Gunmaker Beretta aiming to use its cachet on clothes Va. gallery offers upscale fashion line


ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- In retailing, having the right name is everything. And Beretta hopes that soon, when you hear its name, you'll think not just of guns but of fashion.

Trading on nearly 500 years as one of the world's premier gunmakers, Beretta wants to become the total outfitter for the discriminating sportsman.

The company that offers you the $36,000 custom-made shotgun now brings you the $375 leather-trimmed tweed jacket to wear with it. And to complete the look, it offers "safari" pants, "sporting" shirts, "classic" rubber knee boots and a savannah hat.

Beretta, an Italian company whose U.S. operations are based in Accokeek, recently issued its first catalog of sportswear. And though Beretta has sold some sportswear through European shops, it has chosen the Old Town section of Alexandria for its first company store, the Beretta Gallery.

At the Alexandria gallery, the safari set, the skeet-shooting set, the horsey set and the don't-need-to-work-for-a-living set can outfit themselves for a weekend outdoors. For apres-hunt activity, they can buy a $150 hand-blown lead crystal brandy snifter decorated with wildlife scenes of Kenya.

"This is not a place where your average deer hunter is going to buy his clothing," says Robert L. Bonaventure, head of Beretta U.S.A. Corp.

Beretta's diversification is a smart move, says Lanny Herron, a business-strategy professor at the University of Baltimore. Retailers must distinguish themselves from competitors, and the Beretta nameplate is a crucial asset.

"Beretta is a powerful brand name. That's why General Motors wanted to use the name for its car. It says quality," Mr. Herron says. Still, he warns, Beretta's retail business could fail if the company tries to link its name with low-quality items.

Low quality? In a store whose first-floor library allows shoppers to snuggle in tufted leather chairs, beneath a mounted wild boar?

Customers can browse through offerings that include works by Ernest Hemingway, a guide to clay shooting, and cookbooks for venison, lobster and crab. Also for sale in the library, for $3,600, is a hand-carved basswood coffee table that duplicates a 40-inch-in-diameter underwater view of a well-stocked trout stream.

Beretta's new line of clothing and accessories is designed to capture the ambience of the English gentleman hunter. Gallery manager Thomas Jester compares the clothing with that made by Barbour, a British company specializing in sportswear for the affluent, but says it is designed to have "an Italian feel as far as fashion goes."

Lifting a light green sports shirt off the rack, Mr. Jester says,

"This shirt -- it's $60, but it's got all of the bells and whistles. It has two pockets, a place for your sunglasses, Beretta buttons, and it's 100 percent cotton. It will last. People will pay the price for good quality, and they associate our gun line with good quality."

The store also offers what Mr. Jester refers to as "Beretta values." They include a cotton cardigan with the corporate logo on the chest for $20; a denim shooting shirt with a quilted recoil pad in one shoulder for $28; and a cotton poplin shirt for $22.50.

At a table near the front door is a collection of colorful T-shirts, strategically placed to capture the attention of female shoppers. "We don't carry a women's line per se," Mr. Jester says, holding up a peach-colored cotton T-shirt, "but we have colors that lend themselves to lady shoppers and we order smaller sizes. The ladies buy the same things as the guys buy."

Judy Carter, a vacationing lawyer from Pittsburgh, bought a T-shirt with the Beretta sports line logo on the front "because nobody back home would have one like it."

Ms. Carter says she is not interested in guns but that her father has a Beretta shotgun. "It's a cherished possession," she says.

Beretta has been working hard to establish its name in the U.S. market. The big breakthrough came in the early 1980s, when it won a $100-million-plus military contract to replace the vintage Colt .45 with a semiautomatic 9mm weapon.

That deal, Mr. Bonaventure says, "put us on the map in the U.S."

Soon, Beretta was a household word. Bruce Willis brandished one in the "Die Hard" movies. And Berettas began showing up on the hips of law enforcement officers around the country, including troopers with the Maryland State Police.

Michael Pretl, legal counselor for Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, a gun-control lobbying group in Baltimore, finds it distasteful for people to pay more for clothing associated with weapons that kill. Still, the group does not oppose Beretta's new sportswear and accessories business, he says.

And, although the association wants to get guns off the streets, Beretta is not one of the companies it is primarily concerned about, Mr. Pretl says.

Beretta's handguns cost $150 to $1,500 -- excluding the gold-plated model -- much more than the "Saturday night specials" that worry police.

Beretta's retailing plans are uncertain. "If a big department store, a major chain, came to us and said, 'We would like to place your line in our stores,' we'd do it," Mr. Bonaventure says. "If this store does well," he says, "we may open another."

Baltimore could be a candidate for an expansion, he says, because many people in the area are involved in shooting sports and hunting and might want the Beretta look.

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