By  on October 6, 2006

PARIS — Celine designer Ivana Omazic has more than 300 pairs of shoes — and counting.

“Shoes are my personal fetish,” she confessed. “I love them. For me, they speak directly to a woman’s instincts. And it’s true, I have some pairs I’ve only worn once or twice.”

Her passion should serve her well. Expanding the footwear category, the root of the 61-year-old French brand, is a key growth tack as Celine aims to become another “star brand” for its parent, luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

“Celine has always been perceived as a woman-friendly brand,” said Omazic, who showed her third collection for the house Thursday (see review, left). “This is what I want to continue.”

The designer’s female-centered approach is already showing positive business results.

After a tumultuous 2005, when business took a tumble under designer Roberto Menichetti, sales have rebounded to “Michael Kors levels — and beyond,” said Celine’s new chief executive, Serge Brunschwig, referring to 1997 to 2004, when the American designer was at the creative helm and the firm expanded rapidly. “We’re extremely encouraged.”

In an interview, Brunschwig said Celine is “at a turning point.…It will take some years to achieve that [star] status. But in two years, we will have all the elements in place to start the growth plan.”

To be sure, Brunschwig proclaimed that 33-year-old Omazic, a Croatian tapped from Prada Group, is steering the brand back to its sportswear roots. “It’s luxury clothes for everyday life,” he said. “[Ivana] has an extremely strong point of view on fashion, and how fashion should be tailored and designed for women.

“Celine is not a brand for spectacle,” he continued. “It’s a brand for real life.”

Brunschwig, who joined the firm last March from Louis Vuitton, where he had been managing director, declined to give any figures. But he characterized Omazic’s debut spring 2006 collection as Celine’s strongest seller in five years at its own retail stores, led by such styles as updated trenchcoats, shirts, A-line skirts and shirtdresses.He also cited waiting lists this fall for the Pag handbag, a tasseled variation on the classic Boogie shape that’s named after an island in Omazic’s native country, and a matching shoe model, a high-heeled loafer dubbed the Byblos.

Brunschwig diplomatically summed up Menichetti’s lackluster, one-year collaboration: “We’ve absorbed the creative incident in one year.”

Menichetti is now focusing on his signature collection, which he designs from his home base of Gubbio, Italy.

Since arriving at Celine six months ago, Brunschwig has made several key hires, including communications director Josephine Verine and U.S. president Thuy Tranthi. Behind the scenes, he has installed a new industrial director, a collection manager for footwear and others to reinforce what he called “operational excellence.”

On the brand front, he said efforts are centered on mining Celine’s “rich” heritage and communicating its essence through products, stores, window designs and advertising. For example, its chain motif — and heraldic logo — were inspired by the heavy links that encircle the plaza of the Arc de Triomphe, which house founder Celine Vipiana noticed one day when her car broke down at the monument.

The detail now appears as handbag hardware, on jacket linings and as metal curtains in boutiques, which are now getting an updated decor. The Milan unit on Via Monte Napoleone reopened last month and is among the latest to display the new look, including leather-backed display cases. Locations in New York and Geneva are slated for a touch-up early in 2007.

Brunschwig called leather goods a “pillar” of the company, but said they carry a weight equal to apparel’s. The goal is to build footwear, produced by Italy’s Rossi Moda, to between 10 and 15 percent of total sales.

In handbags, fashion-driven styles like the two-in-one Double Tote for resort and classic, prestige bags that showcase craftsmanship, like the Bittersweet, are among the fastest-growing product categories, he said.

Jewelry and watches are cited as possible future licenses, adding to the fashion house’s existing ones for men’s neckwear, sunglasses and fragrances.

Celine operates 110 stores, concentrated in Asia, which represents about half the business, and Europe. Brunschwig said building the wholesale business was an immediate priority, particularly in America, where there are only four freestanding boutiques.Market sources estimate Celine’s volume at around $200 million. Its newest stores are in Shenzhen, China, and at the Beijing airport.

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