PARIS — Aiming to kick-start its wholesale business in America, Celine has tapped Simona Zerchi as its new U.S. president, effective today.

Zerchi joins Celine from Prada USA Corp., where she was vice president of Miu Miu footwear, handbags and accessories. Zerchi succeeds Thuy Tranthi, who exited the post in May.

“It’s a very important moment to restart the business,” said Celine chief executive officer Serge Brunschwig. “We definitely see a huge potential to expand.”

Brunschwig declined to discuss figures, but acknowledged the company’s U.S. business has been affected since designer Michael Kors departed in 2004, particularly on the wholesale side. At present, Celine’s main U.S. wholesale accounts are Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

However, he cited strong business at Celine’s four freestanding retail stores in America, noting the Madison Avenue flagship in New York is slated to receive a makeover this year.

In another key change, Celine recently closed its U.S. communications office and has outsourced public relations to Bismarck Phillips Communications & Media. Celine’s Paris headquarters will now handle media buying for America.

Meanwhile, as artistic director Ivana Omazic prepares her sixth collection for the runway, Celine continues to expand internationally. After opening some 10 stores last year, both company-owned and franchised, the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned fashion firm plans to open a similar number in 2008, including in Baku, Azerbaijan; Athens; Qatar; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; four cities in China, and Moscow’s upscale district Stoleshnikov Pereulok, which will be Celine’s largest store in the world when it bows in the fall.

At present, Celine counts about 130 freestanding stores. Brunschwig said the aim is to convert by yearend most of its network to its new look, which emphasizes broad, welcoming spaces, leather-backed display cases and brand icons like its chain motif.

Model Karen Elson was tapped for Celine’s spring campaign, photographed by Bruce Weber, with a focus on its new Orlov bag, expected to be the brand’s next hot seller.

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