By  on July 18, 2005

MILAN — Tommy Hilfiger Corp. is bringing a dose of its preppy spirit to the land that Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani call home.

Tommy Hilfiger Europe B.V. is opening a sprawling complex here comprising offices, an event space, a showroom and a flagship, the brand's first in Milan. The offices and showroom opened over the weekend, a spokeswoman confirmed. The store will open its doors in early September.

Fred Gehring, chief executive officer of Tommy Hilfiger Europe, said the new complex marks the first significant step to boost the brand's presence in Italy. In March, Hilfiger bought the rights to manage and distribute its brand in Italy from former partner Fincom SpA.

"We believe a central Milan headquarters for our wholesale and retail operations in Italy will truly anchor the company's position in this most critical of fashion markets," Gehring said in a statement. "With the start of our first direct-selling season in the showroom in July, followed by the opening of our first Milan retail store in September, this is the first step in developing Italy into a significant European market for the company."

Until now, Hilfiger has had a limited presence in Italy. In 2000, the company teamed up with Fincom and outlined plans to open about 20 stores across Italy. But the partnership didn't roll out boutiques as quickly as expected. In the end, the union produced just three Tommy Hilfiger stores: in Bologna, Catania and Turin. Hilfiger does have a larger wholesale network in Italy. A spokeswoman said the brand is sold at 1,000 points of sale across the country.

Few American brands have established significant market share in Italy. Europe's high rents, the logistical challenges of finding adequate store space and fashion-savvy customers make the market a tough one to penetrate for foreign brands.

Nonetheless, there have been several American-brand store openings lately. Last week marked the soft opening of a 5,576-square-foot Calvin Klein flagship in downtown Milan. Von Dutch recently opened boutiques in Milan and Rome. Last year, Ralph Lauren feted a flagship on Milan's Via Montenapoleone that literally had lines around the block waiting to get in to buy.

Hilfiger's new Milan complex is in Piazza Oberdan, a square at one end of Corso Buenos Aires, a long, bustling shopping strip dominated by mass market retailers such as Benetton, Zara and Hennes & Mauritz and many small apparel and electronics shops. The long-vacant building that Hilfiger occupies is across the street from the Sheraton Diana Majestic Hotel, where Gucci stages runway shows; Dolce & Gabbana also is coming to the area, renovating an old movie theater into its new show space. Hilfiger is renting the 16,000-square-foot building, but the company would not disclose financial details."We were looking for a very unique location that would not only make a fresh statement within Milan, but one that also had central exposure to the city. The Piazza Oberdan district has recently attracted other fashion brands, and continues to develop into a trendy new area," Gehring said via e-mail. "In addition, the actual space is highly unique to Milan. The buildings and surrounding courtyards offer us the opportunity to represent all aspects of our business, from wholesale and retail, to a special entertainment space. This location is one of a kind."

Gehring said Hilfiger hopes "to open stores in key cities across Italy within the next year" and said the Milan flagship is just "the first step in increasing our retail presence in Milan."

The company said the showroom is "an atrium-inspired glass space featuring movable architectural elements." It will serve as the central wholesale operation for Italy for men's and women's sportswear as well as Hilfiger Denim, children's apparel and several licensed businesses.

The store, which covers more than 1,700 square feet, will open in September. It will carry men's and women's sportswear, Hilfiger Denim and select accessories. The company said the Milan store will boast a unique design, marrying "local architectural elements with modern American influences" such as high-gloss fixtures, industrial steel and aged chestnut flooring.

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