By  on December 12, 2005

HONG KONG — Complete with a glass staircase that changes color and pattern as shoppers climb or descend, Louis Vuitton's latest, and biggest, palace of luxury opened here — a flagship for the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region and a beacon for Chinese customers, its third-largest clientele.

"It's a fashionista city: To succeed here is key," declared Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Yves Carcelle.

Indeed, that ready-to-wear is prominently featured in four of Vuitton's six Hong Kong locations — with the new flagship devoting most of the first floor to women's rtw and the basement to men's — speaks both to the sophisticated fashion appetite here and the extent of Vuitton's diversification drive beyond its core leather goods.

Watches and fine jewelry, launched in 2002 and 2004, respectively, also occupy prime corner real estate over two floors linked by another spectacular staircase, this one an elegant cage of gleaming steel rods.

The 11,800-square-foot flagship at The Landmark, only the fourth unit Vuitton has anointed as a maison, or "house," cements Hong Kong as a preeminent international shopping destination. The other maisons are in Paris, Tokyo and New York, each displaying the complete Vuitton product universe along with features such as VIP fitting rooms and "bag bars" that serve up leather goods instead of martinis.

The new store was christened with everything from a dragon dance and feng shui ceremony to a celebrity-studded party in a clear tent erected on the rooftop. Vuitton artistic director Marc Jacobs flew in especially for the festivities, wrangling supermodel Gisele Bündchen, South Korean actor Lee Young Ae, local movie heroes Maggie Q and Josie Ho and Hong Kong business tycoons Dickson Poon and casino giant Stanley Ho.

Creating spectacular facades in this mall-based city is the latest game of one-upmanship being played out here by Europe's major luxury brands — and the Vuitton flagship is no exception.

Only a few blocks away from Chanel, which last week unveiled a five-story LED facade that nightly broadcasts a constantly shifting rendering of its signature tweed, Vuitton's site boasts what it trumpets as the largest street-facing facade in Hong Kong.

Conceived by Japanese architect Jun Aoki, it consists of 7,000 aluminum shards, some polished, some brushed, that function as vertical louvers, creating an eye-catching effect during the daytime. At night, an LED system animates the shards with a kaleidoscope of colored light. "In a city like Hong Kong, where every building has to shine a little bit more, the facade is key," Carcelle said.The interior, described by architect Peter Marino as light, handsome and fun, has no shortage of fireworks, either. These include a mirrored ceiling over the stairwell that reflects the images on the steps below, a gallery of vintage trunks suspended in midair and an artfully backlit wall of nests for Vuitton's latest product foray, sunglasses.

High-margin leather goods and luggage get prime positioning in the ground floor's expansive main room and handbag "bar" room in the rear, which is Vuitton's longest in the world. They are also represented on the first and basement floors, including a station for custom orders.

Carcelle declined to give first-year sales projections, nor would he say how much it cost to build the brand's latest glittering retail outpost. However, at a press conference later, Carcelle said Vuitton invests roughly 200 million euros, or about $234 million at current exchange, a year to expand and upgrade its retail network.

Vuitton will end 2005 with 346 stores, with a location in Chevy Chase, Md., near Washington, still to bow before yearend.

And it will continue to step up its Asian presence next year. Besides an enlarged location at the Peninsula Hotel here opening in January, Vuitton disclosed plans to expand its location in Taipei, open a boutique in Taichung City and enlarge its location in Beijing's Peninsula Hotel.

Carcelle added that Vuitton also would open in two other Chinese cities, which still are being selected. A pioneer in China, Vuitton already operates 12 stores there. Last month, it christened a major flagship at the base of the China World skyscraper in Beijing.

Vuitton has been present in Hong Kong for 26 years and has operated a store on Pedder Street since 1982, last expanding it in 1998. The location is one of the key attractions in The Landmark complex in Hong Kong's Central district, a mall which also boasts such nameplates as Harvey Nichols, Christian Dior, Fendi, Lanvin and Michael Kors.

"The economy is very good here," Carcelle noted, citing robust demand from well-heeled, fashion-obsessed locals and tourists, especially a rising flood of Chinese visitors from the mainland. "Hong Kong has become the shopping haven of mainlanders."Japan remains Vuitton's number-one market, followed by the U.S., with China gaining quickly. Carcelle said Vuitton also would continue to invest in communications and events in the region to sustain its momentum. To wit: As an additional attraction for last week's opening, Vuitton shipped in a massive Anish Kapoor sculpture, part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton's collection. It will be displayed in the mall's atrium until Dec. 15 before moving to other locations in the city and region.

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