PARIS — Very few American designers could characterize the opening of a string of boutiques in five European countries as a homecoming.
But Diane von Furstenberg can, since she's a native of Belgium whose father was born in Russia and who has worked or been schooled in France, Spain and England.
Next month and in September, the designer will open boutiques in Brussels; Moscow; Paris; Saint-Tropez, France; Madrid, and London, underscoring the global appeal of her fashions and a decade of development abroad since she relaunched her iconic brand, famous for its wrap dresses.
"The moment I started there was an immediate demand in Europe and America," von Furstenberg said in an interview at her apartment here, which boasts breathtaking views of the cupola of the Academie francaise. "It really has grown organically, as things go in Europe."
At present, international sales represent about 45 percent of von Furstenberg's business, a figure expected to reach 50 percent soon. It's an impressive showing given that many American designer labels still have a limited footprint in Europe, with some retrenching in recent years.
"I understand a lot of Americans are intimidated to open here, especially in Paris," she said. "To me, it's probably less intimidating because it's my home. I was in Europe until I was 22."
Although von Furstenberg first concentrated on wholesale distribution abroad — among her first clients were Colette in Paris and Browns in London — she took the retail plunge in 2003, opening with little fanfare an 800-square-foot Notting Hill location in London.
Instead of making a big splash with massive flagships, von Furstenberg has quietly built her international business via neighborhood outposts. In London, she added a 510-square-foot outlet in Wimbledon last fall, at 56 High Street, building up to this September's addition: a 2,650-square-foot location at 25 Bruton Street in Mayfair, in partnership with Matches.
Ditto for Paris. After establishing a 1,600-square-foot boutique at 14 Rue D'Alger here in partnership with Catherine Madar in 2004, she added a 550-square-foot Left Bank unit at 81 Rue des Saints-Peres in 2005. In September, the partners will christen a 2,400-square-foot flagship at 29 Rue Francois 1er, only steps from Christian Dior and other marquee European names lining Avenue Montaigne."It's very European that different neighborhoods have different customer bases," she noted.
Rounding out her fall openings are: a 1,600-square-foot unit at 14 Calle Claudio Coello in Madrid, where von Furstenberg went to school for one year; an 860-square-foot location at 15 Rue Gambetta in Saint-Tropez; a 1,240-square-foot unit at 7 Kuznetsky Most in Moscow, and a 2,300-square-foot flagship at 11 Rue du Grand Cerf in Brussels.
The latter represents von Furstenberg's homecoming to the max: The boutique, operated by her sister-in-law Greta Helfin, even boasts the same phone number her parents had when she and her brother, Philippe, were growing up in Brussels.
"They're all supposed to feel like homes, and feel inviting and organic and inspiring," von Furstenberg said of her European outposts. "They're not anonymous satellites. Each store has a guest book and all my friends leave me notes everywhere. They really are like an extension of my home."
The designer said each location reflects some local flavor or original feature — whether it's parquet floors or original moldings and tiles — plus the Art Deco feel and "jewel-box" details common to all her locations, including mirrored discs peppering the ceiling.
All the European stores carry the same apparel collections as her U.S. locations, with monthly deliveries of fresh styles. Flagships in Paris, London and Moscow will carry her fine jewelry with H. Stern, and all will have an offering of accessories, including Christian Louboutin shoes and her new range of handbags.
Meanwhile, the designer's Asian business is on a roll, with her second and third Hong Kong locations set to open in the coming months. She also counts units in Shanghai; Jakarta, Indonesia, and Tokyo. By next January, when she opens a 1,400-square-foot unit at The Shoppes at the Palazzo in Las Vegas, her global store count will reach 22.
Looking ahead, von Furstenberg declined to say where she might open next, saying each boutique depends on having the right location, partner — and market potential. "The shops must be profitable," she stressed.