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The Expanding Travels of DVF

NEW YORK — "It’s all about la petite valise," said Diane Von Furstenberg.<br><br>The designer, describing her design philosophy, was talking about the brand’s rapidly expanding product range and the recently opened store in Florida...

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NEW YORK — “It’s all about la petite valise,” said Diane Von Furstenberg.

The designer, describing her design philosophy, was talking about the brand’s rapidly expanding product range and the recently opened store in Florida that carries it. It’s this phrase, which means the “little suitcase” when translated from French, that drives her ability to take the spirit of the wrap dress and expand it to other categories. This also is the biggest design challenge she and creative director Nathan Jenden face, she said. The phrase came about when two friends of Von Furstenberg’s realized how much they wore her clothes.

“They were going to be on a boat in the Mediterranean and then at the collections in Paris during the same trip,” said the designer. “So they had to have two separate wardrobes, but they didn’t want to check their luggage. It was then they realized how versatile my clothes were. When I pack and when I design, I try to have things work in different ways. It’s all about la petite valise.”

But Von Furstenberg’s little suitcase is getting quite stuffed, as 2003 has already turned out several triumphs for the brand. Overall growth at Diane Von Furstenberg is expected to reach 35 percent, a conservative number since much of the licensed goods aren’t going to reach retail until the latter half of the year, according to Paula Sutter, president. Industry estimates put the company’s annual volume at about $40 million. The designer opened her second freestanding store Jan. 17 and is finalizing an eyewear license with product set to hit retail in March. Though the company wouldn’t say who will hold the license, the line will offer roughly 10 styles in multiple colors.

Later in the year, the company is expected to open a store in London and possibly Paris, with a Los Angeles retail space most likely following in 2004. Since her customer is mobile and travels to international capitals frequently, merchandise at the stores will vary depending on the climate and style of each city to avoid redundancy, said Von Furstenberg.

The company also will see a new fragrance and a color cosmetics line this fall at department and upscale specialty stores. As reported, Von Furstenberg signed a cosmetics deal in May with Inter Parfums to develop, manufacture and distribute fragrance, cosmetics, skin care and related beauty products under the Diane Von Furstenberg, DVF, Diane Von Furstenberg The Color Authority and Tatiana trademarks.

Though the 850-square-foot shop at the Village at Merrick Park in Coral Gables, Fla., is Von Furstenberg’s first freestanding store outside Manhattan, it symbolizes more than just a second door for the designer. Since her New York boutique adjoins her corporate headquarters, design studio and residence on a quiet street in the West Village, the Florida store is the first time the brand sits alongside others in such a commercial setting.

“To see that really made me realize that we are an independent and complete brand,” said Von Furstenberg. “It was a revelation.”

Neighbors at the Village of Merrick Park — built by Columbia, Md.-based real estate developer The Rouse Co. and opened in September — include Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Sonia Rykiel, Hugo Boss, Burberry, CH Carolina Herrera and Bottega Veneta.

The retail look for both stores was conceptualized by Alexandra von Furstenberg, director of image and new business and the designer’s daughter-in-law. The Coral Gables shop features 12-foot-high ceilings, vibrant vintage furniture, black stained concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling fabric panels in the center that create a cabana-like dressing room. Designed to look like the inside of a jewel box, the store also has circular mirrors, about 3 inches in diameter, on the ceiling and walls.

By opening the store, the brand image is directly projected onto the consumer, which is an invaluable marketing tool, said Sutter. But it also signals the company’s wholesale customers, such as department stores, that there’s more to the brand than printed dresses.

“When they see the store, our wholesale partners realize the opportunity of the brand,” said Sutter. “They realize the breadth of the product and how it should look [at retail].”

Since more than half of the store’s merchandise is sportswear, it’s clear the house has evolved from the wrap dress to a lifestyle brand. Since relaunching the signature wrap dress in 1997, sportswear has grown significantly and will soon outsell the dresses, according to Von Furstenberg. Other sectors offered under the Diane Von Furstenberg label include denim, swimwear and a tiny collection of men’s wear. In late 2002, the company launched a lingerie line exclusively at Neiman Marcus — it will go nation- and worldwide in 2004.

With all the growth, Von Furstenberg said the most important thing is that the brand’s integrity remain unscathed.

“I had too many licenses in the past and my brand suffered,” said Von Furstenberg. “But I want to make the imprint of this brand as deep as possible so it resists time. When I started, I designed for the woman that I wanted to be. Then I became that woman. Now, I design for the woman I was.”

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