By  on April 13, 2010

PARIS — “I don’t think we can call it a store. This is beyond a store,” Ralph Lauren mused, seated in the sun-dappled, leafy courtyard of Europe’s largest retail statement for the American designer — a 23,000-square-foot flagship in a 17th-century town house on the Left Bank here. “This is my dream in Paris.”

To be sure, the designer’s third boutique in the French capital is an ambitious statement, spanning a 128-seat restaurant and four floors of fashion set in a series of transporting rooms: reminiscent of a Nantucket sailing club one minute; a grand, colonial parlor the next.

Throughout are enough artworks, chandeliers and painstakingly restored rococo details to rival a museum — a refined backdrop for one of Lauren’s most complete brand statements in Europe, spanning his various women’s and men’s collections, from runway looks to an attic showcase for rugged RRL denim. The unit boasts Lauren’s first watch salon in France, and his first eatery in Europe, dubbed Ralph’s and serving burgers and steaks from the grain-fed herds roaming the designer’s Colorado ranch.

Even Lauren himself felt compelled to spend, snapping up some Collection pieces for his wife, Ricky, and putting on reserve for himself an intricately beaded Navajo knit.

The store opens to the public Thursday, the morning after Lauren is to host a black-tie dinner for the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Anouk Aimée, among the French style icons he admires most. Also confirmed are Isabelle Huppert, Mélanie Laurent, Vincent Perez and Jean Reno. On Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will decorate Lauren, chairman and chief executive officer of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, to be followed by a dinner at the residence of the American ambassador, Charles Rivkin.

Leading WWD on a tour of the rambling store, which wraps around a picturesque, cobblestoned two-story courtyard, Lauren emphasized the residential scale of the 13,000 square feet of selling space, which fosters not only a sense of intimacy but also discovery as the various showcases unfold. On the second floor, devoted to women’s wear, the tour starts with leather goods in antique glass cases, progresses through runway looks from the Collection line and Black Label through to the bohemian spirit of the Blue Label and a jewel-box of a shoe salon.

“It’s like going into a lot of different boutiques. You see the diversity of the clothes,” Lauren said, pointing out that select vintage pieces are merchandised amid his designs, including an ecru jacket from 1910 composed of delicate tape-style lace, priced at 2,300 euros, or $3,104 at current exchange rates. “You go from dressy clothes, to weekend to rough wear to vintage,” the designer said.

Pausing on the winding limestone staircase, framed by an intricate iron rail produced by the same atelier that led the restoration of the Grille d’Honneur at the Versailles chateau, Lauren declared the Saint-Germain flagship adds up to “an experience. Clothes are about living. In my mind, it’s about a world.”

Lauren noted all manner of accessories, particularly leather goods, merited important exposure in the store, and rank as a key growth category as the company expands into fast-growing Asia. But he also spies plenty of room for growth in Europe given the New York-based firm’s variety of brands. RRL, for example, which this season expanded into women’s, will soon add a tailored clothing component, Lauren said. And as large as the Saint-Germain flagship is, next door to Sonia Rykiel, it could not house children’s wear and only touches of the Ralph Lauren Home Collection. Each may yet get their own showcase in the French capital.

“Our business is very good here,” continued Lauren, who was a pioneer American by setting his first Paris store, on the Place de la Madeleine, back in 1986, the same year he opened his Manhattan flagship in the Rhinelander mansion. “Paris is certainly a major city for us.”

In 2008, Lauren christened a 6,500-square-foot women’s boutique on the tony Avenue Montaigne, home to Harry Winston, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Chanel and the historic boutiques of Christian Dior and Nina Ricci, to name but a few.

The company declined to disclose sales projections for the new flagship. However, market sources estimate the store could generate annual sales of about 15 million euros, or $20.2 million at current exchange. Exclusive products at the store include a Ricky bag in denim blue crocodile for 16,325 euros, or $22,035.

Roger Farah, Polo’s president and chief operating officer, said the Left Bank flagship arrives at a buoyant moment for the firm’s European business.

“The business in Europe has held up well during the last 12 to 18 months of economic turbulence,” he said, citing revenue increases in all markets last year except Spain, which was roiled by the financial crisis and a steep drop in property prices.

Europe accounts for 18 percent of Polo Ralph Lauren’s business and is considered a key growth region, along with Asia, which generates 17 percent of sales. Farah said the goal is for each of those zones to account for one third of the business, ultimately equalling North America.

