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It takes a lot of crocodiles to make a handbag good enough for a Milanese

The motto of Valextra runs: Sono la pi√π bella e la pi√π cara, which means, "I am the most beautiful and the most expensive." Valextra, a small family-owned company that manufactures and sells fine leather goods in Milan, Italy, is right on both counts. At Valextra, for example, a man can buy a neat little bag to hold his tennis shorts, shoes and racket for $225. If he is staying at a hotel and hates the clutter of regular suitcases, Valextra can give him a traveling dresser in leather that stores his shirts in separate drawers, just as at home. Price $289. A crocodile handbag for his wife or lady friend will cost him $1,000—"because," explains Saleslady Jenny Radice, "we have to use four or five crocodiles."

Why so many crocs? Well, to achieve the quality Valextra insists on for such fine articles, it seems only the midportions of a crocodile will do.

Valextra attaché cases are wonders of handmade precision and cost around $233. For a few more dollars you can get one equipped with Valextra's own "Sherlock Holmes" lock ("All our cases with Sherlock Holmes lock have on delivery the combination zero included, which means the three knobs set after close rotation on anticlockwise course...make the devised combination rotating knobs in the clockwise direction as many times of snaps as are the corresponding numbers of combination...act on the pushbottom").

Valextra was founded 30 years ago by Giovanni Fontana, who at 70 still manages its one retail outlet at Piazza San Babila, 1, Milan. Giovanni's son Giampiero, a Milanese sportsman who, presumably, carries his tennis duds in his firm's $225 duffel bag, supervises the manufacturing operation. Neither sees much future for their business. Ten years from now, says Giampiero, "there will be no more artisans sufficiently skilled to hand-craft our pieces and there will be no people left who can understand the glory of buying them."

Who buys them now?

"Milanese," answers Giampiero with a sigh. "Eighty percent of our customers are Milanese. We Milanese are the English of Italy. We see the point of spending money on a fine case. We like the feel of it and the look of it. Valextra's products are not expensive because we are robbers but because we produce them with a devotion that is unique."

Fontana will sell wholesale to U.S. quality stores if he has to, but he'd rather not. "If they bought a lot," he says, "we wouldn't be able to supply them."

Besides, their customers are foreigners and wouldn't understand.