MORE DIAMONDS: De Beers LV, a joint venture between diamond cartel De Beers and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has signed a lease for its new retail concept at 703 Fifth Avenue near 55th Street. The diamond jewelry boutique will replace an existing Louis Vuitton shop, which is being relocated to the former Warner Bros. space on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The De Beers LV store, with a 3,500-square-foot ground floor and slightly smaller mezzanine, is scheduled to open at the end of 2003. Rent is said to be about $800 a square foot. The first De Beers LV shop will open on Old Bond Street in London at the end of this year.

BENETTON BASE CAMP: Benetton’s biggest distributor, Iraklis Karabassis, president and owner of IK Enterprises Ltd., is growing the empire. "This year, my group is opening 20 new storesaround the country, and we have a plan to do another 20 in 2003, but it’s a little early to commit to a precise number. Eighty percent of that represents Benetton," with the rest being Sisley, Benetton’s sister division.

Karabassis confirmed a WWD report Monday that he just took over ownership and management of four Benetton and two Sisley units in Manhattan, including three megastores ranging from 7,000 to 11,000 square feet. He also said he opened a Sisley unit in Aventura, Fla., and last March took over three Benettons in Atlanta.

A native of Greece but based in Washington D.C., Karabassis said that by the end of year, he’ll have over 70 Benetton and 12 Sisley units in his control, with another 40 around the U.S. under the wings of other licensees. He also controls seven Max Mara units.

"In 2001, we had an increase of 25 percent in comp-store sales, despite the 9/11 tragedy. This is the reason we are keeping it going. This new mega format works." he said, noting the selection has been extended and many small orders arrive monthly, called "prontos." With close to eight drops each season, "they’re last minute fashion trends [and come] pre-packed. We place orders through the Internet and it’s shipped immediately. If we order on Monday, it’s here by Thursday or Friday, and maximum, it takes seven days to be on the floor."

SMART MOVE: Sometimes the power of celebrity opens doors. The owners of Ooloon, vintage clothing designers, showed up at Henri Bendel’s "Open See" at the W Hotel in Los Angeles Monday with one of their best customers, actress Amy Smart. Bendel’s buyers apparently liked what they saw, and Ooloon is sending the store a trunk full of one-of-a-kind pieces.

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