NEW YORK — Christina Johnson has a penchant for crocodile handbags and fur collars — and it’s not just personal.

Saks Fifth Avenue’s president and chief executive officer is known to sport that accessorized look when she hits the town, and she considers it a top priority for the store, too. Johnson, who is spearheading the transformation of the company’s jewel — SFA’s 650,000-square-foot Manhattan flagship — has made the $29 billion-a-year accessories category a priority in her strategy.

To that end, Saks unveiled its new accessories concept on the flagship’s main floor in December. A prototype for future store openings and renovations, it features a mix of designer and private label merchandise flagged by luxury leather goods shop-in-shops, which mimic the design philosophy of each offered brand.

"Accessories is the highest trending business for us," Johnson said during a recent walk-through of the department. "In terms of trends, accessories are running the highest increases for us right now, and are second, in terms of volume, next to women’s ready-to-wear."

The perimeter of the main floor is lined with boutiques for Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Dior, Tod’s and Longchamp. This spring, Louis Vuitton, located in a temporary space by the escalators, will move to the main floor’s far left corner. Johnson said it will offer a more complete array of products than is available now, including shoes, luggage and handbags.

The boutiques are operated by Saks, except for Dior, Ferragamo and Vuitton, which are leased.

"No one has this kind of designer offering," Johnson claimed. "We want to be a destination for designer and luxury leather goods."

For the year that ended Feb. 2, 2002, women’s accessories accounted for 15.8 percent of Saks’ total volume, or about $380 million — the second biggest category after women’s apparel.

The company’s commitment to the upscale luxury goods business will likely shift Saks’ retail identity to compete more directly with luxury specialty stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. [In 2001, Saks unveiled its new jewelry department, with exclusive resources such as Graff and Cartier.]In the new layout, the main floor real estate for handbags increased by 57 percent, while the square footage for soft accessories remained the same.

Besides designer shop-in-shops, the main floor also offers accessories by resources such as Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Lambertson Truex, Coach, Isabella Fiore, Miu Miu, and Eric Javits. "We have been very careful in terms of offering a balance," Johnson said. "While the [luxury] designer and leather goods business is critical in our offering, we have also made sure to include bridge resources. Coach is significant to our business and growing rapidly."

Since opening, bestsellers have included a Prada pink nylon mini hobo handbag at $235, Gucci’s black suede zip-top hobo at $480, Chanel’s chocolate calf handbag with tassel at $1,260 and YSL’s dark brown Mombasa bag at $665.

Johnson noted that the Dior and Chanel boutiques already exceeded sales expectations: "[Dior’s] already in excess of our planned target by about 50 percent. The brand is experiencing a strong awareness and consumer acceptance. We have also had a tremendous response to Chanel."

The shop-in-shops were designed in collaboration with the brand’s retail architects. For instance, the glass-encased Chanel boutique was created by Peter Marino, while Studio Sofield designed the Gucci shop.

In order to maximize the impact of each boutique, the shops make use of the main floor’s 20-foot-high ceiling and dramatically display handbags from floor to ceiling. During its renovation of the cosmetics department this year, Saks will lower each bunker from 11 to nine feet for a better view of the shops from any location on the floor.

Saks Fifth Avenue also installed an improved Ambassador’s desk, which will assist customers with anything from coat check to theater tickets, hotel reservations, and language interpreters. There are 15 languages on tap.

When asked why the company decided to make over the accessories floor in Manhattan, Johnson replied: "The New York flagship is the icon of the Saks Fifth Avenue brand. It has a halo effect on the other 61 units. The recognition of Saks is made by this store."

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