By  on August 6, 2007

NEW YORK — Since joining Louis Vuitton as North American president and chief executive officer last December, Daniel Lalonde has become quite the LV aficionado.

On a recent Friday morning, he was sporting a tailored gray suit, a white shirt, a navy tie, a watch and shoes — all from the luxury goods house, with some of the items prominently featuring the stylized floral motif that is one of Vuitton's signature icons. He was a walking, talking manifestation of the brand.

He has to be, for Lalonde thinks there is huge growth potential for Vuitton in the States. He spent his first few months on the job visiting most of the 116 U.S. Vuitton stores. After having studied the business coast to coast, the former president and ceo of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Watch & Jewelry North America formed a multifaceted strategy for Vuitton, which includes:

- Rolling out freestanding stores in areas where the brand currently has no presence.

- Identifying new lifestyle centers being built as particular expansion opportunities.

- Launching an e-commerce Web site in the U.S.

- Increasing Vuitton's commitment to the arts and to charity.

- Continuously highlighting the expansive history of the luxury leather goods house to customers.

"The brand has had an incredible amount of success in North America in the last five years," said Lalonde, citing consistently strong double-digit gains across the Vuitton product gamut. "The brand awareness has been developed very well. One of the things I'd like to begin to work on is telling the whole story of the Louis Vuitton brand and what the brand means, from the rich heritage going back to 1854 and our roots being in travel. This is what makes Louis Vuitton different from all luxury brands."

Lalonde said in-store events help bring across that history. Case in point: Vuitton made this its year of travel worldwide, so the company has been holding travel-themed events in key stores that are celebrating their 25th anniversary. For instance, it recently held a party at its Toronto flagship for its key customers and VIPs, giving the space a classic hotel feel.

Under Lalonde, Vuitton also will continue expanding its retail network. The executive plans to bring the number of U.S. stores to 121 before the end of the year, with openings planned for St. Thomas; Natick, Mass.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Bloomingdale's in Aventura, Fla., and Saks Fifth Avenue in Phoenix. Unlike many other luxury brands, Vuitton controls 100 percent of its distribution, and in-store environments in larger department stores are always leased and operated by the company.Lalonde expressed a particular interest in lifestyle centers that are popping up, mostly in affluent suburbs across America, featuring upscale shops, cinemas and condominiums. The company recently opened a store at the Domain lifestyle center in Austin, Tex.

"Throughout my travels, one of the things I have seen is that even with our current portfolio of stores, there's still much potential to roll out Louis Vuitton," Lalonde said. "There are many areas that have very affluent communities that have developed recently where we don't have a market presence, in such markets as California or Connecticut."

Since Marc Jacobs' first ready-to-wear and shoe collections for Vuitton in 1998, the house has been stepping up its assortment of accessories such as eyewear, belts, costume jewelry, fine jewelry and watches. Lalonde hopes to be able to increase the footprint of some stores or tweak existing interior layouts to accommodate the growth of these areas.

"These categories have become very important in our stores today," he said. "Part of our strategy to look at stores is to have our merchandising approach suited and tailored to the product category more and more. We are trying to adapt our merchandising approach to the categories."

He cited the shoe category, which has been growing at a healthy clip Stateside, as an example of such a merchandising strategy.

"In addition to bringing in more shoes, we're also looking to a more relaxing environment for our shoes, with a more intimate feeling when you are purchasing them," he said. "For accessories, we are working on ways to make the experience more tactile."

The new shoe experience is only one way Vuitton is looking to increasingly pamper its customers. This fall, the brand will expand its made-to-order service in select stores in America with a new computer technology that allows customers to choose the color or fabric for hard-sided luggage and see the result on the screen right away before it is made at Vuitton's factories in France.

"In the luxury space, we have to evolve with what our customers are demanding," he said. "I think customization like this is a very important trend. It enhances our customer service experience."Vuitton is also adding e-commerce services to this November. The site will offer product categories with leather goods, accessories and watches, with more categories to come down the road. As for products, the new site is expected to feature the company's large, supple leather Mahina bag, which company executives have pegged as one of fall's must-have items. The bag, available in two sizes, retails for $3,000 and $3,750. Lalonde said it was key to develop the site with a point of difference from the sea of other e-commerce operations out there. While few details are available at this point, he indicated customers will be able to see products at different angles and zoom in and out for details, among other functions.

"It's not just offering a commercial transaction, but we want to romance it and provide a unique point of view like the one our stores present to our customers," Lalonde said.

Parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton does not break out results for its individual brands, but for the first half of the year, the luxury group's net profits rose 2 percent to 834 million euros, or $1.11 billion, from 817 million euros, or $1 billion, a year earlier. Sales increased 6 percent to 7.41 billion euros, or $9.85 billion, from 6.97 billion euros, or $8.57 billion, driven by double-digit gains at Vuitton and a solid performance in the wine and spirits division.

The WWD 100 survey of most recognized brands by Americans, published last month, had Vuitton ranked at number 67 with an estimated volume of about $5.12 billion.

Vuitton has long prided itself on embracing the arts and charitable causes, and under Lalonde, the North American division plans to continue the tradition. This fall, for instance, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is presenting a retrospective of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami at its Geffen Contemporary space.

Murakami's multicolor leather goods collaboration with Vuitton has been tremendously successful for the company since 2002. To mark the MOCA occasion, Vuitton is cohosting the opening gala on Oct. 28, during which Jacobs will be honored and Kanye West is expected to perform. It is also opening a Vuitton boutique at the museum for the duration of the show, and word is that Jacobs collaborated with Murakami on new, limited edition pieces exclusively for that store.Later this fall, Vuitton plans to transform its boutique on San Francisco's Union Square into a "maison" — the term the company usually uses for a store that has received a major artwork. Vuitton has commissioned New York-based artist Teresita Fernandez to create a sculpture that will be inaugurated later this fall.

"To work with established artists, upcoming artists and local artists is part of our DNA," Lalonde said. "This keeps the brand alive at all times and it's a very important part in how we tell the story of the heritage."

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