RETAIL REDUX: The future of UK department stores looks rosy, according to a recent report by London-based Verdict Research Limited (VRL). Department store sales rose by 4.5 percent in 1994, compared to 3.5 percent in 1993. VRL attributes these increases in part to stores responding to market demands like more value for money and quality service. Successful stores are those that have invested in renovations, specialized in specific product ranges, and developed "own brand," or private label lines. Leaders in private label include Marks & Spencer, which held 56.7 percent of variety store market share last year, and the top two department stores, Debenhams and John Lewis, which both hold roughly 21 percent of the department store market. The report concluded that a policy of specialization and differentiation of products is more likely to succeed in the overcrowded retail market than having every store offer the same branded goods.

ABSOLUTELY: The Swedish company Absolut Vodka will award $44,500 to a British designer as part of a new marketing effort to support the UK fashion industry. Twenty-five middle-market designers are vying for the prize, dubbed Absolut Creation. It was conceived to prevent talented designers from going bust, according to an Absolut spokeswoman, who cited the example of recently closed Helen Storey. The prize money will cover the costs of a fashion show during London Fashion Week in October. There will also be commissioned work from Absolut, and Absolut execs will set up a business and marketing plan for the designer. The sponsorship is set to run for the next three years, but the company has not yet decided if it will back one designer over that time, or create a more seasonal or annual backing program.

GAP-O-RAMA: Gap continues to expand in France. Last month, a second freestanding store opened in Paris on the Rue de Rivoli. This location is perhaps a greater test for the American brand than its store on the fashionable Rue de Passy in the 16th Arondissement, which attracts an upscale crowd. Rue de Rivoli has a broader range of shoppers. This fall, Gap openings are slated for a Left Bank location in St. Germain de Pres; the big Velizy shopping center outside of Paris, and possibly other French cities, including Lille.SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER: French designer Bertrand Marechal will stage a runway trunk show at Henri Bendel in New York in late September. "I'm thrilled at all the support we've gotten from Bendel and looking forward to meeting their best clients," Marechal explained. The designer will bring a collection of 20 outfits to show and said the store will give him a Fifth Avenue window. Marechal, who also retails in Neiman Marcus's Beverly Hills, San Francisco and Miami outlets, has staged runway shows in the Carrousel du Louvre underground fashion center in the past three Paris seasons.

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