By  on August 6, 2007

NEW YORK — It’s going to be a big fall for A/X Armani Exchange.

The lower-priced, younger-skewed brand that is 25 percent owned by designer Giorgio Armani is unveiling its first underwear collection at the same time that it debuts a new store prototype at its first two flagships in London and Tokyo.

The stores will feature a sleek new design conceived and inspired by Giorgio Armani in conjunction with Gensler Architecture. The 11,700-square-foot London unit will be the first to open. It will be located at 240 Regent Street in the historic Dickens Jones building and will be is largest A/X store to date.

The two-level Regent Street store will feature an illuminated entryway of back-painted glass sporting the A/X logo. Inside, a 10-foot video wall will present looks from the company’s most recent collections and image advertising. The store will mix open areas with more private “rooms” in a design that “creates a flexibility and fluidity of motion,” according to the company. It will “underscore the contrast between dark and light, smooth and rough textures, and shiny and matte finishes.”

The floor will sport porcelain tiles in a silver metallic coating. Fixtures will be made from distressed black-wood veneer with glossy black accents. The perimeter will feature aluminum shelves on silver-gray walls.

“We will also have a cutting-edge sound system and a DJ booth to create a lounge/club experience,” said Tom Jarrold, senior vice-president of marketing and creative, who added that the company has been working on the prototype for over a year.

“The design is a lot more luxurious, but we’re not trading up in price,” stressed Harlan Bratcher, A/X’s president. He said the vision of the A/X brand is “very calculated and very strategic.” The collection is designed and priced to appeal to an 18- to 35-year-old customer with a sexy, urban vibe. “We’re definitely a young brand,” Bratcher said.

The Regent Street store opening will be followed shortly after by that of a 5,000-square-foot, two-level flagship at the Park Way Square in Tokyo’s young and fashionable Shibuya district.

All stores opened after September will sport the new design, Bratcher said, noting that A/X will also “refurbish” its existing store base to reflect the new design aesthetic.

A/X currently operates 140 retail stores around the world—75 in the U.S. and 65 internationally, primarily in the U.K. and Asia. The company has an aggressive rollout plan for the U.S. next year, Bratcher said.

“We’ve opened seven stores in the U.S. this year and we will easily triple that number next year,” he said. The goal, he said, is to be in “most A malls” around the country. But the rollout plan will be selective, he stressed. “We don’t have to be every place.”

The significantly increased store base is part of a larger plan to increase the size and scope of the A/X Armani Exchange network throughout the world. The strategy has the full blessing of the legendary designer. In fact, at the end of 2005, Giorgio Armani SpA formed a joint venture with Como Holdings, parent company of A/X’s licensee, Presidio International Inc. Armani owns one quarter of the new company, Presidio Holdings Ltd., formed as a result of the merger, with Como controlling the remainder. Armani has the option to increase his stake to 50 percent in November 2008.

A/X Armani Exchange was launched in 1991, and Presidio plans to expand its product categories to include accessories, fragrances and watches. Last year, the company inked a licensing agreement with Safilo to produce a branded eyewear collection. A/X projects an 85 percent increase in revenues from $300 million at the end of 2005 to $550 million at the end of next year. Sales last year rose 17 percent.

“The power of our brand is it has Mr. Armani’s vision and talent, coupled with an accessible price,” said Jarrold.

Bratcher added that the planned opening of a Giorgio Armani megastore on Fifth Avenue in New York City this fall should also help raise the visibility of the A/X name. As reported, Giorgio Armani SpA will open a 47,000-square-foot store at 717 Fifth Avenue at 56th Street. The Armani/Fifth Avenue store will be based on a concept Armani pioneered on Via Manzoni in Milan (Armani/Manzoni), and has since built in Hong Kong (Armani/Chater House) and Munich (Armani/Munich). There are plans for a fourth complex in Tokyo’s Ginza district (Armani/Ginza Tower) in November.

Armani/Fifth Avenue will house Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Armani Jeans, Armani Junior and Armani Casa, and will carry Armani and Emporio Armani accessories, watches, eyewear, jewelry and fragrances. In addition, it will most likely feature amenities such as a sweetshop, a flower shop, an Armani Restaurant and Bar, and a Giorgio Armani beauty area.

“It’s great news for us that the master brand is doing so well,” Bratcher said.

In addition to the retail component, the other big push for fall will be the launch of the A/X underwear collection. The initial shipment will feature four styles: hip briefs, standard briefs, square-cut briefs and boxer briefs in 100 percent, preshrunk, combed cotton. All four models feature a double-layer contour shape pouch for support, full bottom coverage and high-cut legs. The underwear will be available in black or white with elastic, striped logo waistbands.

“It’s a natural line extension for us,” said Bratcher.

For holiday a more premium line will be offered using pima cotton and incorporating 4 percent Lycra for stretch. The pima line will also incorporate a winged A/X logo.

Prices for the combed-cotton styles will be $12.50 for the hip and standard briefs, and $19.50 the square-cut and boxer briefs.

The pima-cotton models will be $16.50 for the hip or standard briefs, and $22.50 for the boxer or square-cut briefs. The pima collection will also include a crewneck or V-neck T for $24.50 and a tank top for $22.50.

“The pricing is very competitive,” Bratcher said.

Each of the models will come packaged in its own box. Plans call for expanding the colors and patterns offered in future collections.

To support the launch, A/X will run a series of sultry ads featuring model Clint Mauro, shot by Tom Munro and featuring a dark, intense feel. “It’s all about objectifying men,” said Jarrold. “We shot it in a dark, dirty way with oily skin.”

In addition to print ads in all the major men’s magazines including GQ, Details and Out, there will be outdoor billboards on the Long Island Expressway, and on 10th Avenue and 18th Street in the Meatpacking District in New York, as well as on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Store windows will also tout the newest addition, and Jarrold said that key stores in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas will have live models in the windows wearing the underwear. A kickoff event in New York in late September is also being formulated.

Jarrold said A/X will hold an online underwear model search that will start on Sept. 1 and wrap up sometime around Christmas.

“We know the underwear will be a big success and attract a lot of traffic to our stores,” Bratcher said. “We expect to do well internationally with it as well. In fact, our U.K. stores bought so much that we had to cut them back to make sure the U.S. stores had enough product.”

He declined to provide a projected volume for the underwear, but said that the stakes are high. “We have limited space on our floors so whatever we carry has to be successful. We don’t believe in window dressing.”

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