NEW YORK — When Oscar de la Renta said last July he was stepping down as Balmain’s couturier to focus on his signature business, he wasn’t kidding.

Over the last year, the company has generated quite a lot of buzz on several fronts. It is said to be in talks to develop a moderate-to-better priced line for J.C. Penney Co., and the brand raked in $2.4 million at a trunk show at Bergdorf Goodman in May, a new record for de la Renta and a near record for the store. That’s in addition to last year’s licensing agreements to create a bridal collection with Carmela Sutera and a home furnishings line with Century Furniture.

“We experienced our best year ever in 2002,” said de la Renta. “We made projections for 2003 and we lowered them because of the economy, but we are already way ahead of last year.”

At present, the Oscar de la Renta brand generates an estimated $50 million in collection sales, plus more than $600 million at retail with licensed products.

The designer’s latest project, however, was a $1.5 million renovation of his showroom, which now occupies the entire eighth and ninth floors of 550 Seventh Avenue. Previously, de la Renta had the eighth floor and part of the 18th floor, making for about 14,000 square feet — not to mention an inter-building trek between the two spaces. Now, combined square footage is between 18,000 and 20,000 square feet and an interior staircase adjoins the two floors.

The new ambience of the space is immediately felt as visitors step off the elevator. Gone is the beige marble and Eighties feel that pervaded the old showroom, which was occupied by Carolyne Roehm. De la Renta moved in 10 years ago, but never updated until this year.

Now the walls in the elevator lobby and reception area are covered floor-to-ceiling in imported coral stone from the Dominican Republic, de la Renta’s native land. The material, used throughout much of the space, is the same stone used in de la Renta’s Punta Cana home. It represents the designer’s heritage as well as the Latin flavor that pops up in his collections, usually by way of a ruffle here or there, such as in the flounced dresses used in last season’s ad campaign.In stark contrast to the warmth of the coral stone is a glazed concrete floor and three silver flat-screen TVs that play the designer’s most recent fashion show. The techie touch and cold floor lend an air of modernity to the space.

“I wanted to have a clean, sleek space that showcases the clothes,” said de la Renta, noting that the look will be transferred to the Saks Fifth Avenue in-store shop when it’s remodeled, though exact dates are still being worked out with the store.

The materials and look of the showroom are also a preview of what will eventually make its way into freestanding stores, the designer said, though details about any leases were still up in the air. The first, according to de la Renta, could be a space at a resort in Las Vegas currently being built by Steve Wynn, who built the Bellagio, among others. But that project isn’t slated to be finished until March 2005.

Similar to his collections, the play between hip and traditional flows naturally throughout the showroom. Sofas, tables, chairs and home accessories from the Oscar de la Renta for Century Furniture collection are placed throughout the reception area, which now features a commanding reception desk made of coral stone. Behind it is the Oscar de la Renta signature made of brushed steel.

The showroom’s first floor houses the selling areas, reception, sales, accessories and customer service offices, as well as other offices and the shipping and examining departments.

The selling space spans the entire width of the building’s Seventh Avenue side and features linear tables and chairs stained chocolate brown. It is separated from a central hall by large frosted glass panels inlaid with blades of Asian grass. Opposite the opaque panels is a wall lined with closets where sample garments are stored. Hiding unsightly racks of clothing was one of de la Renta’s objectives in the remodel, he said.

Now, garments are to be presented to buyers in groups and hung on custom-designed hanging racks before being put back into the closet.

On the south end of the showroom floor is an area reserved for the accessories collection, the company’s fastest-growing sector. De la Renta launched the accessories for fall 2001 in-house and it is expected to generate about 20 percent of the ready-to-wear business this year. It features handbags, shoes and belts.The north side of the selling area has a separate sitting room with a sofa, several chairs, a small kitchen and restroom reserved for fittings with private clients.

A modern staircase made of metal and wood connects to the ninth floor where the design, sample room, public relations and licensing offices are housed, as well as the firm’s extensive archives. De la Renta’s personal office is also on the ninth floor and features a large, round, expandable, mahogany table and several chairs from the furniture line. The latter are based on an 18th-century Chinese Chippendale chair de la Renta acquired from Sotheby’s.

The architect for the project was Filipe Pereira, who recently opened his own firm called OVO Studio in New York.

The four-month construction project began earlier this year and started with the ninth floor. After it was finished, the eighth floor was gutted and remodeled and the stairway connecting the two was installed. Real estate sources estimated annual rent could run as high as $35 a square foot.

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