Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK--Gianni Versace has been dreaming about starting all over.
With his "world flagship" set to open today at 647 Fifth Avenue--a 28,000-square-foot restored Vanderbilt townhouse--it seems he's really done it. "I feel young again," said Versace. "It's a new start. An opportunity to do things fresh. This is really a dream come true."
He's also envisioning spectacular volumes. First-year sales at the six-level flagship are projected at $33 million, said Santo Versace, Gianni's brother and president of the company.
According to Santo, the store "conveys the Gianni Versace of the future."
It's a new vision. With its marble and mosaic floors, monochromatic walls and color palette that gracefully shifts from floor to floor, the flagship, located between East 51st and 52nd Streets, projects a cleaner and more classic image compared to the decorative, baroque quality evident at many Versace shops around the world.
Its restored French neo-classical facade, arched interiors and Corinthian columns also capture the historic splendor of turn-of-the-century Fifth Avenue south of Central Park, when it was lined with lavish homes.
While the landmark 1905 building, known as the "Marble Twin," combines certain elements found at other Versace boutiques--there are more than 200 around the world--it's hardly comparable.
It's the first Versace installation housing the entire range of Versace products: the designer collections for men and women, Istante, Versus and Versace Jeans Couture, fine jewelry, accessories and the home collection.
It's also the biggest designer store in the city, surpassing Calvin Klein's 22,000-square-foot flagship. The Giorgio Armani store opening next month on Madison Avenue at 65th Street will have 12,000 square feet, and the Emporio Armani opening on Madison between 57th and 58th Streets will also have about 12,000 square feet.
However, Donna Karan is reviewing a lease for a mammoth, 55,000-square-foot, five-level site at 387 West Broadway, between Broome and Spring Streets, for a DKNY flagship.
Some observers say these are cases of designers building monuments to themselves. Versace prefers to cast his in lighter terms.
"I want this shop to convey a sense of happiness," he said, during a phone interview Friday from his home in Lake Como, Italy.
"It is so very huge," he agreed, but he added that he will be filling the space with seasonal "surprises" for his customers, including new collections, some specifically for New York. On the agenda for the opening: a special 12-piece collection, including dresses and sweaters with asymmetric necklines and hemlines, and bright, "cubist" T-shirts. There will also be a special glass collection in bright colors, which he created together with a glass designer named Seguso.
For Christmas, he's putting together a small collection of eveningwear and "a huge, beautiful and unusual decor for the store." And for his home collection, there will be seasonal pieces that adopt themes from his women's apparel, in addition to the standard home lines.
"Fashion is becoming too cliche, too minimalist," Versace complained. "I want to court more and more customers with newness and quality. I am very curious about a lot of things, and I want to extend that curiosity by surprising customers with new collections in New York. You cannot be completely crazy or sane, but you have to be surprising in New York. I'm not afraid to be wrong or right, to go from chic to shock, to sell Madonna, Elton John or Woody Allen.
"A flagship is how you underline your personality. In a big department store, you always get a little confused with other designers.
Having a huge flagship, he admits, is "scary," adding, "There may be a million problems, but I am optimistic we will have new customers. We'll make their lives less boring and more happy."
How will he do it? By amply stocking the store for big business, rather than displaying the spare assortment that some designer shops exhibit. However, at Versace, the merchandise is not in-your-face. At the entrance, for example, there's an impressive marble-floored atrium, 23 feet high, bearing a tiled Medusa, the symbol of Versace. The setting provides a calming transition from the hustle and bustle of Fifth Avenue before getting into the more intimate areas for merchandise.
Past the lobby, there's a grand staircase, with skylights and balustrades of hand-carved cherry wood and bronze. In addition, the fine jewelry on the mezzanine is housed in museum-like wall vitrines.
Each floor has a white marble band and strip of mosaic around the perimeter, and a field of color within, but the color and design changes on each level, reflecting the space and the mood of the fashions, whether it's the more classic lines, or the more "rock 'n' roll" lines, as Versace says.
On two, where the women's collection is housed, there is pink or "rosa portoghese" marble in a traditional lozenge, or diamond, pattern. That same pattern is seen in the men's on three, but in laguna marble for a more masculine hue.
On four, selling Versus, the interior design and fashion become more contemporary. The floor, while still having the mosaic perimeter band, is done in "seminato" or terrazzo marble, and the area is furnished with brushed stainless cornice frames.
The fifth floor houses the home collection, and six has a rooftop salon and terrace for trunk shows, celebrity fittings and private parties.
There will be fragrances, antiques and decorative furnishings throughout the store, including original signed furniture by Josef Hoffman. The store was entirely designed by Laboratorio Associati, based in Milan and here.
"It is so very huge. I love the entrance, the architecture. The proportions are masterful-- so huge, and so beautiful. The very high windows are amazing. But I think New York is so important," said Versace, who last year bought a New York townhouse for himself and lives here about three months a year. "It's the window of the world for fashion, for movies, for theater. It's one of the most creative cities in the world. It's a big window, and a funny and fun place to live."
The store, though, is opening without much initial hoopla. The real fun is set for Oct. 26, when Gianni, Santo and their sister, Donatella Versace, stage a party to celebrate the store. The party follows the Versus spring '97 show here on the same day.
Even as the new store opens, the established men's and women's Versace boutiques on Madison Avenue between 68th and 69th streets will continue to operate.
In addition to the world flagship, there are a total of 15 Gianni Versace signature boutiques in the U.S., five Versace units and three Jeans Couture boutiques. Worldwide, the count is 165 signature stores, 56 Versace units, 23 Istante and 20 Jens Couture boutiques.
Meanwhile, Versace already has another big project in mind. "I might do something big in Los Angeles. But I can wait; I'm not rushing."

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