By  on September 22, 2005

NEW YORK — What had an estimated 6,000 preferred customers, a troupe of half-naked dancers and a herd of goats?

If you answered Saks Fifth Avenue's party Tuesday night to launch the luxury store's ambitious 12-week promotion, "Wild About Cashmere," you're right.

"It's like a petting zoo with go-go boys," said Carson Kressley, one of the stars of TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Saks is banking big on the "Wild" campaign, having boosted its cashmere buy about 50 percent. It needs a strong season, and in particular a good September, considering it is up against some solid gains made a year ago. While Saks' luxury sales haven't kept up with Neiman Marcus and other upscale retailers, company officials stayed positive.

"This is the single biggest promotional event Saks has ever undertaken," Fred Wilson, the store's chairman and chief executive officer, said during a news conference before the party. "We are buying hundreds of millions [of dollars in] Italian products and we bought more" for "Wild About Cashmere."

Sources estimated that Saks buys about $800 million [at retail] worth of Italian goods, with a good chunk of that being cashmere.

"Our objective is to become a temple of cashmere all across America," said Andrew Jennings, Saks president, adding that all 56 stores are participating in the promotion.

"A basic cashmere turtleneck in the winter — nothing is yummier," said Fabiola Beracasa, one of the hosts of the event, which raised support and awareness for the Central Park Conservancy.

"Cashmere is the only thing that keeps you really warm," said Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei, who complained that growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, she had to keep turning up the thermostat against her father's wishes. "I've always been cold-blooded."

They were joined by Sean "Diddy" Combs, Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang, Susan Sokol, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve and Karen Sadove, Mark Badgley and James Mischka, Dana Buchman, Ira Neimark and Christian Louboutin, among others, for the private shopping night and party.

"It's great to see excitement coming back to retailing and stores doing something special," said Marvin Traub, the former chairman of Bloomingdale's, who staged many flashy import promotions. "It makes it more fun."Along with the boldface names and store executives, there were also several officials from the Italian Trade Commission, which pitched in $2 million to support the promotion, as well as Rebecca Moses, the lead designer for the Saks cashmere campaign. Moses created five shops in the store with a range of merchandise from ready-to-wear to accessories to home products and gifts.

Overall, the merchandise exceeds the de rigueur array of cashmere sweaters and scarves that stores assort around holiday, with the most unique cashmere products concentrated on the atriums of each of the store's 10 floors, including boots, cute T-shirts and pillows for kids, eye shields, picture frames, chargers and cubes to sit on. Actually, a smattering of cashmere products touches just about every area of merchandise, and each cashmere item is highlighted with a red "Wild About Cashmere" hangtag.

"Cashmere is not just a material. It's a lifestyle," Moses said.

Loro Piana, Zegna, Brunello Cucinelli and Colombo also are providing unique products and are key suppliers for the event. Donna Karan relaunched her Cashmere Mist fragrance and body cream line to tie into the launch, though other stores also sell the line.

There are more than 1,000 goats in the Fifth Avenue flagship — they're plush stuffed animals, fiberglass and photographed, and not real, except for the few guest appearances Tuesday, said Bill Herbst, Saks' vice president of visual merchandising. The store prominently displays the book, "Cashmere If You Can," depicting the Hohhots goat family travels. It's a fictional saga conceived by Terron Schaefer, Saks' senior vice president of marketing.

There has been some preselling at Saks, but most of the action started Tuesday morning with a breakfast for the Italian Trade Commission, then a ribbon cutting on the main floor of the flagship, where hundreds of Saks workers surrounded a giant rotating ball of fake cashmere yarn. It squeaked while rotating. Immediately after, there was the news conference, where Saks announced a $50,000 donation to the Central Park Conservancy, and Saks officials toured the store with reporters.

"This promotion was a year in the making," Herbs said. "We have goats all over the store.""It's part of the resurrection of Saks," said Ken Walker, creative director of Asbury Automotive Group, who, at the party, bought a navy blue blazer while his wife purchased travel slippers, both in cashmere. "The store is oozing with temptation."

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