By  on November 2, 2005

NEW YORK — To hear Fendi executives tell it, the company's original flagship on Fifth Avenue was too big, dark and cavernous. So when they got the opportunity, they went in the opposite direction, building a smaller, brighter and airier store.

The Italian luxury goods house on Thursday will open a 7,000-square-foot store at 677 Fifth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets. On Tuesday, Silvia Venturini Fendi, accessories and men's wear director, was sitting in a logo-embossed chair in the fur salon of the lavish new flagship while designer Karl Lagerfeld rushed in behind schedule.

"The store looks better every day," Lagerfeld pronounced. "You see stuff in a clear way. It's not a dry minimalist space. The products look like things you'd want to buy."

The unit replaces a 20,000-square-foot unit at 720 Fifth Avenue, which opened in 1989 and is destined to become an Abercrombie & Fitch store, indicative of the mass-oriented direction the avenue is moving toward.

"The other space was too large and it was on the wrong side of the street," said Michael Burke, Fendi's chief executive officer. "It's not all about bigness. I want to make money."

The store is projected to do about $4,000 per square foot, impressive even by luxury standards.

While the new flagship has only about one-third of the original's selling space, it feels open and expansive with high ceilings and lots of natural light. Fendi leased five floors in the six-story building, with an eye toward the future. When jewelry and men's wear become established, the store will expand up to the third and fourth floors. "We'll grow into the space," Burke said.

The double town house, which was formerly occupied by Erwin Pearl and Bruno Magli, is analogous to a young Roman countess — it's dripping in furs and dipped in gold. Minks are strewn on top of undulating travertine marble shelves and sables are casually thrown on chairs. But every touch is calculated.

"It's the ultimate Roman brand," said architect Peter Marino, who used a combination of old materials such as travertine, rusted steel and newfangled plastics for wall coverings."Everything is a dichotomy," Marino explained. "The curve in the marble hanging over the furs and the horizontal lines of the rusted steel on the wall. The stone is floating close to the ceiling, rather than used on the floor where it usually would be found. We've done this on a thousand levels."

There's also the contrast between the handmade and and the ultramodern; the marble is laser cut using the same technology Frank Gehry employed for the Guggenheim Museum of Art in Bilboa, Spain, while the steel is manipulated by hand. Plays on black and white can be seen in a room devoted to Selleria, the handbag collection featuring its historic squirrel logo. Before the inverted Fs became the Fendi logo, the company was represented by the squirrel. As Silvia Fendi explained it, Eduardo Fendi, who founded the company with her grandmother, Adele, gave a picture of a squirrel to his wife one day. "It's a little animal that works a lot like you," he said.

The company, which was founded in 1925, has been celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. And it has been celebrating the milestone on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning in Rome in May with the unveiling of the new store design and continuing here with a party on All Hallow's Eve and a store opening fete Thursday night.

"The squirrel is a recurring theme for our 80th anniversary," Fendi said. "It's just a milestone for many more years. If you look back, it's a big history. If after so many years it's still hot, we just put a lot of fashion into Fendi."

"Selleria is one-quarter of my handbag business," said Burke. Downstairs, he looks around the large shoe salon. "You notice how much space I gave to shoes. We went from selling 30,000 pairs to selling 100,000 pairs." Near the front door is a sunglass display and more handbags.

"Peter takes the essence of the brand and what comes out is modern," Burke said.

"The store looks better every day," said Lagerfeld. "You see stuff in a clear way. You want to buy. It's not a dry minimalist space."Fendi has been renovating stores to conform to Marino's prototype. So far, units in Osaka, Japan; South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif.; Hong Kong, and Rome have been redone. There are about 117 stores in the Fendi network.

Fendi is becoming something of a star in the portfolio of its parent, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The luxury giant has a practice of not breaking out financial figures for its divisions, unless the numbers are worth bragging about. "They may want to break it [Fendi's volume] in the near future," Burke boasted. "We'll break even before 2007. We're on track."

LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault in 1999 teamed up with Prada Group to buy a majority of Fendi from the five Fendi sisters. Family squabbles and an uneasy rapport with Prada's ceo, Patrizio Bertelli, distracted the company from its mission. LVMH ultimately took majority control in 2001 and today holds a 94 percent stake. The balance is held by chairwoman Carla Fendi.

When Arnault reported 2005 first-half financial results, he cited sales growth in excess of 50 percent in some stores and promised Fendi would become a leading Italian leather goods firm in the coming years. Burke has said that Fendi would reach sales volume of $500 million "sooner rather than later," with a bigger goal after that. "Mr. Arnault told me, 'If you're not at a billion dollars, you don't exist.'"

For the third quarter, reported last month, finance director Jean-Jacques Guiony cited strong growth for Fendi in the U.S. Karl Lagerfeld's latest collection shown on the Milan runway was praised and Fendi's double-digit sales growth in the nine months was trumpeted. Guiony said the "signs are fairly encouraging," although he allowed that ready-to-wear is "still lagging behind" and is "not a major part of the Fendi business."

"We'll do 50 percent more at Bergdorf Goodman in 2006 than we did at the height of the Fendi baguette," Burke said Tuesday, noting that in 2006, leather goods will account for 50 percent of total sales; furs and rtw, 30 percent; shoes, 10 percent, and watches and other products, 10 percent. Men's wear will be expanded from a "nice niche" business to a more serious category.There also are Fendi men's and women's fragrances in the offing. The last scent, launched by Gucci 18 months ago, was "terrible," Silvia Fendi said. The license expired in October.

Fendi plans to expand the silver jewelry collection into precious metals and stones. "There's nothing better to put next to fur than nice jewelry," she said.

"When I came to Fendi, I said we'd take care first of bags, then furs, shoes and rtw," Burke said. "We were making sure Karl and Silvia had what they needed. Prada did some major restructuring that was quite damaging. It was short-sighted cost-cutting. They opened stores and bought back franchises and went from having two stores to 100 stores." Burke said he's closed only a few locations.

Asked whether her grandparents would recognize the company today, Fendi took an inventory of the store.

"They knew it was going to be like this," she said. "My grandfather said, 'Fendi is a magic name. It will be known all over the world.'"

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