WASHINGTON — Black-tie dinners — and there are an estimated 900 per year in the nation’s capital — translate into big business for Saks Fifth Avenue.

"This city has more black ties than any other city we serve," said Christina Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue, who was honored at just such a black-tie gala here on Oct. 26. "We make a complete offering of designer eveningwear for that community."

Johnson, who took the Saks Fifth Avenue helm in February 2000, oversees 61 full-line Saks Fifth Avenue stores and 50 Saks Off 5th outlet stores around the country. There are two full-line Saks stores in the Washington area, as well as three Off 5th stores.

Saks’ designer black-tie outfits served Johnson well as she donned a Ralph Rucci ensemble for the National Italian-American Foundation dinner at the Hilton Washington & Towers, where she received the "Special Achievement Award in Business."

Johnson’s fashion pick at the VIP reception prior to the dinner was Sophia Loren, who wore a peach-colored organza Armani gown, which literally tripped up more than a few partygoers.

Loren and Robert DeNiro were inducted into NIAF’s Hall of Fame and Johnson made a point of meeting both celebrities at the cocktail party.

Beyond the awards and black-tie dinners, however, Johnson has faced a tough business climate in the luxury market, which was hit hard after the Sept. 11 attacks last year.

The more urban-oriented Saks Fifth Avenue division of Saks Inc. narrowed its operating losses in the second quarter (the latest figures available) to $13.8 million from $45.3 million a year earlier, as reported in WWD. Sales gained 7.8 percent, but comparable-store sales were down 4.7 percent in the second quarter.

However, Johnson, in an interview before the NIAF dinner, said New York has "significantly rebounded in terms of people coming to shop."

"Our New York [flagship] has benefited from that," she said, adding that the renovated main floor of the flagship will open on Nov. 12. Saks "recaptured" 40,000 square feet of selling space during the two-year renovation of the flagship, Johnson said.Saks will also open three more stores this year, including an 80,000-square-foot store in Richmond, Va., as well as a store in Indianapolis and in Raleigh, N.C.

The company also officially reopened its Las Vegas store last Wednesday. That store was expanded to 165,000 square feet from 70,000.

Locally, Saks completed renovations last year on its two full-line stores in Chevy Chase, Md., and at Tyson’s Corner Center in McLean, Va.

The company expanded its Chevy Chase store to 130,000 square feet from 108,000 last year and opened a freestanding Saks Men’s store in late 2000. It also renovated its Tyson’s Corner three-floor store and dedicated 20 percent more space to the designer area, the ceo said.

Saks’ brisk designer business appears to prove some critics of Washington style wrong.

Women in the area, often labeled conservative dressers, actually have a penchant for the more daring designer designs, according to Johnson.

"This consumer is fashion-involved," she said. "Chevy Chase [carries] one of our strongest designer offerings because of the special [affluent] community it serves."

She said fall business at that store has been good, noting designer, ready to wear, handbags, fine jewelry and contemporary sportswear have driven sales.

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