By  on January 15, 2009

Paul & Shark will expand its retail presence in the U.S. this spring when it opens a flagship store on Rodeo Drive.

The Italian sportswear company will debut a two-level, 2,100-square-foot unit at 449 North Rodeo Drive between Brighton Way and Santa Monica Boulevard in March. Among the store’s neighbors are Lacoste on the right and Max Mara on the  left as well as Loro Piana. It is directly across the street from a Ralph Lauren store.

Men’s wear will be housed on the 1,600-square-foot main floor, with women’s and  children’s wear on the 500-square-foot mezzanine, according to Rachelle Giroux, president of Paul & Shark USA Inc.

Giroux said the company intends to do a soft opening in March “and then perhaps  plan a local event in the fall when consumer sentiment and interest hopefully improves.”

Like most other apparel companies, Paul & Shark has been affected by the economic downturn, and for that reason Giroux was hesitant to provide an estimate on volume for the new store. “This is difficult to forecast due to the  retail economy and it being a new market for us,” she said, “so we have prepared a cautious but achievable budget forecast. We expect that 2010 will be  a more realistic plan.”

She continued: “Like everyone, our business could be better. Yet, with all the negativity that occurred in 2008, we are down only 1 percent versus last year in our U.S. stores and are very happy with that result.” Giroux attributed the strong showing to “fine-tuning our buys to customer trends by store, maintaining a realistic inventory level and chasing sales whenever possible with Italy’s stock program. Our wholesale business was down slightly due to our  specialty stores’ anticipation of a slow fall ’09. We are not sold in department stores, so that may have somewhat helped our final results.”

Like many other executives, Giroux said the company “didn’t anticipate as deep of a recession as it currently is. Nonetheless, we have an ambitious strategy for [growth] in the U.S. and we want to seize any viable opportunity that might  be out there to achieve it. We are taking a long-term approach and are investing in our future. It’s one of our last frontiers.”

Currently, Paul & Shark operates three stores in the U.S. — Madison Avenue in New York, Bal Harbor, Fla., and Short Hills, N.J. “We wanted a place on Rodeo, even though our options were limited,” Giroux said, noting that “finding space in a short three-street distance is expensive and not easily achieved.” However, because the company attracts an international consumer — customers outside the U.S. account for one third of the business in New York and Florida — she is confident the store will do well.

“We also believe that it fits perfectly with some of our top global retail locations,” she added, singling out Via Montenapoleone in Milan, Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, Portofino, Florence and the Landmark Building in Hong Kong as examples.

Giroux said that due to the “temperate year-round climate in Los Angeles, we expect to do well with our more casual and leisure collections. Our DNA, since 1921, has been nautical knitwear, even though we have become a full lifestyle collection — including wovens, outerwear, pants and accessories — in recent years. We offer unique styling details as well as leading-edge technology that is unlike the more popular Italian sportswear brands.”

Giroux said the company, which operates more than 200 stores in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, China, India, South America, the Carribean and the U.S., has a plan to add a store a year for the next three years. “We are evaluating the retailing opportunities as they present themselves,” she said, “but we plan  to expand on the West Coast and in the southern U.S. when the time is right.”

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