HONG KONG — Giorgio Armani believes in going big, and Asia is his next target.

Armani has opened a retail space here second in size and scope only to his Via Manzoni store in Milan. The store is a physical representation of Armani’s goals in the Far East — Armani Chater House takes up 30,000 square feet, 20,000 of which are devoted to sales. It is the first time anywhere that the company’s two main runway collections, Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani, can be found under one roof, and it’s a stepping stone to expansion in China, which the designer describes as having "enormous potential."

"After Hong Kong, we have important retail projects in Shanghai, which I view as the city of the future," Giorgio Armani said in an interview in Milan. "In the next months, we will open our first megastore in Shanghai for the first line that will later trickle down to include all the Armani world — Le Collezioni, Emporio Armani and Armani Jeans. This city has enormous potential and what was once considered a city of small houses has evolved drastically, also thanks to the renovation of beautiful palaces from the Thirties and to futuristic skyscrapers."

Shanghai is merely the first step in penetrating the largest consumer market in the world. Armani plans to open between 20 and 30 stores on the mainland over three to five years, many with local partners. "We will go with local partners in different cities who have the most access to the local customers we want to attract," said Jakob Meier, managing director of Giorgio Armani Asia.

"Before penetrating the Chinese market we monitored it closely to make sure that it was ready to receive a certain type of high-end product and that there was a culture for fashion," Armani said. "We wanted to be realistic and not take risks, which is why all our investments were seriously pondered."

In addition to Shanghai, the company anticipates opening stores in Dalian and Wangzhou to start. There is already a Giorgio Armani store in Beijing, which was just remodeled, and an Armani Collezioni store opened two months ago in Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone across Hong Kong’s border.China is simply the latest step in Armani’s slow-but-steady expansion in the Far East. Japan currently represents about 6 percent of group sales, which totaled $634.1 million in the first half of 2002. The rest of Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand and China, accounts for 6 percent. During the next five years, the company forecasts that all of Asia could represent 15 to 17 percent of group sales, according to Robert Triefus, executive vice president of worldwide communications for Armani SpA. (The U.S. is Armani’s largest single market, accounting for 28 percent of sales; Italy, 17 percent; the rest of Europe outside of Italy, about 34 percent, and the rest of the world, up to 10 percent.)

The brand entered the Hong Kong market 20 years ago, brought in by By Joyce. Meier said the company’s Hong Kong stores needed to be renewed and Armani has been working on the megastore concept since December 1999. In addition to the spaces for the various Armani collections, Armani Chater House includes an Emporio Armani Caffé, Armani Libri, Armani Fiori, Armani Casa and Giorgio Armani Cosmetics.

"Not every city offers a location like this," said Triefus in an interview at the site. "Between 30,000 and 40,000 people walk through this space via passageways every day."

Chater House, formerly Swire House, is owned by Hong Kong Land, one of the city’s premier real estate developers. It is located in the bustling Central district and is connected by elevated walkways to the town’s other most notable luxury retail outlets, The Landmark and Prince’s Building.

Traditionally, the site has not had much success as a retail outlet, but Triefus said times have changed.

"We’ve created a retail destination here — particularly with the Caffé," he said. "People will meet there and then start shopping — and we’re not alone in this belief. Prada, Panerai, Bulgari and Porsche Design are all here, too. That caliber of name means you’re onto a good thing."

Triefus asserts that despite Hong Kong’s current economic woes, opening on such a grand scale is the right decision. "We feel Hong Kong is in a business cycle that will reverse. Plus, Chater House is not just for Hong Kong. It’s a symbol of our investment and confidence in the growth potential of China."Armani himself also continues to firmly believe in the future of the megastore.

"I believe in the validity of flagships because they communicate a brand’s solidity and seriousness to the consumer," he said. "We want people to have faith in a brand that was built step-by-step, as opposed to flash-in-the-pan labels that vanish as quickly as they appear — especially at high-end price points."

Armani and Triefus both declined to provide a sales forecast for the new store. Armani said, however, that Chater House was "a substantial investment for the company." Triefus said the investment is on the same multimillion dollar scale as the company’s store in Via Manzoni, which sources estimated at below $10 million.

"Wherever we have done a facelift, there has been a big impact on our business," Triefus said, adding, "Mr. Armani never opens a store as a shop window and this is no exception. We believe that creating an exciting environment will allow us to do great business."

That exciting environment was created by three architectural teams. Claudio Silvestrin designed the Giorgio Armani boutique; an in-house design team created the Armani Casa store, and, for the first time, Armani collaborated with husband-wife team Massimilano and Doriana Fuksas for the Emporio Armani shop, café, bookstore, florist and beauty boutique. It is their first retail project.

The 2,900-square-foot Giorgio Armani boutique is on two levels and is a version of Silvestrin’s designs for Milan, Paris, São Paulo, Moscow and Tokyo. The windowless space features a waterfall at the entrance, but is dominated by the use of St. Maximin stone for the floors and walls. The cream-colored stone was shipped in from France and has become a hallmark of Giorgio Armani stores inside and out.

