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Responding to its growing designer business, Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago is giving its designer floors a facelift.

This story first appeared in the November 20, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The luxury retailer is creating 5,000 square feet of new retail space and showcasing some of its designer wares in larger, boutique-like alcoves reflecting the various brands’ decors and aesthetics.

The project, part of Saks’ effort to reinvent its image and personality, is set to be completed on Nov. 30, when visitors may encounter 11 new designer areas, ranging from an expansive 1,100-square-foot Giorgio Armani space to a 600-square-foot area for Oscar de la Renta, featuring matte stone-finished walls and plasma televisions displaying its runway collection.

Designer merchandise will grow in size and scope, with Saks increasing its Oscar de la Renta assortment by 40 percent and its Armani inventory by 25 percent, said Michael Hawley, vice president and general manager of the Michigan Avenue store.

“This is where the demand is,” he said. “Our designer business continues to grow. Those lines are big business for us.”

That’s even more the case since Macy’s took over Marshall Field’s last year and dropped some of the upscale ready-to-wear lines carried in its 28 Shop.

“It alienated a lot of people and forced them into other places,” said Hawley, adding that Saks was able to pick up Etro in the fallout. “After Field’s, I’d like to think we’re the hometown store. We’ve been on Michigan Avenue since 1929.”

Overall, Saks as a company budgeted $125 million to $150 million on capital expenditures this year and plans to spend about the same next year. In Chicago, the redesign encompasses 15,359 square feet on Saks’ second floor and 10,000 square feet on its third floor, providing shoppers with more clearly marked sections that are easier to navigate.

“It’s not just a sea of merchandise,” Hawley said. “I think this makes the floor more relevant to today’s customers. It’s more inviting.”

Workers removed a wall surrounding the 400-square-foot Gucci area, with its taupe walls and nickel fixtures, and shoppers can see the space from the middle of the Chicago Place shopping center where Saks is housed. “It creates a visual cue that wasn’t there otherwise,” Hawley said.

In all, the designer floors are “more spacious, elegant and relaxed,” he noted.

Not to mention more interesting. One of the finished sections, Piazza Sempione, features a mirrored-tile floor; curved, hammered-nickel clothing racks and gray-and-white-striped wall covering. Lanvin and Chloé, meanwhile, will ship in their own furniture or art to decorate their spaces, Hawley said.

Adding to the growing designer assortment is Graeme Black, who is exclusive to Saks in Chicago. The former women’s wear designer for Ferragamo flew into the city recently for a trunk show and to help promote Saks’ renovation, as Saks Fifth Avenue has been a key retailer since he launched his own collection in 2005.

Women who turned out for the trunk show scooped up Black’s embroidered leather tulle bolero for $4,900, snakeskin jacket for $5,900, jersey knotted T-shirt for $1,200 and embroidered leather organza skirt at $4,576, among other items. Prices range from a $397 silk knit strapless top to a $24,900 crocodile bolero.

The designer, who plans to introduce shoes and handbags with his spring 2009 collection and open a store in London next year, said he wants to grow slowly for now.

“The reason I’m doing this is to keep it small and refine my craft,” Black said. “I want to enjoy the small moments.”

“I’m an old designer,” said Black, 41, “but I feel like I’m starting over. It took me a long time to decide the right moment, and this is the happiest time of my life.

“I’ve worked really hard to earn the right to do this. Being enthusiastic about someone else’s heritage can get exhausting,” said Black.

At the start of his career in the early Nineties, Black worked in London for John Galliano and Zandra Rhodes. He later moved to Italy and designed the Borgonuovo line at Giorgio Armani. He joined Ferragamo in 2001, and launched his own collection in 2005.

Black, a Scotsman, is revisiting his own roots for fall, working with tweeds and cashmeres in navy, chocolate brown, soft creams and light checks cut on the bias with touches of black.

“It’s not a crazy kilt collection,” he joked.

Black, who estimates wholesale volume at $6 million next year, said he has no immediate plans to participate in New York Fashion Week.

“I didn’t do the catwalk,” he said. “I wanted to focus on the clothing. I want it to be real first.”

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