By  on September 23, 2008

BOSTON — A financial crisis in the U.S. wasn’t exactly what Saks Fifth Avenue had in mind three years ago when it began a major renovation of its flagship here.

But the turmoil in the markets isn’t slowing down Saks’ plans to celebrate the conclusion of the project. With so much time, effort and millions of dollars invested, the luxury retailer is forging ahead with 27 parties, promotions and/or designer appearances during the next several months.

First up is a gala charity fund-raiser in the 115,300-square-foot store on Thursday, where executives will unveil the new facade and toast the conclusion of the redesign. As recently as late last week, work crews were scrambling to finish.

“This was one of the most disruptive remodels I’ve seen,” said Saks Inc. chairman and chief executive officer Stephen I. Sadove. “Our general manager did a wonderful job of keeping the store and her team intact.”

Renovations stopped each year from September through December in order to let fall and holiday selling proceed unhindered. For the rest of the year, departments were shuttled around, draped off and dusted — a lot, said store general manager Rosemarie Puya.

There was another major complication. The flagship is in the Prudential Center, a complex built over the Massachusetts Turnpike tunnels. In 2006, a concrete ceiling panel collapsed in a different city tunnel, killing a woman. A portion of tunnel ceiling under Saks had to be shored up as a precaution, delaying the project a year, Sadove said.

Still, he said the remodel positions the store for the long-term.

“Boston is a very important market and we believe a very good opportunity for long-term growth,” Sadove said. “We had a store that was highly productive, but was bursting at the seams in terms of space and had not been updated in a long time. It was worth putting the money in.”

Asked whether a sour economy would hurt, Sadove said: “As we look ahead to the future, we certainly feel very comfortable. We have a destination store.…There is an enormous amount of activity in and around the Prudential Center.”

Competitor Neiman Marcus opened a door in suburbanNatick, Mass., last year to go with its in-town unit. But Sadove said a downtown flagship is sufficient now for Saks.

Of 53 full-line stores Saks operates in the U.S., the Boston unit is among the 10 most profitable, Puya said.

Inspired by a luxury ocean liner, the overhaul features a ceiling with cutaway views of the upper floor, a new central staircase and a Swarovski crystal wall mural that’s the largest of its kind in North America. In concert with the ship design motif, the 22 branded shop-in-shops — before renovations there were three — serve as “berths.”

Louis Vuitton’s 1,600-square-foot leased department on the first floor is the largest single-brand space.

The two-story glass facade on Ring Road, which runs between Boylston and Huntington Avenues, is the most dramatic aspect of the overhaul. It replaces the columned portico and black glass windows that were part of the original Sixties design with a bright, open wall of glass. By enclosing space formerly occupied by the portico, Saks added 7,400 square feet of selling space.

“We needed the face-lift,” Puya said. “This sets us apart and gives a clean, sleek statement that we carry every designer brand customers could imagine.”

Many new labels have been brought in on the main selling floor during the renovation: Christian Louboutin, Aquascutum, Tory Burch, Natorious, Donna Karan and Valentino Red, among others. Almost every major international luxury powerhouse — from Armani to Zegna — has its own shop-in-shop.

In addition to enclosing the former portico, Saks also gained space by moving some back-office functions off site. The new space has been used to expand cosmetics, the Fifth Avenue private shopping club, handbags, women’s shoes and men’s and women’s contemporary clothing.

On the main floor, merchandise is arranged into a central oval (cosmetics, fragrance and jewelry) and a peripheral oval track (contemporary clothing, handbags and several men’s categories.) That arrangement mimics the ceiling’s architecture, which also features a long, backlit oval that’s another ship design reference. Mannequins in red, black and white fall outfits can be glimpsed through the ceiling cutaways, giving a sense of the fashion on the floors above.

Upstairs, the palette is hushed — all cream, white and dove grays — with accent walls covered in a hand-painted wallpaper of flowering branches. With its peony fabric chairs, the ladies’ shoe department has the feel of a posh sitting room.

Few items were marked down. Crocodile and lizard handbags from Nancy Gonzalez, priced $2,000 to $4,000 apiece, have been “unbelievable,” Puya said.

“We’ve started off to a good fall,” she said. “The iconic pieces from each brand — the things that are getting photographed — have been what people are wanting.”

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