line by importing Irish and Belgium linens in the 1950s, French Alençon lace in the 1960s and hand embroideries from Madeira and Azores in the 1970s. Sferra then began working with textile mills to develop Italian-spun Egyptian cotton fine linens fashioned to suit the tastes and needs of a growing luxury niche.

After two generations of Sferra ownership, Hooker and George Matouk, president and owner of John Matouk & Company, purchased Sferra in 1977.

Today the main country of importation for Sferra is Italy, Hooker said, and the line now includes bedding, bath, table and baby products, though bedding represents the majority of its sales, which add up to between $20 million and $30 million annually. The business has also shifted from embroidery to mostly woven jacquards, percales and sateens, though some Italian embroidery is still done. Sferra works with many mills, but most of its production comes from 10 mills worldwide, with the majority from the best mills in Italy.

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