By  on December 7, 2004

NEW YORK — In time for the brisk holiday shopping season, several designers are giving their fans another retail option by opening signature stores.

Aside from being a place to show off all the designer has to offer, signature stores are increasingly being used to test drive new or hard-to-find products. For many, that means accessories, a category that continues to fuel high-ticket sales, and something that many U.S. designers have struggled with over the years.

Bud Konheim, president and chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said, “If you’re going to be interested in your image, you have to be in control of your retail, even if it’s in just one store. There’s got to be a place where you can point to and say, ‘This is us.’ Because everyone is always messing with your stuff.”

Nicole Miller plans to open its 13th store in January at 106 Wooster Street near Barneys Co-op and BCBG. To blend in with the downtown neighborhood and move quickly into the space, the company plans to paint the interior, use rolling racks for display fixtures and an antique table for the cash register, Konheim said.

“We’ve been building out these stores to the tune of $350,000, but that doesn’t mean people are going to buy more clothes,” he said.

Nicole Miller, which also has 18 licensed stores, is looking for locations in Charlotte, N.C., San Francisco, Greenwich, Conn., the Upper West Side, and Harlem, Konheim said. The biggest stumbling blocks are that the rent is too high, the space is too small or too big, or the location is not right, he said. “All the criteria has to be right for us to take a space,” Konheim said.

Carolina Herrera is on the march to open more CH stores for her more affordable collection. Earlier this year, CH stores bowed in Manhasset, N.Y., Las Vegas, Mexico City and Coral Gables, Fla. Another store is set to open on Dec. 16 in Houston.

Having opened a Carolina Herrera concept shop in Bergdorf Goodman, there are plans to open five more in 2005, a company spokesman said.In September, Searle opened a 14,000-square-foot store at 635 Madison Avenue here, upping its store count to eight. The company continues to look for additional spots on the Upper West Side and in SoHo. Unlike a few years ago when 3,000 square feet was an adequate size, now Searle is interested in spaces 5,000 square feet and larger, said Steve Blatt, founder. “The fashion business is tricky enough” without setting up a store that is not in an absolutely perfect location, he said.

“It’s hard because we’re so very Upper East Side in attitude. I’m not quite certain that we would be accepted in SoHo. Maybe, but I’m a little chicken,” Blatt said.

Oscar de la Renta opened a Madison Avenue store last month, and shortly thereafter announced plans for the company’s second freestanding store, which will bow in Miami’s Bal Harbour Shops at the end of next month. A previously planned third shop is set to open in April at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas.

Current bestsellers include $150 T-shirts by Moises de la Renta, the designer’s son; a $1,200 cashmere crewneck pullover with a $1,000 matching shawl; a $5,800 gray bouclé tweed cardigan coat with jeweled embroidery and rabbit-fur trim, and a $5,800 black crushed velvet embroidered coat. In terms of accessories, shoppers are buying $695 gold mesh slingbacks with crystals and $450 small fake crocodile clutches, as well as $1,700 alligator ones.

Alex Bolen, ceo of Oscar de la Renta, has repeatedly said the company’s ultimate goal is to open stores overseas, but formal plans have not yet been made. “We have nothing specific in mind. We’re really trying to make sure we get our model as appropriate as we can on Madison Avenue and in Bal Harbour. We’re also thinking about the opening of Las Vegas.”

Christopher Fischer, who is known for his cashmere designs, opened his fourth and largest store, a 5,700-square-foot space, Saturday at 80 Wooster Street in SoHo. All of Fischer’s collections —including women’s, men’s, accessories, home and the new “Little Christopher Fischer” baby line — are offered there.In addition to his collections, the store will sell items from select European and American designers such as Daniela Bizzi, Just in Case, Rozae Nichols, and one-of-a-kind bags from Henry Beguelin, J & M Davidson, Felisi and Jennifer Scott. To offer a fresh take on retail and to try to appeal to more customers, Fischer plans to collaborate with different artists and designers to showcase their work in a separate salon.

At Jackie Rogers’ new concept shop in Palm Beach in the John DeMedeiros International boutique, $895 tie blouses, $870 stretch crepe pants, a $1,950 knit jacket with feathers and $6,000 gowns are popular with shoppers, Rogers said.

Rogers said she is looking at a number of other locations, including spaces in Washington, D.C., Costa Mesa, Calif., Beverly Hills, Calif., and Las Vegas and would like to open five additional salons in the upcoming year.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Catherine Malandrino opened her third New York store, a 3,500-square-foot unit at 652 Hudson Street. The French-born designer also has stores in SoHo, Easthampton and West Hollywood, Calif.

During a tour of the store last week, Malandrino said, “For me, this space was about showing the full universe of Catherine Malandrino….We always put creativity first because that is what has been driving us. Every detail is meant to bring the woman something new that she doesn’t have.”

It also provides a place where Malandrino can see firsthand how customers react to her clothes. “Here, I can see their faces, and feel this moment I bring to them. I want to create a very personal bond with my customers,” she said.

Malandrino and her husband and ceo Bernard Aidan are on the lookout for locations in Paris, Bal Harbour, Fla., and Los Angeles. This spring, a concept shop will bow at Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

While Vera Wang has not signed any new leases, she is retooling the company’s retail approach. This fall, the designer christened her first concept shop at Bergdorf Goodman. A $2,800 natural-colored raffia coat, a $1,795 silk brocade, a $995 navy silk chiffon ruffled blouse, a $1,250 black silk taffeta bolero and a $1,780 silk chiffon printed sleeveless ruffle dress were bestsellers at a trunk show last month.Previously, her ready-to-wear was only sold in her Madison Avenue bridal boutique. Bergdorf’s is also selling Wang’s new fine jewelry collection elsewhere in the store.

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