By  on March 20, 2007

LONDON — The sales assistants are decked out in leather flip-flops, there are two muscled shirtless Welshmen standing guard near the door and the dance music thumps loudly.

Can this be a store on Savile Row?

Abercrombie & Fitch unveiled its first European unit Monday at the corner of Burlington Gardens and Savile Row, the traditional home of Britain's bespoke tailors and a quiet street where everyone from Beau Brummell to Winston Churchill to Gianni Versace has had clothing made. Despite the apparent culture clash, Abercrombie chairman and chief executive officer Mike Jeffries believes there's a good reason to be there.

"We have a common sensibility with the people on this street: quality, taste and a sense of style,'' he said during a walk-through on Monday. "So we don't make suits. But we are about luxury — casual luxury. We see this as a destination store, and we think the location fits."

The store, which opens on Thursday, is a study in contrasts. It is housed in a building that dates to 1721 and features original marble fireplaces and mirrors, a sweeping central stone staircase and delicate moldings around the doorways and on the ceilings.

Today, it is a temple of youth — and Americana — with stacks of Hawaiian-print bikinis and surfer trunks, rows of braided leather belts and racks filled with T-shirts, boxer shorts, HotPants and cotton shirts, their sleeves artfully rolled to the elbow.

The jeans bar is front and center, across from the entrance. The store also stocks merchandise common to other Abercrombie flagships such as handmade T-shirts and handcrafted jeans.

The interiors are similar to those of the brand's Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan, with dark walls and floors, dramatic lighting and painted murals depicting sportsmen surrounded by their football, rugby and tennis gear. At the entrance, a wood and glass cabinet showcases bits of the Abercrombie & Fitch heritage as a purveyor of outdoor sporting goods, which explains the vintage shotguns, snowshoes, skis and poles.

The store spans 24,000 square feet, about half being dedicated to selling. The rest houses a design and concept office and stockrooms. Real estate sources here say the annual rent is 950,000 pounds, or $1.84 million at current exchange.Jeffries declined to give any sales projections or talk about financial figures related to the London store. Price tags, he said, would be higher than those in the U.S., but competitive with other similar London retailers.

The building formerly housed the Jil Sander flagship. The building was originally constructed as a residence for the Earl of Damley, and was later used by the Bank of England and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The company spent the past year working with English Heritage, the government's adviser on historic real estate, regarding changes to the interiors. To wit, the new computer checkout tills in the store read: "Abercrombie & Fitch, London at Last."

Jeffries said Abercrombie was in no rush to open stores across the U.K. or Europe. "Our long-term goal is to roll out stores, and we are working on it. But we're not looking for world domination. We want the business to grow naturally, and we're humble — and cautious — in whatever we do," he said, adding, "This is our most important store opening."

London was a natural place to plant the Abercrombie flag in Europe, said Jeffries, a self-described Anglophile who studied at the London School of Economics in the Sixties, and who's made regular trips here. "I have this huge thing about the U.K., and I think the company has a real British aesthetic. In fact, a third of our designers are U.K. nationals, and I think we really understand the market. It is the number-one inspirational city for us in terms of design."

But London shoppers are among the most sophisticated — and accustomed to inexpensive fast-fashion meccas such as Topshop, New Look and Hennes and Mauritz. Those chains have stretched beyond their creative teams and hired celebrity talent — Kate Moss, Giles Deacon, Stella McCartney and Madonna — to design high-profile capsule collections.

They're not the only competition. Jack Wills, a British label that once catered exclusively to young, holidaying surfers and sailors, is gaining popularity among wealthy, teenage Brits. Founded in 1998, it has evolved into an outdoorsy lifestyle brand with a whiff of collegiate glamour — of the Oxford and Cambridge variety.Jeffries, who sits at the helm of a $3.3 billion company, sees London as a challenge. "A lot of what we do is emotional — and there are Abercrombie people everywhere in the world," he said.

"There is a place for us here, a unique place…but if you want a look right off the catwalks, you won't get it here.We do things differently. And we're also going to learn a lot, too."

Abercrombie already has a strong U.K. base, with clients on the Internet and British visitors buying from the U.S. stores, he noted.

Jeffries has hired a staff of 500 to run the store. Many are athletes: One of the Welshmen at the door is a competitive swimmer. Others are budding TV stars, rugby players and surfers.

Abercrombie's Savile Row neighbors appear to be warming to the arrival. "It raises the profile of the street and is going to bring a younger crowd to the area," said Sean Dixon, co-founder of the Savile Row bespoke tailor Richard James. "Clothing is so much more democratic these days. Even our customers are mixing Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts with our jackets."

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