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NEW YORK — For a fashion company, having the right address is akin to a young socialite having the right pair of shoes or handbag. Image is everything.
So when Abercrombie & Fitch signed a lease for a 17,000-square-foot space at 720 Fifth Avenue last week, it was more than just another retail real estate deal. It signifies the company’s entrance to the high-profile stage that is Fifth Avenue, where luxury firms and lately, more moderately priced brands go when they want to make a statement.
A&F is at a point when its U.S. mall store count is reaching its maximum. The brand is also trying to appeal to a slightly older customer and establish itself as an alternative or complement to higher-priced apparel offerings.
A flagship on Fifth Avenue marks a new strategy of moving into downtown locations.
“The concept of our business has been as a U.S.-based mall retailer and we’re saturating those locations for the brand,” said Mike Jeffries, A&F’s chairman and chief executive officer. “The A&F brand won’t grow domestically with 362 stores and we don’t want to open in less than A-list malls.
“We work hard to be placed with the right retailers in the mall,” Jeffries said. “That’s a part of our strategy. You strive to be next to the best in the mall in terms of price point.”
A&F has nabbed a prime location on Fifth Avenue, where it will take over the venerable Fendi boutique. A&F has hired Selldorf Architects to design the Fifth Avenue flagship. Jeffries had few details to disclose. He said the store’s inspiration will come from the architecture of the building itself, which was completed in 1952.
“We work very hard on our in-store environments,” he said. “The store will be a great representation of the A&F lifestyle.”
Jeffries sees the move as a natural progression. A&F views itself not as a lower-priced retailer, but as an aspirational brand for its target audience. “We think that’s why A&F is the perfect fit for Fifth Avenue,” he said.
A&F has only one store in Manhattan, at the South Street Seaport, which opened in 1988. It was remodeled in 1992.
“The Seaport store is an enormous business driven by local and overseas tourists,” Jeffries said. “We see the Fifth Avenue store as a terrific way to get closer to them. People make special trips to that store.”
A&F for fall is introducing a premium-priced line called Ezra Fitch, which will be featured in the new store. It includes leather jackets priced at $390, cashmere sweaters, $178, velvet blazers, $200, and washed denims, around $125.
The collection is the focus of the company’s new marketing vehicle, the Abercrombie & Fitch magazine. On the first page is a letter from the editor, one Ezra Fitch, whose namesake grandfather was a successful but bored lawyer and co-owner of A&F 100 years ago.
The magazine is an antidote to the overtly sexual catalogues that featured young people in various stages of undress and became a lightning rod for the company’s critics. Rising stars such as Poppy Montgomery, a star of the CBS series “Without a Trace,” Amy Redford, an actress and daughter of Robert Redford, Phillip Simmonds and Scott Oudsema, junior finals winners of the Australian Open, and others model the apparel in the magazine.
Another initiative for A&F is testing several stores of a start-up chain aimed at college graduates and internally dubbed Concept Four. Jeffries said Concept Four merchandise will not be included in the Fifth Avenue flagship.
Nor will Hollister, A&F’s highly regarded division launched in 2000 and catering to 14- to 17-year-olds, be found on Fifth Avenue. There are no large flagships in Hollister’s future, Jeffries said, noting, “We’re only at about 200 stores with Hollister.”
“We won’t put merchandise that’s targeted to an older customer in the store but we will merchandise a broader assortment than at our larger stores,” he said. “For example, if we have an assortment of sweaters in the women’s area, we will have two additional styles for the store.”
The children’s brand abercrombie will be included in the new store.
A&F’s poor comparable-store sales performance in recent months has been largely attributable to the core A&F concept. The trend was apparent in June with A&F experiencing an 8 percent decline in comps.
“I’m not comp-obsessed,” said Jeffries. “Our point in running each of our businesses has been to build the quality of the brands and build profitability on a quarter-by-quarter basis.” — Sharon Edelson