Indeed, Polo’s growth in Europe has been dramatic. When it took the previously licensed European business back in house in 2000, it was generating less than $200 million. Today, it’s in excess of $1 billion, Farah said.

“We’ve come a long way with the European business, and France is certainly one of the key countries,” he said, disclosing plans to renovate the Madeleine location in due course. About 35 percent of customers in Polo’s Paris stores are tourists, he noted.

Polo’s European stores are about 50 percent more productive than comparable units in America, Farah said. That’s because they tend to be located in high-traffic, city-center locations and thanks to higher full-price selling. “The European customer tends to buy fashion early, whereas the U.S. customer tends to be more buy now, wear now,” he explained. “We do more luxury as a percentage to total in Europe, and that’s true for men’s, women’s, accessories and footwear….Average price points per basket are higher than in the rest of the world.”

The executive also noted Polo’s women’s wear business is larger than men’s in Europe in its own stores.

Including the unit at 173 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Polo now counts 40 directly owned stores in Europe, the newest being resort locations in Saint Moritz and Gstaad, Switzerland, that opened last fall. Farah said Polo continues to scout new locations in resorts and urban centers, with Rome, Barcelona, Madrid and Berlin among priorities for future boutiques.

In tandem with its retail expansion, Polo has been boosting and upgrading its presence in the wholesale channel in Europe, with new corners for Blue Label in Paris’ Le Bon Marché, for example. “We are trading up and elevating our brand,” Farah stressed.

Polo will also launch e-commerce in Europe this fall, beginning with England and Germany, and rolling out to other countries in the union.

Polo arrives on Saint-Germain as the Left Bank begins receiving more attention from Europe’s luxury players. In February, Burberry opened a 4,800-square-foot unit just down the block from Polo, replacing a location on Rue de Rennes, and Hermès will set a large flagship on the Rue de Sèvres toward the end of the year.

Lauren described the Left Bank as “more artistic, romantic and creative,” and that helped steer the concept for the store, which glorifies the splendor of the historic building, constructed between 1681 and 1683 and originally the seat of the Dutch embassy. Over the centuries, it has been mainly a hôtel particulier, or private townhouse, but housed government offices in recent years and was vacant when Polo took over the lease.

The facade boasts classic French architecture, in carved, ornamental limestone, accentuated with wrought-iron railings and a zinc and slate roof.

Farah declined to disclose the cost of building the store; however, works were extensive over almost two years. While excavating the courtyard to create basement space for the restaurant’s kitchen, workers discovered a Roman well that had to be reviewed by French officials before works could continue. Inside, original details such as Versailles-style parquet flooring, oak paneling and plaster moldings were either restored or recreated to evoke the rococo period. The grand staircase, encircling two wooden elevators encased in an Eiffel-esque metal cage, is brand new but looks period perfect, in sync with Lauren’s cinematic approach to fashion.

Over a cappuccino, the designer reflected on the solid inroads he’s made in France, one of the few American designers to do so. “In the beginning, they knew me for men’s wear and preppy,” he said of his European customers. “As we became more of a global company, we had a lot more to say in terms of product.”

Lauren said he comes to Paris infrequently but falls under its spell every time. “It’s the most romantic city, the most beautiful city,” he said, mentioning Cartier, Hermès and the Louvre among places he likes to visit.

“You come to this city and your heart starts to beat, especially at this time of the year,” he said. “Someone once said, ‘Every time spring comes, it feels like you’re seeing it for the first time.’ I feel the same way about Paris. I always discover something new.”

The designer noted many of his executives from the U.S., in town for the opening, suddenly added jaunty scarves to their sportswear ensembles. “My son has been here for three days, and he looks Parisian,” he said, pointing at David Lauren, Polo’s senior vice president of advertising. “I think Parisians do have a look. There is a flair.”

Asked to account for his wide popularity in France, whereas other American brands have retreated, he replied: “I stand for something that’s individual….This is a good expression of an American coming to Paris.”

Lauren acknowledged France’s culinary heritage loomed large when he mulled opening a restaurant. Nevertheless, he spied an opening for one serving simple, albeit upscale, American fare, including what’s billed as the best hamburger in Paris, priced at 27 euros, or $36.45 at current exchange. The main dining room, located in the former stables, is cozy and rustic, while courtyard seating features large, pillow-strewn banquettes and a babbling horse-watering fountain.

“I think France is a place to enjoy life, and it’s where people take time — and shopping and dining are two of the most important things,” he said, flashing a big smile.

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