UPDATE 1-Versace sees good start to 2014 after sales rise 17 pct in past year

Thu Mar 27, 2014 1:49pm EDT

(adds details, strategy, comparison with rivals)

MILAN, March 27 (Reuters) - Italian fashion house Versace said on Thursday it had started 2014 on a strong footing thanks to a double-digit rise in sales from its own shops in the first quarter, following a 19 percent increase for the whole of 2013.

Total revenue at the luxury group, which may seek stock market listing in the future after the recent sale of a 20 percent stake to U.S. private equity group Blackstone, rose 17 percent last year to 479 million euros ($660 million).

Core earnings rose nearly 60 percent to 71 million euros once adjusted for currency effects, it said in a statement.

Family-controlled Versace is seeking to use the 210 million euros it got from Blackstone to open new shops and build on the turnaround spearheaded by current CEO Gian Giacomo Ferraris.

The Italian fashion house, favoured by celebrities and pop stars including Lady Gaga, finally returned to profit in 2011 after struggling for years following the murder of founder Gianni Versace in 1997.

Versace said 2013 sales at shops it manages directly rose by nearly a third in the United States, adding to a strong performance in 2012, and by 18 percent in Asia. Direct sales accounted for nearly 56 percent of last year's total.

The group, which already owns 137 directly-operated shops around the world, plans to boost this to 200 within three years, a move that would help it increase its margins.

Versace, which competes with the likes of Kering's Gucci, fellow Italian designer Roberto Cavalli and iconic Milanese fashion brand Armani, said it had invested 24 million euros last year to boost its retail and e-commerce presence.

It plans to double the contribution from its e-commerce business this year.

"The main engine of the company's growth continues to be the Versace Prima Linea (high-end collection), which accounts for 60 percent of overall sales," the company said in a statement.

Rival Gucci said last month its sales, which accounts for more than half of Kering's market value, fell 0.2 percent in the final quarter of 2013 due to overexpansion in China. For the whole of 2013, Gucci's sale rose a meagre 2.2 percent, a far cry from an increase of 9 percent in 2012 and 18.7 percen in 2011. ($1 = 0.7254 Euros) (Reporting by Valentina Za and Lisa Jucca; Editing by David Holmes and William Hardy)

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