By  on June 25, 2007

NEW YORK — Sunglasses appear to be the next "It" accessory and Luxottica is creating a new retail format to benefit from the glare.

More and more brands are signing licenses for sunglass or eyewear collections, and sunglasses are becoming ever-more expensive, in some cases approaching the price of a designer handbag. Luxottica's new luxury chain, Ilori, will specialize in expensive and exclusive sunglasses — with an average price of $300 a pair. Luxottica sees the potential to open up to 150 Ilori units in the U.S. over the next two years.

"There's a customer out there looking for something special, something not sold through the normal channels, something more unique and particular," said Valerio Giacobbi, executive vice president of Luxottica Group, North America. "The market for fashion products and accessories is growing fast. We're seeing this potential in the market and we're not seeing there's a special retailer offering this selection of product."

Not only are women buying more frames than ever to create wardrobes of eyewear, but they are also spending more. Deluxe sunglasses from brands such as Cartier, Chrome Hearts and Loree Rodkin can incorporate precious materials such as 18-karat gold and gemstones that climb from $300 to $130,000.

A 4,500-square-foot Ilori flagship will be unveiled in late summer at 138 Spring Street in SoHo here, followed by a 2,500-square-foot store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Six stores are expected to follow soon after. In the next two years, there are plans to open 100 to 150 stores in a combination of street locations and prestige malls across the U.S. Ilori means "special treasure" in Italian.

The size of the average store will be 1,100 square feet. Architect Craig Nealy, whose clients include Prada and Louis Vuitton, is designing the stores.

The Ilori boutiques will offer brands that are sold by Luxottica, such as Chanel, Persol and Prada, as well as product made by other eyewear firms.

Ilori isn't the only chain seeking to capitalize on the spotlight on luxury eyewear. Solstice, the eyewear retail chain owned by eyewear maker Safilo Group, has 95 stores offering brands including Marc Jacobs, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Last month, the firm opened the first of many Sunsights by Solstice stores, a lower-priced eyewear chain. Optical Shop of Aspen, which now has 21 stores and is growing, has a new store design concept that bowed in East Hampton, N.Y., last month.The Optical Shop of Aspen stores sell brands such as Chrome Hearts, Blinde and Oliver Peoples.

The $5.92 billion Luxottica is the largest in the market, however, and has been aggressive about maintaining that position. On Friday, the company said it plans to buy the Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based Oakley Inc. for about $2.1 billion. Oakley operates chains including Bright Eyes, Oakley stores, Sunglass Icon and Optical Shop of Aspen.

The Ilori stores are meant to service a customer's every whim in an intimate setting. Sales staff will have a thorough training in the eyewear field and will be able to help fit consumers according to face shape and sense of style. For those customers who want a less hands-on approach, eyewear will be merchandised outside of a case for easy access to try on.

There also will be a selection of limited edition and one-of-a-kind frames. Down the road, there may be a customization option for choosing color or engraving a frame.

Products will be divided by trend and new designers. There also will be an area to lounge and relax.

"This will be the place for limited editions, particular colors and shapes that are a little more edgy and avant-garde," added Giacobbi. "This customer is someone who travels, someone connected who reads magazines from all over the world. [She] shops in London, Tokyo and Dubai."

There are no plans to open Ilori stores outside the U.S. There also are no plans to include optical frames, though the company will help consumers who have eyewear prescriptions for their sunglasses.

"The essence of Ilori is experiencing product, not just finding a product in a store," said Michael Hansen, Ilori's vice president and general manager. "We'll have the world's best fashion designer brands. Those that are in the know, know."

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