By  on October 11, 2007

NEW YORK — Brands such as Coach and J. Crew have been nipping at designers' heels with higher-quality fabrics and fibers, improved grades of leather and even exotic skins. Now Club Monaco is throwing down the gauntlet and featuring upgraded products in a warmer, more accessible environment.

A new 4,500-square-foot flagship at 211 Columbus Avenue, near 70th Street here, represents the company's latest prototype. With the expansiveness and light of a Manhattan loft and the architectural details of a Left Bank apartment, it's an update on the stark black-and-white Club Monaco stores of the past.

"It was important to evolve the interior so it wasn't just white walls and dark floors," John Mehan, president and chief executive officer of Club Monaco, said of the Columbus Avenue unit, which is the brand's first new store to open in Manhattan in more than 10 years. "We wanted to elevate it because we elevated the product."

Robin Kramer of Kramer Design Group used herringbone-patterned floors of Brazilian cherrywood painted black; limestone for floors, and thick moldings on the walls, which are alternately painted white and black. A seating area with a large coffee table is surrounded by chairs covered in black flannel with white chalkstripes.

"We want the customer who buys designer to come here for luxury at a value," said Mehan, noting that even the basics have been elevated. "We have cashmere and cotton T-shirts with pick-stitching. It's not just about commodities. As our customer has pushed us and the expectations of our customers have grown, we've followed suit."

Mehan pointed out that many of Club Monaco's fabrics are woven at Italian mills and there is a strong focus on cashmere for fall. "We're taking a big position on affordable luxury with a twist," he said.

Cashmere sweaters are stacked on large round white tables in the Columbus Avenue store. Accessories and jewelry are housed in the middle of the store between the men's and women's departments and near the cash wraps. Ancillary products such as wine glasses, cashmere throws, vintage Rolex watches, coffee table books and Wallpaper city guides are layered on for effect. Sunglasses, through a license with Luxottica, will launch later this month.Prices range from $149 for salvaged jeans in exclusive Japanese fabrics to $499 for a cashmere coat with horn buttons. A black sequin T-shirt dress is $229 and a black quilted leather jacket with bracelet sleeves is $499. About 10 percent of the merchandise will be exclusive to the location.

With 65 stores in the U.S. and Canada, there's room for expansion in major cities, Mehan said. Club Monaco stores in the U.S. are concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington. Mehan said the company will concentrate on opening stores in other major urban cities.

Club Monaco is also considering locations in the Meatpacking District and the West Village for "accessories stores or little branding statements," Mehan said. "We could pull a category out based on what we're doing with accessories and other parts of the business."

Club Monaco, which was bought by Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1999, has been a contributor to the company's strong financial performance over the last few years. In the fiscal third quarter, Club Monaco's same-store sales increased 11.4 percent. In the fourth quarter, same-store sales advanced 5.3 percent. Comps in September rose 15.9 percent.

International also poses an opportunity. Club Monaco has 38 units in Hong Kong and Seoul and plans to enter Singapore and Malaysia next year. The company is set to open 28 international units in 2008. "We're considering Europe and other Asian cities," Mehan said.

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