NEW YORK — The banner on Asprey's coat of arms reads: "It can be done."
The luxury brand's new owners certainly hope so. They're determined to regain the pedigreed glory of Asprey and return it to growth after a disastrous attempt to expand the company by its previous ownership. A major step in the new strategy is the opening of a smaller flagship here after the failure of Asprey's $50 million, 20,000-square-foot superstore on Fifth Avenue, which closed a little over a year ago.
John Rigas, chairman and chief executive officer of asset management fund Sciens Capital Management, which along with Plainfield Asset Management acquired Asprey in March 2006, is employing a one-two punch.
Asprey remains a go-to emporium for patrician Brits to stockpile anything from heirloom-quality sterling flatware and alligator bags to custom-made items — when a chess set was famously commissioned for Ringo Starr, molds of his fingers were taken to ensure the pieces fit perfectly into the former Beatle's hands — but the brand is still an enigma to many Americans.
Rigas plans to change all that with the Thursday grand opening of a new store at 853 Madison Avenue at East 70th Street. The store, next door to Tom Ford's new men's emporium, had a soft opening last Tuesday.
The new owners' other gambit was hiring Hakan Rosenius, an alumnae of Paul Smith, as the brand's first creative director. Rosenius oversees design in each of the store's multiple categories, from fine jewelry to cut crystal, and unveiled his first collection of ready-to-wear during London Fashion Week in February.
"The goal of the Madison Avenue store is part of the overall objective of the company, which is to return it to the position of prominence prior to the last owners of the brand," said Rigas, who was referring to former owners Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou, co-chairmen of Sportswear Holdings Ltd. and the A&G Group. "I remember as a kid going to Asprey in London. You would find something you wouldn't find anywhere else and there was an appreciation of it. We're bringing it back in a contemporary way, not in a fuddy-duddy way."
Stroll and Chou acquired Asprey & Garrard in 2000 from Prince Jefri of Brunei. The duo spun off the jewelry house Garrard and had plans for Asprey to compete with the likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Tiffany and Bulgari. Rigas doesn't consider any of the aforementioned brands competitors — with the exception of Hermès, if only in its handbag and silks business. Those categories comprise only 9 percent and between 5 and 6 percent of Asprey's sales, respectively, and Rigas plans for silks to eventually come up to 8 or 9 percent of the brand's total revenues. Fine jewelry currently takes the lion's share of sales at Asprey, representing about 55 percent. Last year Asprey's sales reached $45 million compared with $43 million the year before.The move to the 7,500-square-foot Madison Avenue space is seen as integral to winnowing true luxury customers from window-shopping gawkers. Asprey is moving into a space formerly occupied by Yves Saint Laurent.
"We want to return it to a much more narrow brand that is exclusive," continued Rigas. "Madison Avenue is much closer to our natural customer base. We wanted to have a store that would be much warmer and intimate and be like a cocoon. We want the feeling to be [that of] a home. That's the level of intimacy the brand has to have with its client base."
The store has a cozy, intimate air and was inspired by architect Norman Foster's design of Asprey's Bond Street flagship in London, with pale blue-gray, dusty green and lilac walls — purple is Asprey's signature color. Its products include a $90,000 sterling silver Champagne cooler that holds an entire case of bubbly, a first edition of "The Da Vinci Code" and pristine antique furniture from fellow Madison Avenue antique shop Karl Kemp. The least expensive item in the store is the Purple Water fragrance at $50, which is also sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom.
The main floor of the store focuses on fine jewelry. Men's silver and enamel cuff links start at $500 and the links are also offered in gold with gemstones. A case of engagement rings and lofty diamond wedding bands stands alone. The brand has two proprietary diamond and gemstone cuts. The Asprey Cut, a cushion shape, boasts 61 facets for more brilliance and fire than the typical 57 or 58 facets of a cushion or round cut. The Eternal Cut, a round shape, has 81 facets.
