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Valentino enters new growth phase under Qatari ownership

By Astrid Wendlandt

PARIS, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Valentino, the Italian fashion brand recently snapped up by Qatar's royal family, continues to enjoy strong demand and plans a new global expansion phase, with flagship store openings in the works, its head said on Tuesday.

Chief Executive Stefano Sassi said the label was benefiting from access to new funds after private equity firm Permira

sold it to the Qataris this summer for 700 million euros ($903.4 million).

"Now is the time for making major investments and boost the business," Sassi told Reuters after the brand presented its spring/summer 2013 collection in Paris.

"There will be new boutiques, new flagships, everywhere," Sassi said, adding that meant in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He did not say how many stores would be opened in the short-term.

Asked if he was often in contact with the brand's new owners, Sassi replied: "This is a sensitive issue."

But he added: "It is a personal style of management, we have a fantastic relationship so far, things are going well and there are opportunities to accelerate our growth more and more."

Asked if he had met Sheikha Mozah, glamorous wife of Qatar's emir and one of the world's biggest buyers of haute couture, who has spearheaded the emirate's investment in fashion, Sassi replied: "This is top secret."

Sassi said not much would change under Qatari ownership.

He was staying in his job and Valentino would keep its duo of designers, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who replaced several designers after founder Valentino Garavani retired in 2008.

Sassi said the brand was not seeing any slowdown in China, where it makes about 40 percent of its sales.

"People in China want exclusivity, high-end products, so we are benefiting from that," he said.

Sassi said Valentino sales in directly operated shops globally were up 33 percent in the month of September alone against the same period last year and up 26 percent in the nine months to Sept. 30.

Asked about the brand's sales growth worldwide, including revenues from wholesale, he said the figures were higher but did not wish to give details.

Valentino is the latest fashion brand to say it has not yet been affected by Europe's debt problems and China's economic slowdown, echoing positive trading updates from rivals Christian Dior , Lanvin and Hermes at Fashion Week.

Sassi was speaking after the brand's catwalk show, attended by Valentino Garavani and Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

Critics said Chiuri and Piccioli had not taken any risks with the new collection, which featured soft pink long chiffon dresses with schoolgirl round collars and little black lace dresses with part see-through tops.

"It is as always, beautiful luxury/ They (the designers) always celebrate beauty, our clients love it," said Linda Fargo, head of women's fashion at U.S. store chain Bergdorf Goodman.

($1 = 0.7749 euros) (Editing by Catherine Evans)

((astrid.wendlandt@thomsonreuters.com)(33149495440)(Reuters

Messaging: astrid.wendlandt.thomsonreuters@reuters.net))

Keywords: FASHION VALENTINO/