By  on December 4, 2003

NEW YORK — The Asprey push has begun.

The venerable English brand has invested an estimated $50 million in its new 20,000-square-foot flagship at 723 Fifth Avenue here, which opened its doors quietly on Tuesday. The three-floor store is the first visible manifestation of the new version of Asprey being built by Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou, co-chairmen of Sportswear Holdings Ltd. and the A&G Group.

A second store of similar size — and costing another $50 million — will open on London’s Old Bond Street next spring.

The goal of Stroll and Chou is simple: to turn Asprey into a global luxury brand on the scale of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and Cartier — but bigger and better.

So it should come as no surprise that the new version of Asprey currently offers about 11,000 stockkeeping units, of which 5,000 are new. The 20,000-square-foot flagship will eventually feature a total of 31,000 items for sale.

It might be the biggest single-brand luxury store to open in Manhattan’s history and the dynamic duo with deep pockets hopes it will alter not just this strip of Fifth Avenue — until recently a Looney Tunes wonderland — but also set a new standard for the luxury goods business. In today’s tough retail climate, where sales signs are as common as poor earnings results, it could come off as a little pretentious, but Stroll said he and his partners, who include Edgar Bronfman Jr., are convinced the Asprey equation will work based on the heritage and brand equity of the Asprey name and the strength of the new product.

“From glass to china and jewelry, it’s all done in the same luxurious way, and that’s really the future of luxury,” Stroll said. “Each is a legitimate business on its own. We have as much ready-to-wear as a ready-to-wear company, as much jewelry as a jewelry company…but all together under the same roof with the same design aesthetic.”

With seemingly no expense spared, the new Asprey is heaving with luxurious design details, from curved glass windows to fine mahogany and bronze display fixtures and limestone floors — all echoing the company’s original headquarters at 167 Old Bond Street in London, but without the old-world feel, dated color schemes and sense of stuffiness that some felt plagued the English luxury brand in the past.“The design of the product and the store is a foot in the past and a foot in the future,” said Stroll on a walk-through of the store on Tuesday. “We are drawing on Asprey’s heritage and adding a modern sensibility.”

This was one of the priciest retail projects in Manhattan. First-year projections for New York are between $30 million and $40 million and, as reported, the plan is to reach a volume of up to $400 million in 10 years with a network of stores, wholesale accounts and in-store shops in upscale stores.

“It’s an investment,” said Stroll. “You cannot tell Asprey’s lifestyle story without these stores.”

Both stores were scheduled to open simultaneously, but Asprey’s Bond Street opening has been pushed back until spring because of complications with building laws. The company’s London flagship actually occupies a series of separate town houses, all of which have to be redone and reorganized.

It’s taken three years and a design team that includes Hussein Chalayan, Thierry de Baschmakoff and Alessandra Gradi — not to mention interior decorator David Mlinaric and architect Lord Norman Foster — to change Asprey into a modern British luxury goods firm.

While customers have had a sampling of the new Asprey in the ad campaign featuring actress Keira Knightley, the Fifth Avenue store unveils the complete Asprey story, from the new store design to new product categories such as rtw, and an overhauled and repositioned assortment of luxury handbags, shoes, fine jewelry, watches, clocks, silver, fine and rare books, gifts, games and china.

During the walk-through, Stroll couldn’t help but swoon about Asprey’s new look and product, stopping continuously to feel the hand of a double-sided cashmere coat or swiping his fingers across the smooth surface of the mahogany cases.

“I feel like a father who just gave birth, three and a half years later,” he said. “It’s clearly one of the proudest moments of my life. We put together a great team of people and we have all worked tremendously hard.”

Since 1781, Asprey has been supplying international royalty, celebrities and luxury aficionados with its own particular flavor of luxury. Stroll and Chou acquired Asprey & Garrard in 2000 from Prince Jefri of Brunei, and demerged the two brands with the aim of turning Asprey into a luxury powerhouse to compete with the likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Tiffany and Bulgari.The Fifth Avenue store, which is across from Fendi and shares a block with Tiffany, features an imposing facade made of triple-height arched windows with black and white fin-like separations.

“In London, Asprey is known for its arched windows,” Stroll said. “We wanted Norman Foster to do this in a modern interpretation of London, hence the curved glass.”

On the first floor, customers encounter Asprey’s assortment of fine jewelry, watches, gifts and leather goods, including handbags from the new Horse collection, which is priced from $1,350 for a handbag to $25,000 for a large trunk. The handbag collection features an interchangeable case, available in such materials as canvas or ponyskin, encased by bridle leather horse straps, and finished with Asprey’s new signature “167 Old Bond Street” button.

The main floor also has two original curved fixtures from the London store, circa 1921, that serve to give customers a sense of how the store’s curved mahogany fixtures remain true to Asprey’s roots. “The new fixtures don’t feel antique or old, but also are not too contemporary,” Stroll noted.

Between the main and second, and second and third, floors are midlevels with bookcases displaying Asprey’s collection of rare and antique books, and samples of merchandise from the next floor. Antique lounge furniture is placed on both sides of the cases to invite customers to sample the offering. Asprey’s royal warrants will be displayed prominently over the first library.

“You can have a coffee or a martini and read a book,” said Stroll, referencing the bar that eventually will be located on the second floor using Asprey cocktail shakers, coasters and martini glasses.

“It’s supposed to be the most luxurious experience, with the product, the service and everything else in place,” said Stroll, adding that an on-site engraving service allows customers to have their purchases engraved while the bartender shakes and stirs cocktails.

The second floor offers men’s accessories, games and men’s apparel, including cashmere and cotton corduroy pants and cashmere sweatsuits with drawstrings in Asprey’s signature color of purple. “Now that’s luxury,” Stroll said.

The third floor features women’s apparel, accessories, the home collection, silver and baby gifts. It is peppered with cashmere toy elephants that echo the company’s new ad images and sell for $950.Prices start at $150 for a silver key ring and can go into the millions. A displayed 45-carat D-flawless diamond ring, for instance, is priced at $2.5 million.

The floors make use of the black and white fin-like exterior window separations. Hollow, these act as displays for antique Asprey items that the company has been buying back over the past three years.

“This is the first luxury lifestyle store that has this amount of quality product,” Stroll said. “A lot of our competition calls itself lifestyle, but they don’t have that amount of product. This is a serious investment. This was our vision when we bought Asprey.”

The New York and London stores and the complete overhaul of Asprey’s product assortment cost the A&G Group millions, but Stroll doesn’t seem in the least bit concerned about the struggling luxury sector.

“Our immediate plan is to get London opened, but in 10 years, we hope to open 40 stores,” Stroll said. “We plan the business to be split equally between Europe, America and Asia. For us, the next 10 to 15 years will be about growth. We are not up against last year’s numbers.”

One of the first customers to take in the new surroundings on Tuesday was Michael Kors, whose company was bought by Stroll and Chou through Sportswear Holdings Ltd. in January.

“As an Olympic shopper, I think it’s fabulous to have a new event to compete in,” Kors quipped, though it must be noted that he spoke within hearing distance of his bosses. “They have really bridged classic English style and heritage and managed to modernize it. Of course, I don’t smoke anymore, but what could be more enticing than a taxi yellow crocodile cigar case?”

Stroll added, “The store just feels good. It’s not pretentious and not intimidating, and that’s what we tried to achieve.”

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