By  on May 11, 2006

MIAMI — Leo, the contemporary boutique at 640 Collins Avenue here, may help change any lingering perceptions of Miami as a style backwater.

Women's labels at Leo, which caters to a fashion-savvy clientele, include Ulla Johnson, Imitation of Christ, Jill Stuart and Magda Berliner. For the store's opening in January, Leo invited the New York-based Heatherette designers, Richie Rich and Traver Rains, a duo known for their love of nightlife.

"Their clothes aren't serious, but what clothes should be — pure fun," said partner and creative director Christina Minasian, who teamed with her brother Armen Minasian and another set of siblings, Henry and Mark Batievsky, for the venture. Armen Minasian and the Batievskys had owned and operated a Von Dutch store for two years in the 2,500-square-foot space Leo now occupies.

"Miami is a very misunderstood market," Christina Minasian said. "People think it's cheesy, but its residents have style and taste and want all the same high-fashion trends as New York or Los Angeles." Stores near Leo include Barneys Co-op, Intermix and Club Monaco.

Minasian attended American University in Paris and the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. She came to retail by way of Kitson in Los Angeles, where she was a buyer for almost four years.

"When I shopped Miami, I was bored," she said. "No one was taking chances, and there are too many good untapped lines to ignore."

Minasian shops in New York and Los Angeles for mostly domestic brands, sprinkling in emerging European and Asian designers. Men's and women's merchandise share the space equally.

Shoppers have taken a liking to Buddhist Punk's feminine looks with a rock 'n' roll edge, such as a white T-shirt dress with pompons and safari animal motifs retailing for $200, and a tank dress in purple camouflage with the Rolling Stones logo for $170. "They make great prints, and their beachy, casual direction is perfect for South Beach," Minasian said.

Nicholas K's spring collection of cotton, linen and silk in summery shades like coral, lavender and white is also beach-friendly. A sundress with pompons and cotton shorts with rope trim retail for $385 and $187, respectively. Minasian also picked up Vena Cava's collection of pleated tank dresses and novelty silk prints including chains. Pieces average $345. "The line is simple and delicate instead of being overdone," she said.In denim, pairs of 1921 are selling well at $150 retail for women and men. Skinny, straight-leg and boot-cut styles in light to dark washes perform evenly. Minasian attributed the brand's popularity to the company's reasonable price and consistent, broad-ranged fit.

Hot accessories for spring 2006 are wedge platforms in jewel tones by Missoni for $550 and necklaces dipped in gold or rose gold with tiger or lion pendants by Noir from $80 to $207. Lifestyle items range from candles and room spray by Colette to kitschy and offbeat products like Hulger's modern or retro phone receivers that plug into cell phones. "We don't want to go overboard on extras, but just use them to stimulate. We want people to get excited when they come in," she said.

Sales have increased about 15 percent each week, Armen Minasian said, adding, "We're projecting first-year sales of $3 million."

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