Iconic jewelry collections such as the Daisy line, with diamonds and multicolored gemstones, can be found on the ground floor along with the new Chaos collection, with color-drenched, oval-shape gems set with a haphazard feel on pendants, rings and earrings. In the rear of the store are pearl and diamond suites featuring items like a South Sea collar, with a price tag of $74,000, which, like much of the jewelry, rests on brightly hued alligator-covered neck forms and displays made by artisans in the Asprey workshops above the Bond Street store.The ground floor also offers some home decor and gift items, such as silver gifts, picture frames, key chains and pens.
Up the stairs to the second floor will hang a quartet of 1985 Andy Warhol silk screens of Queen Elizabeth II done in shocking fuchsia, royal blue and aubergine, an homage to the company's most revered patron, for whom it retains the royal warrants.
"It's a great mix for Asprey in New York to be an old company with royals warrants, and that it's done by Andy Warhol, a New York artist," said Rosenius. "Art will be switched in and out of the store on a loan basis."
On the second story are rare books, stationery, china, silver and tabletop accessories. Handbags, including the brand's signature and hard-constructed 167 and Steamer bags, are offered in shiny or matte alligator in addition to lizard and ostrich, which the firm specializes in. Rosenius has also ordered soft-constructed bags such as the Darcy, a nod to the brand's goal of melding tradition with the contemporary.
"There's still a feeling that it's an extension of Bond Street, and we have it furnished like a home from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, and things like occasional lamps on the tables and fixtures," added Rosenius. "I'm the first creative director of Asprey that has overseen all product categories. [Asprey] is about luxury and craftsmanship. It has an incredible history, and you should always respect that. But you really need to make it modern and contemporary, but at the same time it should be timeless, which may sound like a contradiction."
Rosenius has taken a particular liking to the fine jewelry business, learning about the cuts and types of stones. He will launch his first complete jewelry collection — dubbed Diamond and Black and made with white diamonds and onyx — in September.
In honor of Asprey's 225th year in business, a new monogram canvas print called the London Arms has been created. Purple, blue or green leather is used to contrast with beige fabric on handbags, suitcases and shoes.
Some clothing, such as men's shirts and women's jackets, is available, but Rosenius has more in store. In February, he orchestrated a runway show in the Bond Street store, with men's and women's pieces that span a range of age groups. The clothes are meant to complete the product assortment, making it a one-stop lifestyle shop, not a fashion brand, noted Rigas and Rosenius.Gianluca Brozzetti, Asprey's chairman, said, "We said we were going to open a new store in New York after exiting Trump Tower and that's just what we were doing — just 10 months after the acquisition by new investors."
Brozzetti and Rigas declined to give sales projections, though Rigas said, "The projected sales will exceed what we did on Fifth Avenue."
Asprey plans to open stores in Moscow and New Delhi by the end of the year. But unlike under the previous owners, Rigas and the new team have no plans to blow out the number of retail doors. The company now has 20 points of sale, with flagships in New York and London, as well as 15 stores worldwide, some wholly owned, some franchised. Asprey is also sold via British Airways, Japan Air and All Nippon Airway, Japan's luxury airline.
"In the flagships, you have everything and the one-off products," said Rigas. "Then, it's important to have a series of stores that are satellite stores. You have to play it careful; it's very important."
The satellite stores, which are in locales such as St. Moritz, Hong Kong and Beverly Hills, offer a smaller selection of Asprey's wares, mostly handbags, designer fine jewelry and watches.
Asprey has launched a still-life ad campaign and plans a full lifestyle campaign with star ambassadors down the road. Actress Keira Knightley was formerly in the ads and it was said by many observers that she was too young and nubile for the brand.
"It's certainly one of the great luxury brands in the world," said Andrew Jassin, managing director of the Jassin O'Rourke Group, a New York consulting firm, adding that Asprey has a lot of potential for success in the U.S., but that success depends heavily on the right product mix and an appropriate marketing campaign.
Jassin counted the many flaws of the Fifth Avenue store: inappropriate products for Americans who were looking for wedding gifts and the like, the fact that Knightley did not match the mood of the stores and having products locked away in cases.
Except for the fine jewelry and watches, most products are accessible to shoppers at the Madison Avenue store. Jassin said another strategy for success in the U.S. was to wholesale products to Bergdorf's, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.Rigas declined to comment on whether the firm would consider a wholesale rollout other than the current distribution of Purple Water.
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