By  on March 2, 2007

PARIS — Knowing expectations are running high for his Nina Ricci runway debut on Sunday, Olivier Theyskens prefers to characterize it as a "first step."

"Each collection is a little bit like a chapter in a book," he demurred. But already, Theyskens' arrival has lit a fire under Ricci, with sales of his debut pre-fall collection up 62 percent year-on-year, and retailers jockeying for the line.

"It's been tremendous," said Mario Grauso, president of Puig Fashion Group, which also comprises Carolina Herrera and Paco Rabanne. "I've never in my career had so many distribution meetings. We are estimating about 70 percent growth in the first year."

Among new clients Ricci has already secured are Selfridges in London, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, Holt Renfrew in Canada and Maria Luisa in Paris, plus additional doors of Neiman Marcus, Grauso said.

Ricci is also opening shop-in-shops in Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, plus Harvey Nichols in London and a "soft shop" at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, he added.

It's the broadest exposure yet for designs by Theyskens, who, as the creative director of Rochas before it shuttered last year, had focused that business on a handful of exclusive retail partners.

Theyskens, 30, arrived at the creative helm of Ricci in November and inherited a brand already sold at 160 worldwide sales points and enjoying good growth under its previous designer, Lars Nilsson, who had doubled Ricci sales in three years.

Theyskens has wasted little time putting his imprimatur on Ricci in a high-profile way: forming an alliance with Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon, who donned the first Ricci dress on the red carpet at the Golden Globes in January.

"I love collaborating with Olivier," Witherspoon said. "It is so inspiring to see him create designs using influences from art, culture and the world around him. He is extraordinary in his knowledge of fashion and textiles, and he truly understands how to make classic clothes that feel modern, fun and feminine."

In an interview, Grauso confirmed the house's association with Witherspoon will extend far beyond awards season — similar to Herrera's long-running link with Renée Zellweger."She'll be the only American celebrity we'll dress," Grauso said. "Reese is really lovely and just wonderful to work with, and I think she inspires Olivier a great deal." The "handshake" deal calls for Witherspoon to wear Ricci for major press events such as award shows, premieres and galas.

Grauso also revealed that Theyskens has created a new shop concept for Ricci covering everything from furniture and moldings to wall coverings. "It's a very different aesthetic. It stays feminine and it stays fragile, but it's a stronger message," he said.

The decor will make its debut at Berg­dorf Goodman in August, and soon after in Paris at Ricci's Avenue Montaigne flagship, which will be shuttered this summer for an extensive renovation.

Besides shuttling to and from Los Angeles to do fittings and meetings with Witherspoon, Theyskens will make at least three appearances at major events in the U.S., starting with a March 19 dinner hosted by Saks' chief executive officer, Stephen I. Sadove, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other events will be in San Francisco and Los Angeles, details pending, Grauso added.

Theyskens, who never had a budget for advertising at Rochas, also will shoot a campaign for Ricci within the next month, although the collaborators have yet to be finalized.

In the interview, Theyskens declined to discuss specifics about the collection he will show this weekend, but said he already feels at home at Ricci, having brought over many members of his Rochas team and others who have worked with him since the launch of his brand in the late Nineties.

"I'm used to doing things in terms of evolution," he said. "I'm not going from pink to green to blue…but I also don't like to repeat myself."

As for his view of the Ricci girl, he said "nonchalance" is a key element of her allure.

Witherspoon is a perfect embodiment, and the designer described her approach to fashion as decisive. He related that, confronted with a pile of fabrics from which to choose, she reached in and extracted a vivid yellow jacquard that he fashioned into her short and sassy dress for the Golden Globe awards."For me, Reese is a girl who really wants to look great, and she has a strong feeling for colors, attitude and everything," Theyskens, dressed in a black suit and shirt, said in between fittings for his show. "She already has a vision. It's really a collaboration. She's very instinctive. I'm instinctive, too."

Witherspoon will not, however, attend Sunday's show. "She's a busy girl," Theyskens said with a smile.

Although beefing up leather goods is a strategic and creative priority for Theyskens, he said he would not unveil a handbag collection on the runway.

Theyskens has not had time to renovate the Ricci studios in his image, but said he felt strongly the store concept needed a boost. "It's important to have a universe that has a lot of strength," he said. "It's really to make a lovely home."

Grauso noted that Theysken's interior concept is hardly just a touch-up on the surface, and even the Paris store's central feature, a circular staircase, will be altered.

As for the ready-to-wear collection, Grauso predicted no significant change in positioning for Ricci, although prices are lower than when Theyskens was at Rochas. "It's a much broader offering [for Ricci]," he added. "You can go from a little T-shirt to a pair of jeans to a ballgown to a feathered ballgown….There's far more evening, far more suits and the knit offering is far broader."

And proving Theyskens has street credibility, his Ricci jeans, with ribbons snaking up the legs in the style of a ballet-dancer's shoes, have been a hit with retailers.

Grauso said he expects the anticipation of the Ricci show to translate into strong demand for runway pieces. "I hope to be surprised by the size of the runway orders," he said. "It's not a pure fantasy show. "

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