By  on September 22, 2005

MILAN — Italy is home to denim innovators such as Diesel, Miss Sixty and Gas, but that's not stopping a pair of American icons, Levi's and Lee, from wooing jeans-loving Milanese with new retail concepts.

Lee, which is owned by VF Corp., unveiled a store this month in Milan on Corso Porta Ticinese, a bustling shopping strip featuring vintage clothing stores and designer boutiques such as Custo Barcelona and A/J Armani Jeans.

The store has an industrial feel, with exposed brick and grainy black-and-white pictures of miners. Designed by Belgium-based Creneau International, the store borrows elements from the world's first Lee store on London's Carnaby Street.

Levi's also is putting in a brief appearance in Milan. In July, the brand opened a temporary store on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a busy strip that's home to Benetton, H&M and Zara, among others. The small, two-level space, featuring light-wood-paneled floors, beige walls and metal rail shelving units, will stay open until Dec. 31. The design concept will be used in other permanent Levi's stores, including a Catania, Italy, unit to open this month.

Maurizio De Ponti, chief executive officer of VF Italia, said Lee has managed to attract a younger, more fashion-oriented customer in Italy than in other parts of Europe and the U.S.

"In the U.S., [Lee] is mostly a commodity product," he said.

Lee has 1,200 sales points in Italy, including 200 in-store shops. VF is looking to boost brand recognition with freestanding stores. Milan is the third Lee boutique in Italy. Earlier this year, the brand opened stores in Bologna and Catania. These boutiques are smaller than the Milan store's 1,721-square-foot space, but they share similar design concepts. In the longer term, VF hopes to open more stores in Italy featuring Lee and other group brands such as Wrangler.

Despite a flood of brands on the market, De Ponti said he thinks there is a lot of room for American denim brands to make it in Italy. He said there is sufficient demand for jeans in the 80 euro, or $97 at current exchange, to 90 euro, or $110, price range, especially those in a variety of styles, from hip-huggers to bell-bottoms."Today, everything is popular," he said. "There is no predefined style, but rather a collection of styles."

Levi's has a better-developed retail network in Italy that has grown in recent years. There were about 15 stores in 2003 and the company plans to have an estimated 36 by the end of 2005.

The company also is looking to complement its network with temporary stores that will allow it to test new markets or take advantage of great locations, such as Milan's Corso Vittorio Emanuele, if only for a short time. Levi's took advantage of a gap between tenants to get the space.

"The world changes too quickly," said Benoit De Crane, director general of Levi's Italia.

Levi's has experimented with the temporary store concept elsewhere in Europe. Last year, it set up a temporary shop in Berlin and joined forces with MTV, whose VJs hosted shows from the store. Others are likely to follow, though De Crane wouldn't discuss desirable locations.

"We'll evaluate any idea that comes our way," De Crane said.

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