By  on June 8, 2006

NEW YORK — On a sunny afternoon last week, customers and sales personnel at the new M Missoni boutique on West Broadway in SoHo looked so friendly that it was hard to believe the store had opened only four days earlier.

Three young women exchanged air kisses with an employee wearing a signature knit dress with undulating stripes of blue, green and yellow. The store's "dress of the week" policy has staffers donning the same design for seven days so consumers can see how it looks on a variety of people. Minutes later, Diane Levbarg, executive vice president of Missoni USA, walked in wearing a jacket that clearly belonged to the designer collection. She checked out the store and congratulated the staff before climbing back into her waiting car.

The scene is what Graziano di Boni, president and chief executive officer of Valentino USA Inc., envisioned when he leased the 2,500-square-foot store — M Missoni's first unit worldwide. It was a mix of locals, tourists, pretty-young-things and uptown matrons looking to spice up their wardrobes with the sexy, brightly colored line, which is licensed to the Valentino Fashion Group, formerly Marzotto, and priced well below the Missoni designer collection.

"This neighborhood works great for our product," di Boni said, referring to SoHo's cross-section of customers. "This collection dresses people of different ages and different lifestyles."

Di Boni anticipates the store will generate $1.5 million in first-year sales. "Eventually, it will do much more," he added. "Sales for the few days we've been open have been above our expectations."

M Missoni, which had a worldwide wholesale volume of $45 million in 2005, has been growing for five years, reporting a 25 percent increase in sales last year. The U.S. wholesale market represents 45 percent of M Missoni's business worldwide. Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Scoop and Fred Segal, among others, sell the brand.

Di Boni decided to introduce M Missoni on West Broadway rather than Paris' St.-Germain-des-Pres or Milan's Via Manzoni because "the U.S. market is still unexploited by Europeans," he said. "M Missoni is a little more sophisticated than a contemporary American product. You have a lot of contemporary brands but none with a designer name. This can become a very sizable opportunity in the U.S. and overseas."Di Boni foresees opening 30 stores or more in the U.S. in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Boston and Atlanta. He's also keen on smaller markets that rarely catch the fashion industry's attention, such as Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, St. Louis, and Des Moines. "There's a growing appeal and desire for better products in these places," he said. "Women in these places have much less access to European products. These are places where opening an M Missoni store will be a big deal. The only thing serving these markets is the Internet."

The SoHo store has occasioned M Missoni's first advertising campaign, which was photographed here by Patrick Demarchelier and will bow in the fall. "For the last few years, we've focussed on getting the product, service, deliveries and pricing right," di Boni said. "Now with the boutique open, it makes sense for us to be more visible."

"The opening of this first M Missoni boutique in New York is a result of the outstanding success this line has had in the U.S.," said Angela Missoni, creative director for the House of Missoni. "I conceived the M Missoni line as a collection of wearable pieces, easy to mix and match, made with practical, comfortable materials and designed to be used and reinvented season after season."

Dresses range from $400 to $700, sweaters start at $395, a long cardigan is $695 and canvas and leather handbags are $395.

"M is a very important line for us," said Vittorio Missoni, sales and marketing manager of the family-owned company. "We're discussing opening stores in China. In Japan, we are reaching an agreement for M with our Missoni distributor. Opening stores in Europe is also in our plan. M has opportunities all over the world, even in new markets, whereas Missoni as the flagship brand needs to be more conservative."

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