By  on September 27, 2005

MANHASSET, N.Y. — Hirshleifer's, the fashion emporium in the upscale Americana Manhasset shopping center here, has long attracted some of the world's best designers, often introducing them to affluent shoppers on Long Island.

But some progress so well that they flee to create their own freestanding stores. Last year, Christian Dior, which was Hirshleifer's second-biggest volume resource, opened a shop at the Americana. And in recent years, Hirshleifer's has been abandoned by brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Fendi, which all chose independence and freestanding units at the Americana.

Pressures on family-run fashion stores such as Hirshleifer's have mounted, forcing many to sell out or close. They have been pummeled by retail giants such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, and bruised by designers expanding into retailing. Gone are family fashion stores such as Martha's, Sara Fredericks and Charivari. Nordstrom this year took over Jeffrey, in New York and Atlanta, and Mitchells, based in Westport, Conn., bought Marshs, a Long Island men's fashion store.

"Depending on the vendor, sometimes the prospect of them leaving is scary, because we are counting on a certain amount of revenue," said Caryn Hirshleifer, who oversees the store's legal, marketing, planning and public relations activities and is a lawyer. "It forces us to keep our eyes open for the next thing, and turn these situations into opportunities."

Fortunately, said Lori Hirshleifer, Caryn's sister, who oversees the buying and merchandising, "we know a lot of people in the market. I travel to Europe six times a year and see every collection we can see. We keep going back and going back. You just keep working at it." She also has a buying scout in Paris.

Sometimes, a family business can run amok when the management gets passed on to the next generation, which has ideas on reshaping the business. That happened with Barneys New York, which went bankrupt while under the control of the founder's grandsons, but got bailed out of Chapter 11 by financial investors and was ultimately sold to Jones Apparel Group.

The Hirshleifer family has retained tight control and resisted selling to other retailers prowling for acquisitions, such as Mitchells. Overtures apparently picked up around the time of the death of family patriarch Paul Hirshleifer, who died in February 2004. He was the grandson of Jacob Hirshleifer, the founder of business, originally a fur salon on Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn in 1910 and known then as J. Hirshleifer.Paul Hirshleifer really put Hirshleifer's on the map, establishing it as one of the nation's premier fashion emporiums, selling designers such as Vera Wang, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, John Galliano, Lucien Pellat-Fillet, Malo and J.Mendel. For a small business, Hirshleifer's has a big reputation and an impressive customer base, extending through much of Long Island and New York City. Typically, customers are 30 to 50 years old, and range from investment bankers to those spending their days by lunching and going to the gym.

After Paul Hirshleifer's death, his three daughters, Caryn, Lori and Shelley, along with their mother, Lillian, assumed the reins. They have adopted a feisty approach to growing the business, formulating different types of designer arrangements and shop concepts, making last year and possibly this year among Hirshleifer's biggest. In 2004, Hirshleifer's had a 20 percent gain in volume, topping $18 million in sales, and for the first half of 2005, tracked about 30 percent ahead, family members said. The company employs 48 people and recently added about a dozen new staffers.

The biggest deal solidified the family's 20-year relationship with Chanel, which is the store's largest-volume resource, accounting for more than 40 percent of sales in 2004. Chanel is being repositioned in a 2,500-square-foot shop, with the expanded interior expected to be ready for business on Oct. 10 and a new facade completed in November.

The reinvented Chanel space has been carved out of a former 500-square-foot Dior space, a former 1,000-square-foot special events area and part of an area that Hirshleifer's already devoted to Chanel products. The so-called corner agreement gives Hirshleifer's the right to sell and advertise Chanel ready-to-wear and accessories.

"It is very scary putting your dollars out there, but Chanel's business has been phenomenal," Lori Hirshleifer said.

The brand has had 86 to 90 percent sell-throughs, with Cambon quilted leather multipocket bags for $2,750, or smaller versions priced at $690, among the bestsellers, she said.

"Chanel has always been our number-one resource in terms of productivity," Lori Hirshleifer said. "Dior was productive, but not as much as Chanel. Last year, we had a 50 percent increase in the Chanel buy."Next month, Hirshleifer's will stage a grand opening of a 750-square-foot Valentino boutique, also owned by the family, which had a soft opening July 1. It's housed in a space that once sold men's wear. Last month, a 350-square-foot shoe salon opened, and there's also a separate Jimmy Choo area operating since fall 2004.

Hirshleifer's really spread its wings this year by creating Jil Sander and Dolce & Gabbana shops, also owned and operated by the family. They are contiguous to the main 12,000-square-foot Hirshleifer's store, are linked by pass-throughs and have their own entrances. They were carved out of former Burberry and Coach shops, which had been operated by Hirshleifer's, but eventually took their own sites at the Americana Manhasset. These projects face up to the realities of designers who aren't content to wholesale.

"It used to be you just bought and sold goods, maybe got exclusives, and maybe some co-op advertising dollars," Caryn Hirshleifer said. "Now there are a lot of types of agreements, from a straight lease to consignment to a more formal license or franchise agreements to charging rent plus an overage of sales."

With an impressive array of shops, the family believes the flow of traffic has been enhanced. "People will see the Dolce name, check it out and walk through to Jil and then Hirshleifer's," said Shelley Hirshleifer, who is in charge of sales. "We think of it all as one store. Sales associates will help customers in all areas," with the exception of furs and jewelry, which have separate staffs. "We monitor new customers who come in and we can tell you by week or by day how many came in and what they bought. We have been averaging 45 to 50 new customers a week, and in August, it was 75 or 85. It was amazing. It didn't feel like summer.

"Our volume has increased significantly between our expansion of Chanel, and the Valentino, Dolce and Jil shops," she said. "There's a lot of excitement and new energy. People are picking up on it and sensing that something is different."

The pact with Hirshleifer's operating the Dolce & Gabbana shop is similar to other Hirshleifer-designer relationships. "Some of [the buy] is dictated, but most of it is edited," Lori Hirshleifer explained. "They like you to represent the collection to show the looks on the runway, but certain pieces are too over-the-top. A $20,000 evening gown might not be displayed, but would be part of a trunk show."Selling Jil Sander, she noted, represents catering to a different customer segment that has to be educated about the clean lines and minimalist looks. "Dolce is the opposite frame of mind — very expressive and very out there. It's sort of like yin and yang," she said. Dolce & Gabbana is Hirshleifer's second most productive vendor.

While more opportunities for Hirshleifer's will arise within the Americana Manhasset, space there is not unlimited. However, asked about the possibility of putting up stores in other shopping centers, Caryn Hirshleifer said: "It isn't something we have entertained. We basically have been really working to tweak this business. There's an unlimited number of things we can do to better serve the customer. We can find a vendor, get administrative functions to run smoother, provide better service and further develop the infrastructure to support all that and keep up with the growth. That's where our heads are now."

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