By  on May 16, 2007

MOSCOW — Just a few years ago Ralph Lauren considered this city, Russia's traffic-clogged epicenter of conspicuous consumption and rabid new-wealth oligarchs, unready for his understated American take on style.

"I didn't think they would get it," he said Tuesday. But as Lauren, who stressed his company's commitment to overseas growth, prepared to inaugurate twin stores in the Russian capital on Thursday, he emphasized how rapidly business and tastes have evolved in this vibrant luxury market.

"When they asked me to come here years ago, I felt that I wasn't ready for Russia with the clothes that I make," explained Lauren, dressed head to toe in black with a gold Rolex on his wrist. "I think they get it now. Russian people have a history of a lot of elegance and a lot of class. This is an old-world country. So it's in the blood somewhere."

Indeed, Russia — in particular, Moscow — has shaped up as an El Dorado for many of Europe's leading luxury players, from Cartier and Boucheron to Giorgio Armani and Prada.

And, if early customer interest is a reliable litmus test for Lauren, he, too, may strike gold here. He told, for instance, of a Russian woman who walked into his flagship Monday, brushing aside protests it wasn't open yet, to give her credit card in reserve for five Ricky crocodile bags for roughly $100,000.

At both stores, which will be operated under partnership with Russia's Mercury distribution group, customers have been calling to subscribe to long waiting lists because all the bags are on hold even in advance of the opening.

"I'm totally impressed by Russia," enthused Lauren, whose first trip here included a dinner and fashion show at the residence of American Ambassador William Burns on Tuesday evening. The evening began with a cocktail party outside in the gardens, followed by the show in the hall of the residence. Lauren, in black tie, took an emotional bow.

Burns did not attend because he was at the Russian state dinner for Condoleezza Rice, so his wife, Lisa Carty, hosted the evening, which drew Russian energy moguls as well as polo player Nacho Figueras and Lady Gabriella Windsor, who has become a brand ambassador for Lauren in the U.K. The show was followed by a sit-down dinner at three long tables covered with china, glass and huge silver candelabra."The energy and the exuberance about luxury and life, the appetite, is amazing," the designer said of the Russian market. "Their excitement is amazing. The energy is there. You see it in America. Certainly, the American market has been pretty great. But here there's an energy and a newness that comes from a different place.

"They have money to spend," he continued. "Their appetite is like when you sit down to a meal starved. I think that's why the market here is going to boom, because there's energy and a hunger for product, luxury and exclusivity."

To meet that potential, Lauren opened two stores simultaneously, one downtown, and the other, resembling a chic Swiss chalet, just outside the city in the Barvikha luxury shopping village. Both mark the first time Lauren's merchandise is sold officially on Russian soil.

The aristocratic flagship at 1 Tretyakovsky Passage, a luxury shopping destination not far from the Kremlin and Red Square that is home to the likes of Prada, Armani and Brioni, is most emblematic of his ambitions here. With a stately white facade and blue awnings, it measures 8,000 square feet and puts a resolute accent on Lauren's most luxurious product categories, including his burgeoning accessories business, the runway collections and the higher-priced Purple and Black Label businesses.

In fact, the whole ground floor, with soaring ceilings gussied up with friezes and regal limestone floors, is devoted to men's and women's accessories. Lauren said it was the first time the category was getting such extensive play in one of his stores.

"It's representative of where we want to take [the accessories business]," he explained, adding that he created several limited edition bags with a special New York-Moscow label exclusively for the store's inauguration.

"There's a hunger here for exclusivity," he said. "We want for people to be able to go into certain stores and say, 'Wow! I didn't see that at the other store.'"

The decorative scheme reflects Lauren's affinity for old-world style tempered with American flourishes.

A staircase leading to the second (women's) and third (men's) floors, for example, is hung with vintage-y oil paintings, photos and lithographs, while the two-room women's department has a homey atmosphere with a fireplace, sofa and armchairs. Above the hearth, a flat-screen television plays images from Lauren's runway show.Likewise, the men's department, one floor up, communicates a familiar clubby ambience, with wood paneling and clothes segmented into three rooms devoted separately to the Purple and Black Labels and the sporty Polo line.

The logoed Polo merchandise is cosseted into what seems the last room of the store. "I have a broadscale company and the logo is a very small part of what I do," said Lauren, adding that he hasn't seen logo fatigue in his sales anywhere. "The logos are blowing out of stores."

Lauren has been stepping up his company's international retail presence. Last spring, he inaugurated a flagship in Tokyo's Omotesando, and in 2004, he opened a sprawling store in Milan's Via Montenapoleone. Thirty percent of the company's $5.3 billion in net wholesale sales were generated abroad last year.

Building on that momentum, Lauren revealed plans next year to open three stores in Paris, adding to the one flagship overlooking the Madeleine that he operates in the City of Light already. He said one of the Paris stores would be located on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and another on Avenue Montaigne, with the former including an RL restaurant. The location of the third store has yet to be finalized, he said.

"The strategy is expanding," he said. "The strategy is global. And these stores that we're opening vary from superluxury to luxury and sport to lots of iterations of the products we have."

The Moscow stores, for example, mark the introduction of Lauren's new eyewear, in license with Safilo, and they are furnished from his own home collection, though the pieces are not explicitly offered for sale. (Mercury declined to provide first-year sales projections, according to a Lauren spokeswoman.)

"The evolution of everything I do keeps evolving," said the designer. "We're about to go into jewelry and watches, but at a very high-level scale [in a venture with Compagnie Financière Richemont]. So that's definitely [part of] the expansion."

Further growth in Russia is another opportunity, Lauren said. "I think this is a market at the beginning," he said, adding that stores in other Russian cities were "a strong possibility."For example, for three days last weekend, Lauren and his family toured St. Petersburg, where he visited palaces once inhabited by Catherine the Great and devoted "a very long" morning examining the vast art collections at The State Hermitage Museum.

"There's so much culture here and so much past and so much to look forward to in terms of a country on the mend and growing and changing," he said. "They are under construction everywhere."

"St. Petersburg is a little more weekend-y, a little more casual [than Moscow]. I think it's a beautiful city. And as it gets to be built, and becomes more of an attraction, I think [a store] is really in the cards."

Lauren, who has Russian lineage, said coming to Russia for the first time elicited strong emotions.

"It was mysterious [for me] before I came," he said. "I didn't know what Russia would be like. I didn't know what the lighting would be like. I didn't know what the tone of Russia was. I heard a lot of different things. Actually, I find it very exciting and energetic. You can really feel the buzz."

He said people have been very welcoming despite virulent anti-American rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

(At the same time Lauren was in Moscow opening his stores, Secretary of State Rice was in town to paper over differences between the two nations.)

"I'm sorry that that has happened," said Lauren of the political tension. "But I don't sense it in the people. It's exciting being an American brand that represents luxury in Russia. You see European brands wherever you go. I feel that [being here] is very good for America.

"America has energy and is known for great sportswear," he continued. "But I don't think America has been known as much as Europe for luxury, and the luxury bags. That's obvious. But the fact that I'm here…means that Americans can be inspired. I feel very strongly about globalization and that Americans should be moving and expanding their horizons.

"I'm proud I represent America, and that I'm here in Russia shows that there's a communication between American people and Russian people."

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