By  on July 18, 2007

Love Culture, a new concept aimed squarely at the fickle teen demographic, has embarked on an ambitious retail plan, including opening 200 to 300 U.S. stores in less than a decade.

Love Culture expects to open 10 stores — each 7,000 square feet — in its first year, starting in September with a unit at Plaza Bonita in National City, Calif., south of San Diego. A store at the Willowbrook Mall in Houston will be unveiled in October, followed by a unit at Pembroke Gardens in Pembroke Pines, Fla., in November.

It's no coincidence that the launch strategy will be similar to that of Forever 21. Jai Rhee, Love Culture's founder, was an executive at Forever 21 and orchestrated the rollout of the brand in the U.S.

"The management of Love Culture is very well equipped to create something that's different, that's special and that isn't the same as everything else we've seen," said Robert Michaels, president and chief operating officer of General Growth Properties, the shopping center owner and operator that signed several leases with Love Culture. "Jai is a very creative guy. We think [Love Culture] is a little edgier than some of its competitors. What we've seen in the renderings, the products and Jai's vision leads us to believe that this could be a medium-size chain going forward. It really goes to the confidence we have in the management team."

The merchandise mix will include brands new to the U.S. market and manufactured in the Far East, as well as private labels. Pricing will be comparable to Forever 21's, said Graham Downes, the San Diego architect who designed the store prototype, adding that Rhee's experience at Forever 21 allows him to source products cheaply.

Michaels said that Rhee, who could not be reached, "has a number of financial backers. Jai himself is also very well off. Between himself, his inner circle and the financial backers," Michaels said he was convinced that Rhee had the wherewithal to pull off the project.

Teen specialty retailing is fraught with pitfalls, not the least of which is the target customer. In this market, loyalties shift as frequently as the flavor-of-the-month's popular girl changes in junior high school. Once high-flying Hot Topic and Pacific Sunwear have struggled over the past year and Aeropostale has put in a mostly lackluster performance.While chains such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostale offer a fresh-faced, all-American interpretation of casual teen style, Love Culture's sensibility will be somewhat darker.

"Love Culture is more edgy and boutique-y," Downes said. The brand will mix Goth and tattoo motifs and elements of biker style with natural references such as thorn bushes and natural prairie growth.

"They really want to reinvent" the category, he said. "It's about teen empowerment and taking the edginess and making this naughty girl/nice girl" juxtaposition.

The brand is intended to appeal to teens who would like to buy Juicy Couture and other high-end brands, but lack the funds, Downes said. "These girls are rebels, but deep down they love their mom and dad and like going to school and getting good grades," he added.

Rhee is trying to do multiple deals with large mall operators such as Westfield, Taubman and GGP. "They will go on the streets where it makes sense," he said. "They would like to do a flagship on lower Broadway in Manhattan. The first round is to make an impact by penetrating different [suburban] communities. The second round is to do [urban flagships]."

With an all-glass exterior and white-on-white graphics infused with cranberry, the Love Culture store is designed to be a transparent box, glowing from within. The brand's name will be on a strip printed vertically on one side of the facade. The stores will feature two-dimensional graphics in acrylic, glass and stainless steel layered on one another to represent "the complexity of young minds as they're starting to filter what's important to them," Downes said.

The cranberry-colored cash wrap will be made of Lucite and illuminated. Each store will have 18 fitting rooms. An ottoman the size of a king-size bed piled high with pillows will be strategically located near the dressing rooms for customers to lounge on.

There's been a lot of talk about new retail concepts in recent years, but few have come to fruition. "There haven't been a lot in the last 12 months," Michaels said, citing J. Crew's Madewell and Crew Cuts and American Eagle Outfitter's Martin + Osa. "Starting from scratch — you don't see a lot of those. Jai's been working on this for a while."The dearth of new concepts is one reason mall operators get excited about an idea like Love Culture. A number of retailers are expected to downsize, given their troubled businesses. "The Gap has been kind of an enigma," Michaels said. "Now Express and Limited stores have been sold. Some of their stores are oversize. We're very aggressive about trying to get space back" from underperforming tenants.

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