By  on January 24, 2006

FLORENCE — Gianfranco Ferré and Blumarine recently opened stores here, a further sign of this city's growing importance as a designer retail market.

Helping to dismiss recent speculation about conflicts with the owner of his brand, designer Gianfranco Ferré last week made an appearance at the inauguration of his first boutique here, flanked by Massimo Macchi, chief executive officer of Ferré, and Tonino Perna, chairman of IT Holding, which owns the designer brand.

"Mr. Ferré was checking each single item, details and displays in the store until three in the morning," said Perna, waving away any misunderstanding and eager to show his support for the designer. "He is an inspiration and an example for all of us." Macchi said Ferré was a "genius."

Perna said IT Holding invested 1.5 million euros, or $1.8 million at current exchange, in the boutique, located in Palazzo Navone, a 16th-century Renaissance building in Via della Vigna Nuova, off central Via Tornabuoni. Nestled between the Gucci and Roberto Cavalli shops and the iconic Giacosa cafe, the Florence boutique is Ferré's eighth directly owned store and the 65th for the brand worldwide.

"This is one of the first three brand boutiques in terms of size," said Macchi. The boutique opened during the city's international men's wear exhibition, Pitti Uomo. "This boutique exemplifies our change of pace, our more commercially aggressive and competitive collections and the way we communicate," said Macchi, pointing to the company's spring 2006 ad campaign starring Julia Roberts. Perna declined to confirm reports that IT Holding paid Roberts 4 million euros, or $4.8 million, while Ferré said he would only discuss the actress' "un-star-like disposition, intelligence and easy personality." Roberts was photographed by Mario Testino in Los Angeles.

In discussing the new store, Macchi pointed out that the building's walls, the original cross vaults and the coffered wood ceilings remained untouched in an effort to preserve the historical site, which juts out on Via della Vigna Nuova in a trapezoidal shape, embellished with an early 20th-century loggia, two glass facades and eight windows on the ground floor. "The six rooms maintain the same height and breadth as in the 16th century," he said. Covering 4,320 square feet, the store carries the designer's women's, men's and accessories collections.The geometric theme of the store's design revolves around a black-and-white color palette: The ivory large-slab Tunisian marble floors and the shiny lacquered white walls and ivory leather structures contrast with crystal-top tables with black lacquered legs. Large two-tone carpets offset the armchairs and seats in black and white upholstery fabrics designed by Ferré, who is also an architect and personally attended to the store's interior design.

"There is less red than in the Paris and Milan boutiques," said Ferré. Perna said he expected the boutique to reach sales of around 7 million euros, or $8.4 million, a year. IT Holding plans to open franchised Ferré boutiques in Beirut and in Paris, in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and at the Galeries Lafayette. "The Middle East is becoming increasingly important for us, and Paris always has been a pivotal city for Ferré," said Macchi.

The executive said he expected a yearly 15 percent growth in sales in the next five years. "We've registered a 15 percent growth in sales over the past six months," he said. In 2005, Ferré reached sales of 121 million euros, or $146.5 million, up 10 percent from the previous year.

A few steps away, in Via Tornabuoni, Blumarine has opened its first boutique in the city and its second directly operated store. The two-story, 810-square-foot boutique epitomizes Anna Molinari's feminine and romantic style. Designed by Venice-based Studio Busato Seguso, the boutique has that city's unmistakable feel: A stunning Murano-glass chandelier lights up the ground floor, crystal display tables are supported by glass legs and furniture is enriched with Swarovski crystals. A plethora of mirrors, artfully placed in the store and embellished with etched roses —Molinari's favorite flower and an iconic symbol for the house — help expand the sense of space.

"This is not a big boutique, but it's strategically positioned in an important city for us, and, honestly, I've never liked those huge, empty stores," said Gianpaolo Tarabini, general manager of Blufin, the company that produces the brand, and Molinari's husband. "The purpose of a store is to sell clothes, not to show off space," he said.

Tarabini said he invested more than 600,000 euros, or $726,000, in the boutique. In March, Blumarine will open a store in Capri and later this year in Montecarlo and Santo Domingo. Last fall, the company opened shops in Bangkok and Dubai, which Tarabini considers a pivotal location, given the number of Russians who shop there. "We are selling really well to Russians today," he said. Tarabini's dream remains to open a boutique in Beverly Hills and he is currently looking for a location there.Meanwhile, Pucci last month opened a new boutique in Rome's Via Borgonona, in the Via Condotti and Spanish Steps shopping district, replacing the brand's historic Via Veneto boutique popular in the Seventies. The two-story store covers more than 1,200 square feet and is located in a stately Renaissance palazzo, whose traditional structure contrasts with the shop's playful, Pucci-esque design. Aqua-colored floors and carpets, vividly printed sofas and seats, a deconstructed Pucci print on the wall and on the stairs and vintage photos of late designer Emilio Pucci and his models in Capri add the brand's unmistakable flair to the space. The Rome boutique is Pucci's 30th store, following openings at Bal Harbour, Fla., and Guam last November. Coming up this month is a shop-in-shop at Harvey Nichols in Dubai.

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