Q+A: Renato Preti

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By: Jill Singer | June 1, 2009

Renato Preti could have retired. Now 53, the Italian made his fortune in finance, most recently as co-founder and managing partner of Opera, a Luxembourg-based private equity fund that invests in small lifestyle companies. (Opera owns a majority stake in B&B Italia and Unopiú, among others.) But early last year, Preti left private equity behind to start Skitsch, a new brand of furniture and accessories with a covetable roster of designers, a 6,500-square-foot flagship in Milan, and a business plan aimed at upending existing distribution models. Preti spoke to I.D. about the venture shortly before it debuted at the Milan Furniture Fair in April.

Where does the name Skitsch come from? In Italian, when you put an s in front of a word, it means the opposite. Kitsch is the ugly, the obvious, so Skitsch is the anti-kitsch. It also explains our mood, which isn’t traditional or boring. And of course it’s very difficult to find a name available on the internet.

What was the motivation for founding Skitsch? You left Opera before the bubble burst, so it clearly wasn’t the economy. My career was in finance, but my passion has always been design and art. My father had a small furniture business, and my grandfather was a producer of handmade iron doors, gates, and vases. Sitting on the board of furniture companies reignited my passion. I think there’s a huge opportunity in design now. For one, the market is fragmented, and the players are small. Cassina, B&B, Poltrona Frau—the total sales of those companies together is less than the sales of one Louis Vuitton shop. And the distribution is very limited. If you want to buy glasses, a mirror, a bed, and a chair, you have to shop at four different places, and usually these places are very boring.

How will the Skitsch store look by comparison? The Milan store has 13 windows, which I like because one of our keywords is light—meaning fun, fresh. There will be 17 or 18 video screens—with footage about the products, the designers, and nature—and a room to showcase our fragrances: high mountain snow, sunny grass, spring sprout, burnt wood. They’ll change each season.

You plan to distribute through monobrand shops, catalogs, and the website—a model similar to, say, Design Within Reach. How will Skitsch differentiate itself? I did study DWR, and though the business model is similar, the difference is that we produce our own collection. That means we have our own brand and our own style. The second difference is that we are Italian (laughs). The third is that we intend to have a very limited amount of beautiful stores located only in cities like London, Paris, maybe New York: cities where we can be seen not only by the residents but also by travelers. Because it’s at home that you make the decision. You check the measurements, you speak with your husband or wife. A good e-commerce site lets you see it in Milan but buy it at home in Madrid.

What brief did you give the designers? I don’t believe in houses that look like showrooms, so working for us means designers can express their own ideas without being constrained by a company style. When you dress up, you take Levi’s jeans, you put on a jacket from Marc Jacobs, a bag from Prada, and maybe some vintage shoes. So I tried, with our art director Cristina Morozzi, to put together a group of designers who represent different styles: minimalist, new baroque, ironic.

Altogether we’ve developed 95 different products, most manufacturered in Italy, many using recycled materials. We did go outside Italy for some pieces: Front did a cast-iron umbrella stand that looks like it’s melting, and we weren’t able to find anyone to do it locally. A factory in India sent back a beautiful piece. We wanted to do something very difficult for Maarten Baas, a table set that looks handmade even though it’s molded in porcelain, and we found a fantastic producer in Thailand. The brief I gave to all of the designers is that I wanted something that works well and is functional. I didn’t want something beautiful that doesn’t work. Who do you expect your customer will be? The prices range from €50 to €15,000. For €50, you can buy a cardboard chair for children by Philippe Nigro. €15,000 is the price of a mirrored cabinet by Joost van Bleiswijk, which is like a piece of art. So we expect the design student, the artist, and the gallerist, but also the billionaire. The idea came to me when I went to the Tate Modern. It has 8 million visitors every year, and when you look around you see the owner of Gucci, the student, the banker, the art critic. You have a strange cross-section of the public, but they all have in common a passion for contemporary, beautiful things. Do you worry about starting a new brand in this economic climate? The crisis will be a challenge but also an opportunity. We launched in Milan, but we’ll be at full speed in September, and by that time I think we’ll start to see some recovery. Even now, you see a drop all over with the exception of internet sales. And a lot of the smaller players will disappear because there are too many companies. It’s been difficult to explain to everybody that it’s not so crazy to start a project in this environment. Jill Singer is managing editor of I.D. Portrait by Ramak Fazel