The cavernous interior, which evokes an ancient Egyptian temple, has no natural light. Instead, recessed light shines through rows of square holes on the ceiling, walls and along the floor. The design creates areas of light and shadow so that certain areas — for example, a symmetrical display of men’s shirts — become focal points. Elsewhere, monolith-like lamps made from ebony macassar wood throw light onto shelves, cabinets and clothing rods. The same wood has been used for tables, benches and high-backed chairs, which have been placed in pairs around the store.The shop’s ground floor, which showcases the men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections, boasts 15-foot-high ceilings that, as Triefus puts it,"give a real feeling of luxury — because space itself is such a luxury." Also lending an elegant note is the dramatic stone staircase at the back of the shop. Staircases have become somewhat of a hallmark in Armani stores.

The stairs lead to the store’s upper level, where accessories for men and women are housed. "Accessories used to be a small [space] for us," Triefus says. "Now, it’s a fundamental part of the boutique." Like the ground floor, the accent here is on "floating" shelves, free-form fixtures and the warm-cool effect of the stone floors and walls. In 2000, Armani established an in-house accessories business, and is emphasizing that segment with freestanding stores as well as more space in its collection stores.

From the accessories floor of the Giorgio Armani store, customers can venture to other Armani worlds. The corridor-like Armani Fiori, with its long slate tables and opaque glass walls, evokes a modern greenhouse. Armani Libri is a 650-square-foot shop that sells "an eclectic mix" of magazines and books, mostly from the worlds of fashion, art, design and photography. Its cascade of clear plastic display shelves feature Armani Backstage, a collection of photos by Roger Hutchings taken during the designer’s recent catwalk shows.

Adjacent to the bookshop is Giorgio Armani Cosmetics. The 540-square-foot boutique marks the debut of the cosmetic line in Asia and the launch of Sensi, the company’s new women’s fragrance. The store has eight makeup stations, a fragrance counter and an area devoted to makeovers.

Of primary importance on the second floor, however, is Emporio Armani. Its silver-gray color scheme provided the inspiration for the beauty boutique, bookshop and flower store. The Fuksas team created a futuristic vision for Emporio Armanisymbolized by fluorescent red and white swirls surrounding the logo on the building’s exterior. The logo, incidentally, reads "Emporio Armani HK" — the first time that the company used a city designation in its logo.

The look of the store will surprise many. "As befits Hong Kong, it is a futuristic design. Red fiberglass curves through the interiors like a roller coaster. It really contrasts with the very sophisticated environment of the Giorgio Armani store," Triefus explained.The hallmark of the Fuksas team is the use of glass and light. For the Emporio Armani store, the pair created a floor made from an eggshell blue resin that reflects visual images (such as the fashion shows featured on flat-panel computer screens). The floor is also circled by panels of light that can be walked across. Elsewhere, 15-foot-high windows face onto busy Pedder Street, providing plenty of natural light and tracks of invisible, recessed lights swirl across the ceiling.

Throughout the shop, curved walls made from etched glass reinforce the fluid, modernist vision. Like in the Giorgio Armani boutique, the fixtures here are minimalist and shelves appear to float. However, the materials are novel. Shelves, tables and the clothes hangers themselves are made from steel that has been wrapped in a soft, resin-like material. Origami-inspired mannequins, made from sheets of clear plastic, further enhance the futuristic look.

Altogether, the Emporio Armani store encompasses more than 10,000 square feet. The lower level, on the second floor of Chater House, is devoted to accessories, including eyewear, shoes, handbags and small leather goods. It also boasts the worldwide debut of Emporio Armani jewelry.

An impressive crisscrossing glass staircase ascends to the third floor, where Emporio Armani ready-to-wear collections for men and women are showcased. It is here that the A|X Armani Jeans line is sold.

Also on the third floor of Chater House is Armani Casa, a first for Asia. The design of the 2,700-square-foot shop, created by an in-house team, is in keeping with the interiors of the Casa stores in Milan and New York.

To get to Armani Casa, customers have to pass the eye-catching Emporio Armani Caffé, which features a 3-foot-wide, red fiberglass "ribbon" that snakes its way across the space. The ribbon lends the only color to the eatery, which is otherwise entirely gray. The café seats 140 people and is divided into three areas: lounge, bar and restaurant. The menu, unsurprisingly, is Italian. There is also a DJ booth and a dance floor.

Triefus maintained that the vast array of goods and services on offer at Armani Chater House will meet the needs of modern shoppers. "Shopping is now a pastime," he commented. "We have created a new kind of retail destination — one where people can eat with friends, browse through books, order flowers for a friend and shop. Plus, this is unique in that people can really see the different lifestyle visions of Giorgio Armani. We can showcase all of our brands in a modern and accessible way."While Triefus maintained that the opening of Armani Chater House will give a boost to Hong Kong shoppers, the city’s socialites are still reeling from Giorgio Armani’s decision not to come to Hong Kong for the opening. The company had planned a fashion show for 650 invited guests, a party for 1,500 and an exhibition of photographs, (which is going ahead). The company attributed the cancellation to recent world events, namely the terrorist bombing in Bali, but Triefus stressed that Armani’s visit is only delayed. "We are rescheduling for 2003," he said. "We have great confidence in Hong Kong. We will maintain again and again and again that Hong Kong is one of the truly international cities in the world."

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