By  on July 9, 2008

MILAN — The economy may be sluggish and consumer spending spotty, but that isn't stopping Italian fashion brands from investing in new store concepts to boost their visibility and hopefully gain market share.

Plain stores and basic product displays are no longer enough. Now stores need to have high-tech service, galleries and exhibition spaces, special projects and big-name architects or designers.

"Every 10 years, there's a change in merchandising," said Milan Vukmirovic, creative director of the new Trussardi 1911 men's project, whose first boutique opened in Milan during Men's Fashion Week. "There was a shift from cold minimalism to rich and luxurious, and there's a need today for a more personal, nonaggressive and intimate mood," said the designer, who peppered the store in a purple, coffee-brown and night-blue color palette with welcoming armchairs and cozy pillows, old oak tables and books and personal photographs. There also is a cafe in the courtyard.

Vukmirovic, the former Jil Sander designer and onetime creative director for Colette, is also editor in chief of Paris men's monthly L'Officiel Hommes.

Beatrice Trussardi, head of the family-owned company, said she and Vukmirovic are working on a Trussardi 1911 women's project and that a dedicated store will open opposite the men's one in central Via Sant'Andrea, in Milan's most prestigious shopping area. "This is a very important project for us because it goes back to the origins of our history," said Trussardi, referring to 1911, when the brand was founded. The project will eventually find a space at Trussardi's Marino alla Scala store, which also houses its headquarters.

Footwear designer Gianvito Rossi also aimed for a "confidential mood, fun and as far away as possible from minimalism" for his first concept store in Via Santo Spirito, a block away from Trussardi 1911, and located in the historical 19th-century palazzo-museum Bagatti Valsecchi. The building was designed in a neo-Renaissance style and Patricia Urquiola, tapped by Rossi to conceive the store, said she "played with three centuries [the 16th, 19th and 21st]."

Moroso and De Padova furniture, also designed by Urquiola, complete the decor of the store, which is all in plum, powder pink and bronze. A second store is slated to open in Paris at the end of the year.

Conversely, Belstaff went high-tech for its flagship on Piazza San Babila, on one end of the shopping promenade that reaches Milan's cathedral. The store has sliding curtains made with Optical Lighting Film that allow viewers to perceive details with a three-dimensional luminescent effect, and a new, specially patented LED lighting system.

Belstaff also has stores in London and Manchester in England, and Rome, Florence and Treviso in Italy. In these and in the new Milan store, the "Touch and Back" technology helps customers see themselves front and back through a system of cameras and plasma screens. There is also a bar in the garden — apparently a must-have for many retailers now.

Andrea Panconesi, owner of the iconic LuisaViaRoma store in Florence, also emphasized technology in his renovated store, which was unveiled last week during Pitti Uomo, the city's international men's wear exhibition. "We want to offer a different emotion connected to the purchase," said Panconesi, whose store carries brands from Givenchy and Maurizio Pecoraro to Giambattista Valli and Anna Sui. "This is the digital era and we can't think of a store as it was 20 years ago. Customers of today are entirely different from what they were back then."

Panconesi said the brick-and-mortar purchase should be combined with the virtual experience. "Shopping in the store is only the first step, which should be completed at home," he said, noting he updated the retailer's Web site to coincide with the store's renovation. His was one of the first boutiques to go online, in 1999.

"Today, it's not the product that makes the difference because it has a much larger distribution than in the past. The experience of the purchase is more important," said Panconesi. "A multimedia experience is fundamental and complementary, not alternative, and helps surprise and intrigue our customers." In-store exhibits and musical and themed events are a focus for Panconesi, who added a cafe to the renovated store.

Interactive is also how Napapijri's first Gallery Store in Milan is described by Martino Scabbia Guerrini, president of VF International Sportswear and Packs. The Italian brand is controlled by VF Corp. The store, he said, helps reinforce "the strong emotional connection between the product and the perception of it." Extending over 5,400 square feet, the store is also a permanent art and photography gallery with temporary exhibitions and events. For the opening, Napapijri, a brand inspired by travel and extreme conditions, staged a show on Antarctic exploration designed to raise awareness of global warming, and a presentation of photographs by Sebastian Copeland, who, with his cousin Orlando Bloom, explored the Antarctic in 2007 to promote the protection of the South Pole's threatened ecosystem. The show will run until September.

Artistic and artisanal engravings, works by 20th-century Scandinavian designers, burnished brass walls and ceilings, magnetically supported teak shelving that can be shifted, a skylight, an amphitheaterlike well and a huge steel and copper globe are only some of the store's surprising elements. "The globe is not only a symbol of travel, but also opens up to an inside room where the brand connects to its customers through an interactive audiovisual system," said Scabbia Guerrini. Projections, photos and videos showing famous explorations, discoveries and scientific initiatives that Napapijri supports complete the sensory experience.

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