By  on December 24, 2009

Claire’s Stores Inc.’s European president, Kenny Wilson, wants to make the jewelry and accessories retailer’s products as relevant to girls of 18 as they are to those of eight.

Wilson said he is trying to infuse the products with more fashionable elements, expand Claire’s presence in Europe and revamp the label’s stores.

When Wilson was hired in 2008, Gene Kahn, chief executive officer of Claire’s, said Wilson’s mission would be to implement the company’s “pan European transformation initiative.”

“In the U.K. and France, we’re market leading with the three- to seven-year-olds and we’re market leading with the seven- to 12-year-olds,” said Wilson, an 18-year veteran of Levi Strauss & Co. “But by the time you get to the 13- to 18-year-olds, they don’t say Claire’s [is their favorite brand].…I think a big part of what that 13- to 18-year-old is into is not just the product itself, but the intangible values around the product. So that’s really where we’re putting that emphasis.”

Wilson has redone a store on London’s Oxford Street in line with the company’s new global design that is intended to evoke what he described as a “warmer” ambience. Now Claire’s products for older teens are positioned toward the front, while its lines for younger girls are less prominent.

“The feedback we’re getting from customers is that this is far less cluttered for them,” Wilson said. “The three- to seven-year-old loves Claire’s and she knows she can find [her product], so she’ll seek it out. Therefore, we’re giving the prime space up front to the customer that we want to attract.”

Since opening last month, Wilson said like-for-like sales rose by as much as 26 percent one week, compared with the same week a year ago. Claire’s European business rose 2.3 percent for the three months ended Oct. 31, the retailer’s first quarterly growth in the region in two years.

Claire’s, which was acquired for $3.1 billion in 2007 by New York private equity firm Apollo Management LP, operates about 3,000 company-owned stores globally, including 953 in Europe and 2,001 in North America. For the fiscal year to January 2009, the company recorded sales of $1.41 billion, a net loss of $643.5 million and adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $213.3 million. After cost-cutting, for the three months ended Oct. 31, the company recorded a profit of $2.9 million for the period, versus a loss of $21.6 million for the same time last year, on sales of $324.4 million for the quarter, a 2.6 percent decline compared with a year ago.

Wilson has recruited more designers and given Claire’s buying teams “the opportunity to be able to put a little bit more into the cost of goods, to be able to raise the quality of the item for the consumer. The goal is to be further ahead on the fashion curve.”

For spring, themes for Claire’s collections will revolve around trend-led stories such as “rock chick” and “tribal.’’Prices for the line have also risen slightly, with the average price now 5 pounds, or about $8, for a piece such as a hair accessory or jewelry item. Prices range from 1.50 pounds, or $2.40, for stud earrings, to 40 pounds, or $64, for a handbag.

Next, Wilson plans to maximize the label’s footprint in Europe. The majority of the label’s European stores are in the U.K. and France, but Wilson believes Spain and Germany, where the company has 93 and 35 stores, respectively, are prime for expansion.

“In the last year, we opened 25 stores in Europe — what I say is, we’re going to open significantly more in the next year,” said Wilson, adding that Claire’s European business represents about “a third” of its overall sales. “There’s the potential for that to grow,” he said. The label has a total of 2,955 stores globally.

Wilson also plans to recruit executives “with pan-European expertise” to help facilitate growth in the region. “We’re creating more of a driving sense of urgency to get things done,” he said. “I don’t want to get overexcited with one quarter of growth, but clearly we’ve come out of quite a significant decline and started to get the business going in the right direction.”

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