MILAN — A visit to Ralph Lauren’s first Italian store — a sprawling 16,000-square-foot space stocking everything from throw pillows to dog biscuits — should quickly dispel any Italian notions that the brand is just about colorful polo shirts.

The Italian flagship, which opens Thursday, is one of the first components of Polo Ralph Lauren’s major push into Continental Europe, which analysts have touted for growth potential. The Milan store is Ralph Lauren’s 12th wholly owned unit in Europe and company executives hope to open another 20 to 25 stores on the Continent over the next three to five years. For now, Lauren is mum on which city is next, saying only that the company is working on a lot of different locations.

Still, Lauren emphasized that Europe is a priority for the brand. He’s not intimidated by a lackluster retail record of American designers and brands on the Continent.

“This is not a trial run. This is where we are,” the designer said in a phone interview from his New York headquarters, where he was preparing for his runway show next week. “It’s about what you stand for. It’s not about being European or American.”

Roger Farah, president and chief operating officer, said consolidated sales in Europe came in at slightly more than $500 million for fiscal 2004, or about 19 percent of the group’s total of almost $3 billion, and that European sales should reach the $1 billion mark sometime within the next few years.

In order to achieve that goal, Polo will have to expand Europeans’ knowledge of the brand’s products past its embroidered polo logo. The Milan flagship is the first Italian sales point to offer the company’s vast Home Collection, which ranges from cocktail shakers to worn leather chairs, as well as the accessories line of handbags, shoes and jewelry. The store also features a made-to-measure service for men’s suits and shirts.

Lauren said that bits and pieces of his various collections can be found in wholesale channels in Italy, but he wants to give Italians a chance to experience the brand on multiple levels.

“I have friends in Italy who love the clothes but they haven’t been able to buy them in the same way as in America,” he said. “I think what I’m trying to demonstrate is what I’m all about. It’s about taking control of who we are and what we stand for rather than letting other people say it.”

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