By  on November 3, 2005

NEW YORK — Ruehl's first accessories-only store opens today in lower Manhattan featuring rugged-looking belts and handbags that would be at home on the range — or, in this case, the city streets.

The store is something of an experiment for Abercrombie & Fitch's newest division. The size — a mere 600 square feet — partly dictated the focus. Standard Ruehl units are about 8,500 square feet. This is also the only Ruehl store located outside a mall.

There's little to mark the shop at 370 Bleecker Street other than the Ruehl logo stenciled on the door in gold. The space could be mistaken for a bookshop if not for the handbags lining the dark walnut floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The top row of each holds an eclectic mix of books, including first editions, assembled by the visual team.

Ruehl has had to create an identity for its accessories from scratch. The brand is aimed at women and men ages 22 to 30. A&F's other divisions target younger audiences: A&F is for 18- to 22-year-olds, Hollister is for 14- to 18-year-olds and abercrombie is for seven- to 14-year-olds.

"We wanted to establish a very significant American brand," said Kathy Formby, vice president of design for Ruehl accessories. "We wanted to make sure the bags were for everyday and casual."

The company declined to discuss sales projections for the store. Last year, Abercrombie & Fitch reported an 8.8 percent gain in sales to $1.77 billion and a 6.1 percent increase in earnings to $209.2 million.

It's unclear how many Ruehl stores will eventually open. There are seven units, and eight more scheduled to open at major shopping centers in Honolulu, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Garden City, N.Y.

Core skins such as buffalo and shearling were chosen for their sturdiness. Industrial hardware in the form of a bridal ring is the Ruehl signature, appearing as a handbag closure and belt links.

Prices range from $328 for a small buffalo handbag to $1,395 a hair calf bag embellished with hand-sewn soutouche. French rabbit fur, prevalent in the collection, is dyed to look like chinchilla. A large rabbit fur bag at $1,198 features the same hardware. There's also a shearling group.In addition, Formby developed an Icat pattern for fall, which is used for handbags. She'll create a new pattern each season.

"We're going to do a denim group because we're born of denim," said Lisa Capozzi, merchandise manager for Ruehl accessories. "You'll see jewelry start to develop. We have a little bit of jewelry for men."

The Ruehl accessories team is aware that luring young women from sought-after brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi won't be easy. "If you have a really strong signature, it's about creating the desire," Capozzi said.

At the high end, Ruehl's prices are similar to those of European luxury brands. Mark Breitbard, senior vice president and general manager, said the company hopes customers won't be put off.

"We've reached out to our consumer with a $328 price," he said, referring to the buffalo handbag. "We have the range. We don't want to alienate her."

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