NEW YORK — Another designer temple?

The first Sean John store opening today at 475 Fifth Avenue could have been just that, considering P. Diddy’s larger than life persona, and his dream to grow Sean John, as he says, into a “global lifestyle brand.”

And it’s got a majestic entrance with huge slabs of Idaho travertine that flow into the interior, a 22-foot wide window, and an inside inspired by P. Diddy’s apartment and lifestyle, not to mention the prestigious Fifth Avenue address.

Yet Sean John, on the southeast corner of 41st Street across from the New York Public Library’s famous lions, hardly falls in line with Fifth Avenue’s phalanx of designer flagships. In the 50s, designer flagships can be three to five times larger, far more elaborate and costly in their design, and ego-driven.

To the contrary, Sean John is an unintimidating, easy-to-shop, 3,000 square feet of selling space, driven by product development and a strategy focused on attaining profitability fast. The Sean John team restrains from calling the store a flagship, and ego seems secondary to profit and product. While there are plenty of photos of P. Diddy on video sets and in the studio, they’re on shelves above eye-level, as part of the backdrop.

“We want to give our customers a shopping experience like none they have ever had,” said Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, founder and president of Sean John, which is currently about a $400 million business at retail. “We are excited about sharing our vision of the Sean John lifestyle with the world. This store will provide a physical presence for the brand and set the tone for the global expansion of Sean John.”

For any designer or manufacturer, entering retailing is always a gamble, and Sean John’s location, on a stretch of Fifth Avenue virtually devoid of better fashion retailing, adds to the risk. Between Saks Fifth Avenue on 49th Street and Lord & Taylor on 38th Street, the only other fashion stores are Ann Taylor, Fossil, Forman’s, Sisley, Zale, and The New York Look. However, there’s plenty of foot traffic, fueled by Grand Central Station, Bryant Park, the library and the vast office-worker population.Sean John, considering its drawing power, could be the magnet that pulls additional fashion retailers to the area, and there are signs that’s already happening, with Zale opening last week on the southeast corner of 38th Street.

“We firmly believe this store will change the landscape between 34th and 42nd Streets,” said Charles Soriano, Sean John’s vice president of retail. “It’s really the crossroads of the world. There’s incredible local and tourist traffic that will supply us with the sales per square foot we need. We want to create a buzz in this area, much like Jeffrey did in the Meatpacking District.”

The retail game plan for Sean John is “first and foremost to develop a profitable, scalable business model, with a merchandising strategy, product strategy, and a real estate strategy that can extend itself beyond one door,” Soriano said. “Once we have this perfected, which we will, we will have the capacity to expand across the world. But first things first. We want to make sure we have this model right.”

Market sources said Sean John is seeking around $1,000 in sales per square foot at the location, which translates to about $3 million in annual sales. Soriano would not comment on sales, though he did say, “We are planning to achieve sales per square foot comparable to competitors up the street on Fifth Avenue, and planning the store to be profitable in the first year or year and a half.”

The site was also chosen because its rent is lower compared with Fifth Avenue in the 50s, the prime stretch for fashion retailing. Rents on Fifth Avenue around 42nd Street are anywhere from $150 to $200 a square foot for a corner location, whereas in the 50s, they can be as high as $500 to over $1,000 a square foot. One source said Sean John received some free rent, possibly for a year, but Soriano would not discuss the rent rate. Previously Steve Greenberg, of The Greenberg Group retail real estate consultants, which has been working with Sean John, said the brand was paying a third of the rents seen along Fifth Avenue in the 50s.

Building costs were kept down too, according to Greg Anderson of InSite Development, the project management firm that helped develop the concept and build the store. He said Sean John spent less than other Fifth Avenue stores, which he said cost a minimum of $1,000 a foot to build, but can go as high as $3,000.The interior is monochromatic and undeniably men’s wear in character, with cream and chocolate brown tones. The walls and fixtures are in Macassar zebra wood and shagreen, with champagne metal trims, brushed nickel hardware, frosted bronze glass walls, and smoke colored acrylic panels. “It’s quintessential Sean John,” Soriano said.

The entrance has two oversized glass doors, 10-feet-tall each, and just inside, there’s a long 60-foot corridor, which Soriano called a “runway.” It forms the access to merchandised rooms on the right, about 100 square feet each, that flow like a gallery, with areas for gifts, home decor, accessories, sunglasses and men’s grooming products. The left side of runway is merchandised along the wall.

The store’s other major element is the main shopping area to the left of the runway corridor. The store carries men’s wear, including Sean John’s sportswear, outerwear, leather goods, accessories, furnishings, boys’ clothing, and the higher-priced Sean John Collection for suits, ties, shirts, home and grooming products. A great deal of merchandise has been developed expressly for the store, including exclusive sunglasses, pillows, faux fur throws, iPod cases, grooming products, and dog clothing and accessories designed by Fifi & Romeo of Los Angeles. Sean John shirts and ties are produced by Phillips-Van Heusen and Mulberry, respectively.

Premium denim starts at $100. Other exclusives are limited edition studded jeans, priced at $250, faux mink throws with faux suede trim priced at $895 and matching pillows, $205.

There’s a separate entrance on 41st Street for slipping in celebrity clients, who will get whisked into a VIP room with a bar, and work with a personal shopper.

“We firmly believe in the lifestyle approach to retailing, and part of that approach is nonapparel product, to complement our existing apparel lines we have developed several exclusive product categories for the retail stores,” said Jeffrey Tweedy, executive vice president of Sean John.

Sean John plans to introduce women’s sportswear for fall 2005, and it’s possible that the Fifth Avenue store will accommodate some women’s. If women’s get to point where it’s big with consumers, Tweedy said Sean John women’s stores could be developed.“If men’s is incredibly productive, why disturb that? Why disrupt the success?” added Soriano. “Women’s is a very important component of a global lifestyle brand. At this point, it is difficult to say how much business we will do in women’s.”

Future stores, men’s or women’s, will be smaller than the Fifth Avenue unit. Tweedy said they will likely contain around 3,000 square feet [gross] while Fifth Avenue has 3,500 square feet. “Usually you read about designers opening 10,000 to 30,000 square feet. We are not interested in that,” Tweedy said. “We are interested in making money. The store has the best taste level, but we’ve kept sensible about the budget and being profitable. We are rolling this out to be in the retail business. First in our thought process was to keep these things small.”

Asked how aggressive the retail rollout will be, Tweedy replied, “We are not going to be foolish. We will let the consumer create the demand for us. I’m not looking to be the Gap.” He said there is no concrete expansion plan.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that a U.S. chain of 200 to 300 stores is envisioned, but Soriano said the only other definite store is in the Beverly Center in Los Angeles for an April 2005 opening. A store in Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J. is in the works, and deals are pending in Las Vegas, Houston, Hawaii, and the San Francisco area. Another Manhattan store is “definitely an option,” Soriano said. “Again, it all hinges on the success of our Fifth Avenue store. It isn’t so much a time continuum as a profitability continuum. Once we reach certain financial objectives and achieved certain metrics, we will be able to expand.”

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