ALTHOUGH HE'S SLIGHT of stature, Michele Sartori, co-owner and designer of Altea - the Italian tie, scarf and shirt company - is hard to miss, dressed as he is in a bright powder blue suit, white shirt, diagonally striped tie and a pair of sporty navy and white sneakers. His handshake is firm and he speaks in heavily accented Italian as he offers a greeting, while stepping into his Altea boutique in IFC Mall. 'It's difficult to find a good, unique-coloured suit in a classic cut and shape,' Sartori says. 'We have the fabric, and so I got our factory to make it. I love trendy new colour combinations, but something that's still elegant and sophisticated.' And when creating for his company's range of accessories, it's this striking balance of the avant-garde with a sense of timelessness that has brought him success - and to Hong Kong for the first time to promote the only Altea boutique outside Europe. From one shop in Milan, the brand has expanded into an international company with more than 60 boutiques and shops-in-shops in France, with 28 global sales agents selling to more than 3,500 distributors, and representative offices in the world's largest cities: Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Despite the strong growth, the century-old firm remains a family owned and run business. 'I'm the fourth generation involved in the company, which was started in 1892 by my great-grandfather Giuseppe Sartori Snr,' he says. Like the ties and scarves Altea creates, the company's history is steeped in a colourful past. The firm began when Sartori Snr opened a shirt and tie shop. He won plenty of fans for his ties made of antique oriental brocades. His son, Felice, took over the firm in the 1920s and enlisted the help of his own sons, Celeste and Giuseppe Jnr. The business flourished until the second world war, when the shop closed for several years. 'My grandfather [Felice], father [Celeste] and my uncle Giuseppe, who returned home by crossing France on foot, reopened the business in 1947,' he says. It was at this time that the Altea brand name was created - named after a flower, the Althaea officinalis. 'My father and my uncle really expanded the company,' Sartori says. 'My uncle began the export business, while my father travelled several million kilometres to visit his clients all over Italy. It was during the 1980s that my brother [Luca] and I joined the company, him on the business side and me taking care of creative developments. Now, it's just the two of us and I'm very lucky to have him involved.' It was only natural that Sartori would head the company's design department, given his artistic inclinations as a child. 'When I was at school, I started to sketch, play around with colour and draw new ideas,' he says. 'During any free time I had, I tried to find something new to wear, and I liked to mix and match things. But like any young guy back then, I didn't know what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I liked colours and enjoyed playing with them. So, I was very lucky to have my family's business and I naturally went into that.' Sartori has used his artistic sensibilities, enthusiasm and 'go get 'em' attitude to further fuel the company's expansion, opening the first Altea boutique in 1994 in the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. 'When designing, my philosophy is 'nothing is impossible',' he says. 'Everything is possible to weave and everything is possible to design. Any idea or pattern can be done.' To illustrate his point, Sartori says that more than 2,000 designs are created per season, with only half making the final cut. 'Normally, during the middle of the collection you start to feel that several colours stand out and you concentrate on those to develop the variations,' he says, pointing to the unusual yet elegant combination of lilac and brown ties displayed on the shelves. 'Altea is sophisticated in its presentation of design and fabrics. Our customers will find a large collection that's always elegant, but looks different. Everything is designed and made in Italy. Even the cottons and wools are especially made for us by special mills. And I try everything on myself to make sure I'm comfortable with the fabric and combinations.' The Sartori brothers' design talent and business acumen have taken the Altea brand to new heights. 'In the last 10 years, we've developed the business, and we chose Hong Kong to be the first market in Asia because we think the city is dynamic and interesting,' Sartori says. 'It's the most international city in Asia and a city of great importance. And we're obviously looking to expand into China [the mainland] and Japan, as well.' And whereas Sartori's designs now grace the shelves of the company's shops, they may soon be joined by those of his eldest daughter, 12-year-old Veronica, who is showing the same talents as her father. 'She's very good in design,' Sartori says. 'When she was just a baby, maybe three or four years old, she preferred designing and sketching to playing. I hope she'll be working alongside me some day. I hope there'll be a fifth generation.'