By  on August 14, 2007

NEW YORK — J. Crew is taking its fashion to the next level — luxury — with the J. Crew Collection.

The handpicked assortment of luxe, limited edition items officially will launch online with a mini Web site in the fall. Meanwhile, the company on April 22 will open its first Collection store, a 2,500-square-foot unit at 1035 Madison Avenue near 79th Street here.

Millard "Mickey" Drexler, chairman and chief executive officer of J. Crew Group, said Collection was a natural outgrowth of the J. Crew core product. "As we looked at the market, we said we're going to keep stepping up quality, design and detailing and see if we meet with any kind of [price] resistance," he added. "Whenever we did this, customers kept buying and liking it more. They still are, and want more of the best. For us, it's a natural opportunity....The best costs too much."

If the Madison Avenue store does well, there could be more Collection store openings. "There are certainly a few locations we could go to in the U.S.," Drexler said, referring to major cities. "We do think it has a really good opportunity, particularly given the landscape of the better business. It's an opportunity to sell better goods with better fabrications and designed goods. This is not going to be the biggest part of our business. We never see it as widely distributed as the J. Crew product."

Yet, opening the Collection store on Madison Avenue "is a pretty big move forward for us," Drexler said. "If a year ago you said, 'You'll be opening a Collection store,' I would have said, 'No way.' But we see what the demand has been. People have been asking for Collection goods in our stores."

Collection, which had a soft launch online in the spring, features items such as a cashmere hacking jacket for $595, a suede dress for $595 and a silk radzimir gown, $1,950. Collection pieces have unusual prints or colors to distinguish them from the run-of-the-mill. For example, a baby-doll dress, priced at $225, has an allover print of library books, and a $298 cashmere cardigan sweater with large buttons comes in a bright shade of tangerine. "Part of it is the tangerine [color] and part of it is the buttons," Drexler said, explaining the item's appeal. "The last part is the detail and the fit. Essentially, we're bringing an entire point of view to our better goods."J. Crew's 2004 partnership with Loro Piana for cashmere and wool was so well received and attracted so much attention the company decided to continue pursuing "unparalleled quality, high-end detailing and luxury at a more approachable price point."

The retailer now has partnerships with couture beader Shameeza, Italian print house Ratti, leather manufacturer Borge Garveri and Clerici duchesse satin, which has provided fabric for Vera Wang and Chanel. In addition, J. Crew works with Italian mills and Irish linen houses.

Collection has its own label, distinguishing pieces from the main J. Crew assortment. The company called Collection "a natural evolution, representing a grown-up version of J. Crew's 'classics with a twist' style — updated with an emphasis on elevated quality and originality."

Drexler said Collection will continue to focus on its existing categories, which include dresses, outerwear, shoes, handbags and jewelry — "areas where customers are used to buying designer goods. We have as affluent an audience as any company has. Does this represent a relative value to customer? So far, we haven't seen a ceiling. This is reasonably compelling to a lot of our customers."

With women mixing high and low fashion, Drexler observed that "customers don't shop by price alone. They're looking to invest in special items. We've trained our customers to understand the level of quality."

Drexler revealed few details about the Madison Avenue store, saying: "The clothes are going to speak for themselves. I don't think any store is about its materials. It's not going to be a pretentious, designer-y store. It will be a cool, J. Crew store."

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