By Isla and Binnie
MILAN (Reuters) - Italian fashion exports should spur the industry back to growth in 2014 after two years in decline, the national chamber of fashion says, as Milan prepares to kick off the first of its biannual menswear shows on Saturday.
The birthplace of fashion icons from Giorgio Armani to Dolce and Gabbana should see turnover from clothing and accessories rise 5.4 percent to 62.5 billion euros (51.85 billion pounds) in 2014, according to the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI).
But CNMI says it is too soon to talk about a true bounce back to levels seen in 2010 and 2011, when the luxury industry was buoyed by fast growth in China and a resurgence in Europe and the United States.
"The numbers are resoundingly positive, better than we expected... but one should always be wary," CNMI president Mario Boselli told Reuters.
Fellow industry body Sistema Moda Italia (SMI) also forecasts growth for 2014, by 2.1 percent in the first half.
Exports should rise to 76 percent of total Italian fashion sales in 2014, boosted by markets like the United States and Hong Kong, CNMI says.
CNMI's forecast reflects an improvement in the global economy, pulled by the U.S., and healthier demand in China, where a crackdown on gift-giving has removed "froth" from sales figures, especially for menswear, said Exane BNP Paribas analyst Luca Solca.
Consultancy Bain & Co, which says the luxury sector is slowing although real growth in 2013 outpaced the previous year, said in October that the Americas have overtaken Asia as the market's main growth engine.
The Italian market, struggling to emerge from recession, will remain weak but CNMI says domestic sales rose slightly in the third quarter of 2013 compared to the previous quarter.
Fashion companies in France, which CNMI says was Italian fashion's top customer in 2013, are also relying heavily on sales abroad to make up for declining spending at home.
A study by the French Fashion Institute (IFM) in July 2013 found that 87 percent of sales made by a sample of thirty member companies were made from exports, primarily to Asia.
FOCUS ON QUALITY
The route to growth for Italian fashion companies is to promote the high quality associated with Italian manufacturing, said Carlo Pambianco, president of consultancy Pambianco.
"The big groups are doing well because they are all present in the markets that are strongest at the moment: the United States, Russia, China, South-East Asia, Korea, the Middle East," said Pambianco.
"These markets want high-quality products, with a strong brand, distributed through directly-operated shops."
Italian men's fashion is lagging the overall growth trend, however, and sales will not start to grow until later in the year, according to industry body Sistema Moda Italia (SMI).
SMI found that a sample of men's clothing and accessories makers had received lower orders for their spring-summer 2014 collections last October than they had at the same point a year earlier, but that prospects for the second half of the year were better.
"Obviously it is a number that we don't like and that worries us and that we will pay close attention to, but it is not a threat for the sector," SMI president Claudio Marenzi told Reuters.
"Each fashion business needs to concentrate on its own know-how and the Made in Italy brand."
($1 = 0.7361 euros)
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Tom Heneghan)