By  on October 10, 2005

PARIS — The world's largest Louis Vuitton store, christened here during the climax of Paris Fashion Week, doesn't feel that big at all.

Which is the whole point, according to Vuitton chief executive officer Yves Carcelle. "It's completely against the idea of gigantism. We want it to be an intimate promenade," he said Sunday morning, giving WWD the first walk-through of the sumptuous 20,500-square-foot boutique in a landmark building on the Champs Elysées.

Indeed, beyond the soaring atrium at the entrance — flanked by a Donald Judd-like arrangement of red trunks that signals more art is to come — and then a vast room some early visitors likened to a cathedral, are a series of human-scale rooms devoted to Vuitton's ever-expanding range of products.

"We don't want people to be stressed by the size," Carcelle said. "It's all about little rooms you discover one after the other."

Still, Vuitton's ceo trumpeted the store as a new must-visit attraction in the City of Lights and a showcase that is bound to have a global impact on the world's biggest luxury brand, already riding high at a heady time for the sector. And Vuitton's roll continued at its high-energy show Sunday night, where Marc Jacobs presented one of the standout collections of the season for the house. (For more on the collection, see page 4.)

Although Carcelle declined to talk numbers, sources estimate the unit should generate annual sales of between 75 million and 95 million euros, or $91.1 million to $115.4 million, selling everything from 120 euro ($145) key fobs to a 330,000 euro ($364,320) necklace of white and yellow diamonds. All currency conversions have been made at current exchange rates.

Carcelle brushed off any suggestion the store would be a loss-leading image vehicle for the brand. "Of course it will make money," he insisted.

One analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the store would likely move into the black within three to four years "at the latest," since Vuitton already incurred most or all of the key money involved in the lease and the site, already a popular attraction, should easily win incremental traffic.The store, which opens to the public Wednesday after two years of renovation, is roughly double the size of the previous unit, which opened on the famous shopping thoroughfare in 1998.

The previous store typically boasted long lines of mostly Asian tourists outside, and welcomed up to 5,000 shoppers per day. Carcelle said about 84 percent of customers at the Champs Elysées site are from outside France.

With stone and marble floors mirroring the same patterns of interspaced rectangles on the sidewalk outside, the store evokes the idea of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Once whisked up a 70-foot escalator past a video by artist Tim White-Sobieski, shoppers gradually wind their way down around the central atrium.

"It eliminates the idea of floors," Carcelle said, explaining the succession of levels was inspired by stepped rice fields — fittingly, given the strength of the Vuitton brand in Asia.

Throughout, the company juxtaposes references to its 151 years of history — such as vintage trunks and toys and Jean Lariviere photos from past campaigns — with the latest bags and accessories from artistic director Marc Jacobs' runway.

Major art works are also interspersed, including an astounding rectangle of powdery light by James Turrell that subtly morphs over 50 minutes in one of the accessories areas.

In January, Vuitton will christen a 4,300-square-foot art gallery on the seventh floor of the building with an exhibition of photographs by Vanessa Beecroft, who also orchestrated a performance piece Sunday night at the Petit Palais as part of the store celebrations. The public will ultimately be able to access the gallery from a separate street entrance — or be transported in a pitch black, soundproof elevator in the atrium that is actually an art work by Olafur Eliasson titled "Your Loss of Senses."

To be sure, shoppers might at least lose their sense of time as they encounter room after endless room. Upon crossing the threshold, women's products — starting with fall and winter accessories from the runway — are on the left, while the men's department starts on the right with leather goods and neckties.

Sunglasses, a new product category for Vuitton, are exclusive to the Paris flagship for one month, rolling out to about 50 more locations by the end of the year, Carcelle said. There are also limited-edition crocodile shoes, miniature versions of iconic handbags, children's footwear and spectacular jewelry and watches that are all exclusive to the Champs Elysées.Designed jointly by architects Eric Carlson and Peter Marino — with consultation by Vuitton's in-house architecture team — the boutique incorporates signature elements from other Vuitton locations, such as the monogrammed metallic walls that were originally employed in the Roppongi Hills location in Tokyo, appearing in Paris in various materials from leather and wenge wood to porcelain and colored glass.

Perhaps the most spectacular feature of the store is the central atrium, hung with nine miles of gleaming steel rods for a dazzling effect. Beneath is retail space, too, with a selection of luggage lining the walls.

The store opening coincides with buoyant times for the Vuitton business. In September, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton cited "exceptional" double-digit sales growth over the summer months and lusty demand in particular for Vuitton's stonewashed denim handbags with its signature monogram.

Antoine Belge, a luxury goods analyst at HSBC in Paris, said in a research note Friday that organic growth at LVMH is likely to be strong at 11 percent in the third quarter, with the Vuitton brand accounting for about one quarter of 2005 group sales and 55 percent of operating profits.

What's more, he said, the new store should have "a significant impact on emerging clienteles as the Champs Elysées is one of the areas most visited by tourists."

Not that it's the last of Vuitton's projects for the year. Next up for Carcelle before year-end is a second "global" store in Beijing selling all product categories and the reopening of its Landmark location in Hong Kong.

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