Italian Designers Laud Efforts To Uncover Graft in Industry

MILAN fashion designers, under the judicial microscope for alleged bribes to tax inspectors, are taking Italy's latest corruption scandal in their stride, with some even congratulating magistrates for a job well done.

Last week, graft-busting magistrates grilled Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferre, and Krizia, three of the top names in the business, over allegations they paid money to tax inspectors. The designers say the inspectors demanded the sums in exchange for favorable audits.

Lawyers, who confirmed that their clients appeared in court as witnesses and at the request of magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, say the alleged bribes were extortion payments.

Unlike most people caught up in Italy's two-year bribery and corruption scandals, some designers are actually thanking magistrates for helping weed out a corrupt system.

``The investigations being carried out are important for all of us and for Di Pietro and his fellow magistrates,'' says Krizia, whose real name is Mariuccia Mandelli. (The sum Krizia is reported to have paid was $200,000.)

Designer Valentino, who has not been caught up in the scandal, also lauded Mr. Di Pietro. ``If a better Italy emerges from the investigations, then we are all ready to accept the consequences,'' he says.

Mr. Armani said he was not worried about potential damage to the fashion and textiles industry, which contributes 6 percent of Italy's total economic output. ``This `minor incident' cannot scratch an image created over two decades of positive results,'' he wrote in a newspaper editorial.

But others in the Italian fashion industry, whose ready-to-wear shows began last weekend, say the scandal has cast a long shadow.

Vittorio Missoni, whose family is one of the biggest names in the industry, said designers' morale was sinking and that the scandal could not have broken at a worse time.

``I can really understand some of my colleagues' bitterness,'' he says. ``You devote your life to creating an image and building a reputation, and within minutes your name is mud.''

``The news has already soiled the `Made in Italy' label,'' says Giuseppe Della Schiava, head of the National Chamber of Fashion. ``The timing was just too perfect.... I believe the fact that the news broke right now is part of a propaganda campaign against Italian fashion.''

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