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CHEVY CHASE, MD. — Ron Frasch has had his eye on Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship here ever since 1978 when Jimmy Carter was President.
“I loved coming in this building,” said Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Inc., who was in town last month celebrate the store’s multi-million dollar renovation scheduled for completion this fall.
The visit found him flashing back 35 years to when he managed the then newly-built Prudential Center Saks in Boston. He would fly down to Washington, D.C., to visit a fellow Bonwit Teller alumnus, Larry Hill, who was racking up profits by turning around the Saks store here, which was built in 1964 on a zoning variance in tree-lined Chevy Chase.
“I loved the old architecture. I just thought it was elegant, a place where a sophisticated individual would want to shop because the people who worked here were sophisticated; the product was sophisticated; and it all fit into this glorious kind of building,” he said.
When Frasch rejoined Saks in 2004 after a 20-year hiatus working for Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Escada and Gruppo GFT, his return trip to the Chevy Chase Saks left him in a state of shock.
“I was really a little mortified,” he recalled. “To think back to the days when Larry Hill was running it, and see how they had merchandised the building with fixtures, case lines, branded walls. It didn’t flow. It was like 20 people came into the store with 20 different approaches.”
Over the last five years, Frasch has been working hard to position Saks as Washington’s top destination retailer. To succeed, he is counting on the branch’s two strongest assets — a growing stable of designers and a solid cadre of powerful female customers who secretly long to be beautiful and coddled.
“He just might make it,” said a former Bloomingdale’s executive who is now a top Democratic insider. “He has the loyal client base to make it happen.”
Flanked by a handful of Saks executives after a morning spent checking out the Tysons Corner, Va., store, Frasch dedicated two days earlier this spring to high-profile D.C. socializing to mark the store’s first major renovation in 13 years. Caterers and workmen buzzed through the Chevy Chase store parking lot putting the last minute touches on a silky white, 60 foot wide tent looming 23 feet in the air. A Diane Von Furstenberg trunk show followed by cocktails in the renovated lower level got the festivities started. The next day, a Jason Wu fashion show and sold-out luncheon showed how four decades in fashion and retailing can translate into solid Washington social clout.
Frasch’s commitment to servicing a quality D.C. client base is nothing new. He started forming relationships in the area in the Nineties when, as head of Escada USA, he answered a call from Estelle Gelman, the first woman president of the American Cancer Society, to help with her annual international designer fashion shows to raise money for cancer research. In 2009, when Gellman died of Alzheimer’s, her daughter Elise Lefkowitz reached out to Frasch to help organize an annual fashion show to raise money for Leonard Lauder’s Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.
“I grew up meeting and knowing lots of designers,” said Lefkowitz. “When I was little my mother took me to shop at Elizabeth Arden when it was the only local store in D.C. to carry international designers. When Saks opened, we went there. And later we would go to Neiman Marcus.”
Lefkowitz’s idea was convince Neiman Marcus and Saks to accomplish what Democrats and Republicans had failed to achieve—to work together for a worthy cause. “It would be the first time the two chains had worked together,’’ said Lefkowitz who envisioned a national media campaign based on a new era of retail détente.
Neiman’s turned her down. Not because of Saks, she explained, but rather on the basis of their studies on behavior trends. “The marketing department in Texas said ladies were no longer interested in fashion shows,” said Lefkowitz. “They said women were not into lunch.”
Frasch, though, embraced the idea. Starting in 2010, Saks began work on something it called “the Great Ladies luncheon,” to be held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel and co-chaired by Leonard Lauder. The first event opened in 2011 with a Derek Lam show. In 2012, Carolina Herrera came to town.
This year, Saks went whole hog. “They called me to say they wanted to celebrate the renovation and hold the luncheon and show at the Chevy Chase store,” said Lefkowitz.
The luncheon was hosted by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell to honor public broadcast station WETA-TV president Sharon Percy Rockefeller, whose father, Illinois Sen. Charles Percy died of Alzheimer’s. The event sold out early with 400 guests and 60 on a waiting list to pay $300 a ticket or $3,000 a table.
