LOS ANGELES — There’s nothing willy-nilly about Blue Willi’s U.S. retail push.

After testing two stores in Seattle for a year, executives at the eight-year-old Danish updated misses’ line see 13 stores in the U.S. by the end of 2004. Two units have recently opened, one in Minneapolis on Aug. 28 and another in Leawood, Kansas, near Kansas City, on Oct. 22. Another shop is slated to open in Des Moines, Iowa, early next year and negotiations for six more sites are in the works.

Troels Engholm, president of the company’s American operations, said Blue Willi’s stores are actively being pursued by mall developers, but the sweet spot is doing business with established small specialty store owners that already carry the line. “I’m the new kid on the block,” he said. “Our new distribution strategy for the U.S. involves launching specialty concept stores that are either privately owned and licensed or corporately owned. We’re also seeking additional retail partners to offer our lines as part of their stores.

“The rate and speed of this rollout hinges upon the adoption rate of our existing retailers.”

Blue Willi’s is better known in other corners of the world with 20 corporate-owned and licensed stores as well as distribution to retailers in 25 countries. The company’s U.S. presence up to now has rested with 250 small specialty stores, 80 of which operate Blue Willi’s in-store shops.

The clean Scandinavian knit and denim collection that claims to get better with wear and tear is developing a following among American women, ages 30 to 80. Staples include natural fabrics like cotton, flax, silk and wool, dyed in cool indigo blues that come prewashed and preshrunk. Pants generally retail from $139 to $275, shirts are tagged between $140 to $160 and sweaters are $225.

“They really go in the washing machine and dryer, whatever the temperature,” said Mimi Kahn, owner of Macke’s Sweaters in Sausalito, Calif. “We haven’t been able to ruin them.”

“The quality shines through,” echoed Sharon Applegarth, who operates a Blue Willi’s in-store shop within The Carved Horse in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “It’s our predominant line,” she said, noting it accounts for about 20 percent of her vendor mix.Kathy Dunbar, owner of Kathy’s in Des Moines and licensee for the 1,400-square-foot Blue Willi’s unit there, projects first-year sales of $600,000. “Having worked with them for five years, I know they’re fastidious about their product and their word is good as gold,” she said. “I don’t have qualms about opening the store.” Dunbar took her cue from Kathy’s where 25 percent of the product is Blue Willi’s. Her own closet is stocked with the label. “It’s amazing, my customers want more of it. It’s definitely a lifestyle,” she said.

Engholm declined to reveal volume for the privately held company but said it has seen between 20 and 40 percent growth in each of the past five years. Analysts estimate the Seattle stores, ranging from 1,200 to 1,400 square feet in size, take in, on average, $580 per square foot, or roughly between $700,000 and $800,000 apiece annually. If they prove to be typical performers, the company could see sales from its 13 U.S. stores exceeding $9 million by the end of next year.

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