By  on December 28, 2000

NEW YORK -- It may not exactly rival Beatlemania, but at least some Americans are readying themselves for yet another British Invasion in 2001.

Charming Shoppes, the specialty retailer based in Bensalem, Pa., has formed a joint venture with Monsoon PLC to bring the London-based fashion retailer's Monsoon and Accessorize store concepts to American soil beginning in mid-2001. If not exactly "I Want to Hold Your Hand," Charming is hoping for a few choruses of "I Want to Wear Your Clothes."

What is Charming -- which is putting up 80 percent of the capital for the joint venture here -- hoping to do that existing stores, including chic imports such as H&M and Zara, aren't? At a luncheon at the restaurant Daniel in New York last month, Charming's management team made it clear to an audience of financial analysts that its mission was fashion.

"The opportunity today, as we move into a new millennium, is to bring a new fashion concept to the U.S. market," noted Donna Schmid, the former Bon Marche general merchandise manager who's heading the U.S. Monsoon venture. "The consumer is bored with apparel, and even with home furnishings, and wants new brand concepts and new shopping experiences."

While Monsoon is chic, it hardly fits the "cheap" category. Monsoon describes its product as "better, fashion-forward and highly differentiated" and its customers as savvy and upscale with average household incomes of $65,000 and up. (With a product assortment that complements rather than defines the wardrobe, Accessorize caters to a slightly younger customer, 16 to 35 versus 25 to 45 at Monsoon, with average household incomes of $50,000 and up.)

But what Charming chief executive Dorrit Bern believes will make Monsoon and its sister division stand out in the U.S. retail marketplace is its affinity for "feminine clothing that's so hard to find in this country" amidst the informal tendencies of casually oriented stores and the buttoned-up proclivities of those offering business dress. To help bring the point home, Charming officials at the luncheon dressed in Monsoon outfits or, at the least, ornamented their outfits with Accessorize pieces. Models -- including several children who immediately elicited ooh's and aah's from the assembled -- showed off the breadth of Monsoon's offerings with outfits appropriate for activities ranging from a day at the beach to a night at the altar.Although leases haven't yet been signed, plans are to open about 20 units in 2001, most of them under the Accessorize banner. Two Accessorize stores are slated for May, and both standalone and combination stores are a possibility.

Charming executives noted that Monsoon's broad assortments would be edited for the U.S. market and that additional pains would be taken to make sure that Monsoon merchandise complied with U.S. statutes and regulations. When Eric Specter, Charming's executive vice president and chief financial officer, noted that U.S. flammability standards differed from those of other markets, Lazard Frere's Todd Slater sardonically asked if the U.S. merchandise was expected to be more or less flammable.

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