By  on August 20, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Tory Burch was attracted by the ambience. Prada’s new flagship is there, and Gucci, Chanel and Hermès are among the neighbors.

Maiden Lane, a narrow, two-block stretch off busy Union Square that features San Francisco’s only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, has been energized by a widening roster of high-end boutiques.

Burch opens a store next month and Sweden’s Filippa K bows in October, marking the designer’s U.S. debut. Prada’s 5,650-square-foot flagship launched last month with a secondary Maiden Lane entrance that leads to women’s wear and shoes and is across from Hermès. In September, Gucci moves up Stockton Street a few doors to a larger 7,000-square-foot store on the corner of Maiden Lane.

“When we started looking in San Francisco we immediately thought of Maiden Lane,” Burch said, praising the street’s tucked-away feel and mix of luxury boutiques.

Her 1,500-square-foot store is at 50 Maiden Lane, the block between Kearney and Grant Streets, where she joins Tse cashmere apparel, London Sole ballet flats, Manika artisan jewelry, Christofle, the French silver housewares purveyor, and Mont Blanc. Another neighbor is Gumps, a retailer of luxury gifts, home decor and jewelry founded in 1861. An iconic store signature is the large gilded Ch’ing Dynasty wooden Buddha on the first floor, acquired during an early 20th-century buying trip.

Maiden Lane becomes a pedestrian mall from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. On each of the two blocks — the second runs from Grant to Stockton Streets and dead ends at Union Square — there is an outdoor bistro where jazz combos entertain. On weekends, art galleries set up booths in the street and singers perform for tips.

The lane also is home to a small Frank Lloyd Wright building, now the Xanadu Gallery, with a collection of tribal artifacts and jewelry. Built in 1948 as a gift shop, the building features a circular ramp to the second floor that evokes Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York.

During San Francisco’s swashbuckling era in the mid-1880s, after gold was discovered inland, brothels lined Maiden Lane, then called Morton Street. The thoroughfare evolved into a mercantile district of storefronts, cafes and an annual flower show. Alfred Hitchcock designed a set in his 1963 classic “The Birds” to resemble Robison’s House of Pets — now closed — on the lane. In the scene, Tippi Hedren walks into the shop, and the director walks out with two Sealyham terriers.

Despite the troubled economy, which has hit particularly hard in California, San Francisco remains a robust market. The city is ranked third among U.S. metropolitan areas in per capita income at $61,337 annually, according to the Commerce Department. The Stamford, Conn. metro area is first at $80,192 and Naples, Fla., is second at $61,788.

In addition, tourism remains healthy. The number of arriving travelers at San Francisco International Airport increased 8.75 percent through May compared with the year-ago period.

Vikki Johnson, a real estate agent with Johnson-Hoke, which represents several Union Square building owners with fashion tenants, said Maiden Lane’s allure got a boost when Marc Jacobs opened his second U.S. boutique there in 2000. Yves Saint Laurent followed with a store across the street that is next door to the new Gucci.

“It’s very chic for a luxury store to locate off the beaten path, as long as you’re not by yourself,” she said. “Now Maiden Lane is a destination.”

Rents are about $200 a square foot, compared with $300 for Grant Street and more than $400 on the Stockton Street side of Union Square.

Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs, said when the designer opened on Maiden Lane the only luxury fashion tenant was Chanel and Jil Sander had recently closed. The choice of locations was a surprise in the luxury retail community.

“People worried we wouldn’t get traffic,” he said. To the contrary, Duffy and Jacobs saw the lane as a European-style pedestrian shopping district. “You turn down Maiden Lane from busy Union Square and all of a sudden you don’t hear anything. It has all the charm of a little village.”

Duffy said the Maiden Lane store is among the three highest performing Jacobs boutiques in the company’s eight U.S. markets. In addition to the city’s affluence, Duffy said San Francisco was picked for a store because of the large number of second homeowners from the East Coast, as well as Japan, South Korea and China.

Similar qualities drew Swedish designer Filippa Knutsson to locate her first U.S. store in San Francisco. She selected a 2,800-square-foot space near Tory Burch.

“I appreciate simplicity and quality and I think that will be reflected in this store,” Knutsson said, describing the city’s streetscapes as “a real meeting between Europe and the U.S.”

Other fashion tenants on Maiden Lane include John Varvatos, which opened in May selling mostly men’s wear and, like its neighbor Chanel, also has a door on nearby Geary Street.“Maiden Lane is a sweet, walking street and Geary has all this energy,” Varvatos said.

Next door to Varvatos is Britex, a fabric and notions store since 1952 with a deep inventory that’s popular among local fashion and Hollywood costume designers. Theory and San Francisco-based Glory Chen designer shoes are among the newcomers that opened for spring, along with Austria-based Wolford hosiery.

Gucci, which has had a presence in San Francisco for two decades, is moving to the corner of Stockton and Maiden Lane from nearby Stockton and Geary —a change from one prominent corner to another prompted by the need for more space, a better store facade and improved ventilation, said Daniella Vitale, president of Gucci America. The new store will be two levels and 11,500 square feet.

“San Francisco is one of our top flagships in the world,” Vitale said.

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