By and  on November 18, 2010

PARIS — The dark and groovy basement — with its crushed beer cans on the walls, pounding music and enough denim that you can practically smell it — reminds Tommy Hilfiger of his first fashion venture, the chain of People’s Place jeans stores he started in the Seventies.

But his new flagship Hilfiger store on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées here — a sprawling three-story emporium of quirky and cool Americana and his largest unit in Europe — shows just how far he’s come with his signature brand.

“It’s an anchor in Europe and it celebrates our 25 years of business with a milestone,” Hilfiger said, seated in a pink armchair next to a miniature mirrored grand piano that are among the conversation-starting fixtures, many of them antique, scattered throughout the 8,850-square-foot unit.

“It was Liza Minnelli’s when she was a kid,” he laughed.

Hilfiger’s pride was plain in showing off the atmospheric, multifaceted boutique, which at No. 65 sits between Nike and Louis Vuitton on the famous street, physically and metaphorically in terms of brand positioning.

“We think it’s the perfect location, especially for the international trade,” said Hilfiger, wearing a natty scarf over a blazer and tartan shirt. “It’s also in one of the most important fashion cities in the world.”

Accordingly, Hilfiger has made sure every look of his runway collection is available, along with the odd bit of vintage Yves Saint Laurent or Courrèges sprinkled throughout broad ranges of his sportswear for men, women and children.

“We feel very positive about this mix of merchandise,” he said. “It took a while to get it right.”

Other nods to Gallic culture include framed vintage magazines, including a 1946 copy of Life featuring a cover photo of the Eiffel Tower, and a wall of spinning cubes that flip every two-and-a-half minutes to form red, white and blue Hilfiger, American or French flags.

But above all, the Hilfiger store unapologetically celebrates the American way of life.

An entrance display showcases the brand’s 25th anniversary, limited edition Icon Collection featuring the designer’s favorite pieces inspired by personal idols such as James Dean and Grace Kelly.

In the basement denim department, colored stripes on the walls evoke Seventies roller-disco rinks, while bleachers imported from upstate New York create a preppy, collegiate vibe. The cash desk, topped by a luminous sign evoking a movie theater marquee, can double as a bar or DJ booth for parties held at the store.

Hilfiger’s love of rock ’n’ roll is evident throughout, down to the vinyl records cut into butterfly shapes in a wall installation by artist Paul Villinski.

Male customers seeking a more sophisticated atmosphere — and tailored clothing — can head to the ground floor men’s wear area, where traditional paneling and mounted animal heads make for a relaxed, clubhouse atmosphere.

The upscale mood is carried over to the first-floor women’s department, which carries sportswear, footwear and accessories and the runway collection, alongside three smaller rooms dedicated to children’s wear.

Hilfiger has operated a 5,200-square-foot boutique on the Rue Saint-Honoré since 2006, but it is not large enough to showcase the “world of,” the designer noted. Next up is a global flagship in Tokyo, slated to open in spring 2012.

A big fan of the French capital, Hilfiger said he frequents dining destinations like L’Ami Louis, Caviar Kaspia and Ladurée. “I also love the fact that this is an art capital of the world,” added Hilfiger, whose gallerist friend and Basquiat expert, Enrico Navarra, was expected at a cocktail opening Wednesday night, along with a smattering of French actresses.

Fred Gehring, global chief executive officer of the Tommy Hilfiger Group, said the new Paris flagship, which quietly opened earlier this month, was only the beginning of the brand’s push into the French market, which should see it increase its presence from a current 25 stores nationwide, of which 20 are franchises.

“We have earmarked Italy and France as our two main focus markets [in Europe] for the next three years,” Gehring said. “We think there are a lot of cities in France that can have a store and don’t have one.”

Accordingly, France’s advertising budget should more than double in 2011 as part of a general increase in the brand’s European media spend, he said.

France is Hilfiger’s fourth-largest market in Europe, after Germany, Spain and Italy. Progress has been slow and steady since Hilfiger arrived here a decade ago, Gehring said. He declined to comment on figures, but market sources estimate the new flagship should generate first-year sales of around 6 million euros, or $8.1 million at current exchange rates.

“You need more patience in a country like France, as a foreign brand, to convince the consumer about your proposition. It’s not a market that is known for quick hypes of anything other than a domestic nature,” he noted. “We’re nicely distributed and we’re starting to understand the French consumer better and better, and I think that, combined with our level of commitment from the investment perspective, for me bodes well for the future.”

Though tourists are expected to make up 75 to 80 percent of the clientele at the Champs-Elysées store, it will serve as an incubator for future franchised units in cities like Marseille, Lyon, Montpellier or Toulouse.

Like Hilfiger’s Fifth Avenue flagship in New York City, the Champs-Elysées store will take full advantage of footfall on the fabled thoroughfare, which attracts an estimated 200,000 visitors on weekdays and between 400,000 and 600,000 on weekends.

“We feel clearly that this type of location, where you’re truly in the epicenter of the retail crowd, works for us,” Gehring said.

Hilfiger does not design specific lines for different markets, but is toning down its message for France with softer fabrications and a dressier selection, Gehring said.

“Consumers around the world love casual, they love relaxed, they love freedom. They love a lot of the things that America as a country stands for,” he said. “I think the French consumer is equally interested in all these values. I think that our ability to become more successful here, therefore, doesn’t mean we have to change things; we just have to do them better.”

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