“We’ve gotten lots of calls since asking if we will do the tent again,” said Kert Rosenkoetter, vice president and general manager of the Chevy Chase store.
Holding an old-school fashion show in the heart of the Capital’s post-modern retailing mecca speaks volumes about Saks’ commitment to the D.C. market. Located on the Maryland border of Wisconsin Avenue, Saks commands the northern flank of a row of glitzy boutiques including Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Cartier, Dior, Piazza Sempione, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Barneys Co-op. Two blocks away in Washington D.C., high-end retail chains include Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor.
“There’s plenty of business for all of us,” said Frasch, who is counting on the star power of vendors to nurture a savvy client base. “All that development happened when fashion was growing dramatically. But now what we do interests a lot of people in a completely different way. Back in the early 1980s, Bill Blass could walk down the street and no one knew who he was. Now designers are like rock stars. These people are not toiling in back rooms anymore.”
Frasch is using his store’s greatest old world liability — a 19th century commitment to Belle Epoque architecture — to educate and pamper a growing cadre of busy, powerful women willing to reward service and style with customer loyalty.
“The truth is, the store would never be built in today’s world,” said Larry Hill, retired Saks executive and Frasch’s friend from the Bonwit Teller days.
Constructed under the supervision of Adam Gimbel in 1964 with a nod to Marie Antoinette’s summer palace, the store sits in the middle of four acres once zoned for residential use only. Rezoning covenants have prevented the store from expanding its current 26,500 square foot footprint. With four floors, the building allows 106,000 square feet of retail space, expanded in 2000 by an additional 20,000 square feet when the men’s wear department moved across the street and back across the Washington, D.C., line to the Neiman Marcus-dominated Mazza Gallerie mall.
In many ways, the challenges Frasch faces today mirror those confronting Hill back when retailers were struggling to pull out of the 1978 recession.
“They were about to paint the windows in on Wisconsin Avenue because they didn’t have enough money to do them. It was just terrible,” recalled Hill. “They were taking out the chandeliers, stripping everything down to a modern look. They down lit the store to save money so much so that I remember a Japanese diplomat coming up to complain he couldn’t see what he was buying. To operate to a profit, they had handbags sales up and down the aisles. We gutted the whole thing, started all over and within the year, we had the best increases in the country.”
Motivated by his memory of his initial visit to the Chevy Chase store, Frasch is determined to lead from his strengths. Known for charming vendors, he has introduced what he calls “smaller, more nimble brands” onto the designer floor. In February, at the Milan shows, he signed up Antonio Berardi, who hangs alongside Nina Ricci, Alexander McQueen, Erdem and Prada. And, once again, Saks is focusing on lighting as essential to promoting product.
“This month we reopened the window behind the jewelry department. In October or November we will reopen the street level window onto Wisconsin Avenue when we finish the new full Chanel accessories shop,’’ said Rosenkoetter, who described the multimillion-dollar renovation as the most substantial of the several metropolitan-focussed store renovations Saks has undertaken in the last two years. “With the Chanel reopening, all the windows will be reopened again.”
The renovation also replaces and expands the three lighting coves located on the main, second and third floors back to the store’s original 1964 design while adding six new chandeliers on the main floor. Along with main floor renovations on cosmetics and a new Chanel accessories boutique and redesigned Lower Level contemporary and 10022 shoe sections, Saks plans to increase its Fifth Avenue Club personal shopper department, started in 1988 from nine to ten specialists.
Unlike the Dark Ages of D.C. fashion back when Carter was in the White House and Frasch first came to town, Saks is banking on the inspirational power of celebrity designers to embolden ambitious women to step out onto the red carpet.
“Washington women no longer feel they have to dress in a certain way,” said Frasch. “Whether it’s a dress to go to dinner or to go to work, Washington women no longer feel the need to suit up.”