By  on November 8, 2005

NEW YORK — Abercrombie & Fitch moves beyond the mall and onto Fifth Avenue with the opening Thursday of its first flagship.

The store is tall, dark and mysterious, larger than any other in the chain, and potentially the brand's top-volume unit. Sources said the 36,000-square-foot location, including 27,000 square feet and four levels of selling space, should generate around $40 million in annual sales, given its high-profile, high-traffic location on the northwest corner of 56th Street, a former Fendi site. That's roughly twice the volume of A&F's only other Manhattan site, the 16,800-square-foot store in the South Street Seaport.

Michael Jeffries, chairman and chief executive officer of Abercrombie & Fitch, said the intent with the flagship was "to create an experience.…It's emotional."

The vast majority of A&F's stores are situated in better malls around the country, though at one time, the company operated a store in Trump Tower, which was eventually closed, leaving the store at the Seaport its sole Manhattan unit.

During a tour on Monday, Jeffries explained that Abercrombie & Fitch has "maxed out" on opening stores in malls that maintain the "aspirational" character of the brand, and that urban flagships represent the new venue to sustain growth. The unit here, at 720 Fifth Avenue, is considered the prototype, with some elements of the interior expected to also filter into mall-based stores as new ones open or others get renovated.

Though the store is certainly dramatic and costly, officials don't consider it a monument to the brand. "We will make money," at the location, and relatively quickly, Jeffries said. He emphasized that all Abercrombie & Fitch stores, except for a "handful," are money-makers.

He also said the company plans to open additional flagships in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 2006, which will be followed by the company's first overseas store in London, in 2007.

Jeffries described the Fifth Avenue store as "a prototype for international stores in the future," though London is the only city announced. Still, while the urban flagship strategy gathers steam, Jeffries was clear to state the company will remain mostly driven by the success of its mall business.The Fifth Avenue space casts an air of intrigue with a facade of closed window shutters — there will be no window displays — and a darkish interior reminiscent of the mood inside Ruehl, another Abercrombie division. It's enhanced by sturdy oak columns, bronze fixturing and a striking central staircase with frosted glass steps, lattice railings and a mural by Mark Beard depicting muscular, near-naked rope climbers in a setting from the Thirties.

The new store, designed in collaboration with Annabelle Selldorf, cost $800 to $900 a foot to build, according to industry sources. Based on the selling square footage, the store could have cost around $25 million.

In the vestibule, just past two sets of imposing 11 1/2-foot glass doors that slide open automatically, are two denim bars on either side of the store. Denims are offered in 12 fits and 28 washes, ranging from the Abercrombie & Fitch opening price of $69.50 to the Ezra Fitch premium "destroy wash" boot jean for $168. Overall, the store separates women's merchandise on the right, from the men's wear on the left, with denim representing roughly 20 percent of the inventory.

Deeper into the store are sexy layered combinations of camisoles, sweaters and T-shirts, prominently displayed on forms and in unusual tubular glass display vitrines. There are also new looks and fabric combinations for A&F, such as fleece sweatshirts and outerwear that's lined with faux fur, and soft cotton military bottoms, as well as an extensive array of cashmere sweaters, generally $128 to $200, in basic grays and blues as well as earth tones and brighter colors, and chunky wool cable knits with big buttons priced at $89. Often sweaters are merchandised in curved caselines with aged brass for a classic touch inspired by the grande-dame downtown department stores of yesteryear.

All of the merchandise is either under the Abercrombie & Fitch or Ezra Fitch labels, while the fragrances, sold in the rear of the store, are under the Ready, Ezra, Eight, Signature and Now labels.

There are also plenty of logoed tops and T-shirts with irreverent but not vulgar messages. A&F has occasionally emblazoned more controversial messages on shirts, including some that were abruptly removed from the shelves due to public outcry. The humor is still evident, however, on some of the Ts, with messages such as "When the going gets tough, the tough go blond" and "I had a nightmare I was a brunette." It is not known whether these were inspired by Jeffries, who happens to be blonde.Sprinkled around the store are displays of old guns, canoes, snowshoes, shotguns and skis, as well as a lone moose head. They reflect the origins of a store that once catered to adventurers and explorers. "We are going back to our heritage," said Jeffries.

But the flagship's message is as much about the modern day, considering the hunky imagery, particularly the large graphics of a bare-chested Matt Ratliff, the latest face of Abercrombie & Fitch featured on the cover of the brand's most recent catalogue.

Building flagships in New York, or any other major city for that matter, has never been the focus for Abercrombie & Fitch, until recently. Jeffries said the Manhattan flagship was two years in the making.

The company was launched in 1892 as a small store and factory in downtown New York, later moving to a more fashionable address in Midtown on Madison Avenue. The first shop was devoted to hunting gear, fishing and camping equipment, and catered to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Admiral Perry and Ernest Hemingway.

Over the decades, the brand endured some ownership changes and image transformations, evolving from a haberdashery selling an eclectic range with everything from shotguns to bow ties to frumpy women's wear. Jeffries took the helm in 1992, when A&F was owned by Limited Brands. A&F ultimately became independent when Limited spun it off into a separate company in 1998, after an initial public offering in 1996.

Under Jeffries, Abercrombie was reinvented, with a sharper identity and a youthful and sexy appeal geared to a college audience.

Jeffries also expanded the business to its current 352 Abercrombie & Fitch stores around the country, and developed new divisions including Hollister, which has more of a teenage appeal; abercrombie, which is geared to kids, and last year, Ruehl, for the post-college crowd.

The company exceeded $2 billion sales this year and recorded $217.5 million in net profits. Aside from the flagship strategy, most of its square footage growth will come out of Hollister openings, according to the company.

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