NEW YORK — As with most things, Sir Paul Smith decided to open his new SoHo flagship on a lark.
"I didn't want to be in SoHo originally," said Smith on Monday, while on a stopover from Tokyo. "For years, I loved SoHo. Then I didn't like it so much because it seemed to attract all types of brands from all over the world, but it has taken a turn and has character again. I looked in the Meatpacking District, in Chelsea and uptown, but it was hard to find anywhere that had as nice a feeling as here."
Smith liked the feeling so much, he bought the entire building at 142 Greene Street, which once belonged to Helmut Lang, for $27.2 million last January, according to Propertyshark.com.
Not that he was in a hurry. Despite searching actively for the last few years, it has taken the designer 19 years to open his second store in New York, which joins his existing men's wear-only unit at 108 Fifth Avenue, one of Smith's most successful stores in the world. One reason for the delay is that the designer prefers to own his real estate, and the 5,000-square-foot SoHo store, which opened quietly last week, now presents Sir Paul's entire world to New Yorkers, including, for the first time, his women's wear. Smith's first flagship selling men's and women's in the U.S. opened in Los Angeles last fall (although that store, on Melrose Avenue, is, to Smith's chagrin, rented).
"We have a very different way of thinking," he said. "It's not about more, more, more all the time. It's just about more when it feels right to have more. We're a private company, and we are not aggressive in commercial terms. The priority was to have a great store in Milan and great stores in other areas."
The building also will serve as the home for his back-of-house operations, including the U.S. sales showroom and other administrative offices.
The interior of the store was conceived by Smith and his design team, and the look is unique to the unit with five small, connected rooms, each with its own flavor."I purposely made it into five rooms, so it's intriguing to go into because you keep discovering areas," Smith said. "One of the problems I find with SoHo premises is that they are normally big, empty spaces. Even with a lot of the really important brands, I find that their shops struggle to take on their own identity because, despite their beautiful shop fittings, you can still see it's just a 5,000-square-foot rectangle."
The window display sets itself apart from those of many of Smith's neighbors with a multistriped wooden wall created by British artist Richard Woods that resembles a house and blocks passersby from seeing in. Inside, the front "Garden Room" focuses mostly on accessories and other gadgets, such as a bicycle Smith designed with Mercian, and watches, wallets, gloves and scarves, which are displayed on oak shelves or in steel cabinets. That room leads into an imposing reproduction of the facade of Willoughby House, the building that houses the Paul Smith flagship in the designer's hometown of Nottingham — "so you have a bit of England brought here," Smith said. One door in the Georgian facade opens to the Travertine Room, which houses PS Paul Smith men's wear in an environment of Fifties furniture and a large bookcase with tomes devoted to gardening, cooking, architecture and design; another door leads to the White Room, which is like a boudoir, with molded ceilings, Murano glass chandeliers, gilded striped furniture and large dressing rooms covered with printed Forties wallpaper.
Smith's women's wear, which has limited distribution in the U.S., is sold at Barneys New York, Bloomingdale's, Henri Bendel and Betsy Bunky Nini in Manhattan. Women's accounts for 35 percent of overall revenues, and Paul Smith has a global wholesale turnover of $465 million per year. He said part of the problem here had been the early deliveries that retailers often require, but over the past two years, the company has been able to adjust its manufacturing cycle.
The store displays a capsule collection in the top-tier Blue Label called Men Only, which offers masculine styles geared to women, including shirtdresses, pants and brogues, loafers or Chelsea boots. By contrast, Blue Label itself is more feminine, done in lace and silks. Black Label offers "working girl clothes," Smith explained, including simple black suits or a basic black pair of pants.Women's items in the store include a Blue Label silk polkadot shirtdress for $1,055, a Blue Label leather trench for $3,080 and a Blue Label long knitted charcoal cardigan for $790. The store also has special, limited-edition pieces such as gold snakeskin boots for $1,475 and motorcycle boots in a collaboration with Triumph motorcycles for $655. The two back rooms — one of them has walls covered in art Smith has collected — are devoted to men's accessories and the tailored men's Black Label. Smith declined to give first-year projections for the store.
The designer has never achieved the expansion in the U.S. that he has accomplished in Europe and Japan, and North America continues to account for a small percentage of his total business. Japan accounts for the lion's share, at 54 percent; the U.K. brings in 18 percent; Europe, 16 percent, and North America, 7 percent. The remaining 5 percent comes from throughout the world. Smith hopes the new units in Los Angeles and New York will heighten the exposure of the brand Stateside, particularly in women's wear. His men's wear already has significant distribution through Neiman Marcus.
In the future, Smith expects growth in China, India and Russia. He has six stores in China, including one each in Beijing and Shanghai, and is looking to open a store in New Delhi early next year. But while Smith thinks China and India will be important sources of revenue in the long term, he questions their short-term viability. "It's important to be there, but no one is making any money in China at the moment," he said, adding his Beijing unit "does OK, but our Shanghai one doesn't."
Regardless, the designer will certainly have his hands full in the coming weeks. Next month, he plans to open a store on Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris and in Red Square in Moscow. ("There's serious business being done in Russia," he said.) For his next step here, Smith envisions a smaller store for his Red Ear jeans division of hand-dyed or hand-sewn jeans, which, according to the designer, have become a cult in Japan. "That might warrant its own tiny store on Elizabeth Street or Mulberry Street," he said. "And then, if [the new flagship] works in SoHo, we will possibly look at other cities, like San Francisco, but let's do some business here first."
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