By  on February 7, 2006

NEW YORK — The medusa still gazes out onto Fifth Avenue, only now it's painted white rather than gold.

The visage is a hint of the changes inside the Versace flagship at 647 Fifth Avenue, where a six-month renovation has been completed.

The 20,000-square-foot store has been lightened up. One-and-a-half story windows, which were covered in the store's previous incarnation, are open to the sun. A light gray stucco on the walls has replaced the brownish earth tones. Ceilings are coated with white enamel. The burden of Baroque design and decoration has been lifted. What was once an overarching theme is now a discreet accent limited to one or two strategically placed metallic silver leather-covered Vanitas chairs. The cream-colored Carrera marble floors with inlaid mosaics date to the store's original 1995 design. They add a sense of luxury and warmth to the newly simplified space.

"The renovation marks the true meaning of Versace in America," Giancarlo Di Risio, chief executive officer of Versace, said in an interview. "It represents a whole new life for Versace in America. We are recapturing a new clientele. That's what we're trying to achieve with the change in the style and design of the products and the facelift of the stores."

Donatella Versace gave the new look her stamp of approval. "I'm very happy," she said. "I was looking for a cleaner and fresher image. The store was dated. It was overshadowing the clothes."

Versace has increased its local New York client base by 25 percent over the last five months, even after closing its store at 815 Madison Avenue in 2004, Di Risio said. For the month of January, the flagship had a 30 percent sales increase.

"We've noticed our business with department stores has also increased, especially Saks Fifth Avenue," he added. "They've confirmed our local clientele."

Some credit for the sales gains goes to the company's newly developed accessories business, which is showcased on the ground floor.

The entire first room is dedicated to handbags and shoes, including its Couture collection of handbags, which feature a Greek fret key pattern sewn into the leather. They're displayed on shelves covered in white leather or black lacquered wood. Built into the bottom of each shelf are tiny lights, which dramatically illuminate the items on the shelf below.Some of the most precious objects are enclosed in vitrines encased in blue-tinted Antelio crystal, a material imported from Italy.

Donatella Versace said she especially liked the way the accessories were displayed. "It's a little piece of art in a gallery," she said. "I know I can't talk about accessories as art, but that's what they look like."

Di Risio added, "We've seen a dramatic increase in sales of accessories, especially in the American market. In the course of one year, we've gone from 4 percent to 18 percent. Bags and shoes are where we have the biggest return and that's where we're focusing our energies."

The company is also expanding its watch and fine jewelry business. In addition to its successful DV One ceramic watch — sales of timepieces have grown 50 percent since last year — Versace will unveil a new watch line at Baselworld in late March. Also at that fair, the company will introduce a collection of fine jewelry designed in yellow and white gold with stones such as diamonds and sapphires.

"There's an area that will be exclusively dedicated to watches and jewelry," Di Risio said, referring to the mezzanine level of the Fifth Avenue flagship.

Sitting on a sleek black couch from the Versace home collection, Di Risio discussed the brand's latest evolution.

"It's offering a product that's in line with today's fashion," said Di Risio, who has been lobbying for ready-to-wear with less ornamentation. "It's a return to a brand that the public is looking to buy. We've gone from offering just red-carpet dresses, which are still a part of who we are, to increasing the daywear and obviously, the accessories."

While he wants to preserve the opulent and sensual aspects of Versace's DNA, he said buzzwords now are "elegance and refinement."

Donatella Versace agreed. "There's a new image for the clothes," she said. "They're less decorated."

On the home front, Versace will introduce a new collection of furniture, tabletop and bedding, among other products, at the April furniture fair in Milan. Di Risio described it as "characteristically Versace."With the New York renovation complete, Di Risio will next tackle the facelifts of the Los Angeles and Miami stores, followed by Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Once those stores are updated, he'll evaluate the need for additional stores in the U.S. One thing he knows is that "New York could definitely have another boutique. It's not going to happen in the near future and it would have to be in a neighborhood that's evolving."

Fifth Avenue has certainly been evolving since Versace put down roots more than a decade ago. The thoroughfare, once a bastion of luxury retailers, has seen an influx of populist chains such as Zara, H&M, Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

"This is a worldwide phenomenon," Di Risio said. "It's happening on the Ginza in Toyko and New Bond Street in London. Products cross over economic means to the consumer. A young man can go to secondary stores and invest in [expensive] eyewear."

For her part, Donatella Versace has a strong affinity for this city. "I love New York," she said. "I had a house here for 12 years. The fashion industry is getting stronger and stronger. I like the way women wear fashion in New York.

"I used to show Versus here. I wish I could come back with Versus. That's something to do in the future. Right now, I'm excited for tomorrow night," she said, referring to a celebrity-studded party to mark the store's renovation. "I know everybody's going to come."

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