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Trading Spaces, Vuitton-Style, on Rodeo Drive

In the retail equivalent of an extreme makeover, Louis Vuitton is unveiling the transformation of its space on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — In the retail equivalent of an extreme makeover, Louis Vuitton today is unveiling the transformation of its space on Rodeo Drive, the luxury goods company’s second North American flagship.

This was no nip-and-tuck job. Vuitton, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and has maintained a presence on the famed Beverly Hills shopping street since 1982, traded up to 12,700 square feet of retail space from about 1,000 square feet. The reconfigured store comes in at a total of about 16,000 square feet, which puts it among Vuitton’s five largest locations. The worldwide flagship at 1 East 57th Street in Manhattan, which bowed in February, is the biggest store at 20,000 square feet.

“Our business in the U.S. is booming for the moment,” Vuitton president Yves Carcelle said during the Christian Dior fashion show in Paris on Tuesday. “And Los Angeles has always been an important market.”

The opening comes as the luxury sector — despite economic uncertainty, the U.S. presidential election, terrorism and the war in Iraq — shows few signs of cooling off in 2005, experts say. Louis Vuitton, which has 332 boutiques worldwide, has opened 15 stores since the beginning of the year and is to launch its unit in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of this month. The company in September christened a 9,700-square-foot unit in Shanghai as the latest arrival in that booming market.

As another measure of thriving luxe, Ralph Lauren in September opened Polo’s first store in Milan, a 16,000-square-foot palazzo that is believed to be the designer’s most expensive store to date, and Fendi is said to be planning 15 new stores a year for the next three to four years.

The three-floor Vuitton shopper’s fantasy is the latest high-profile addition to Rodeo Drive, which has undergone an $18 million renovation that heralded the arrival of newcomers such as the 24,000-square-foot Prada Epicenter designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, which opened with a flourish in July.

While the design of the Prada store seems to focus more on the architecture and, in turn, almost appears to keep the clothes — and the customer — at arm’s length, the Vuitton space, designed by architect Jun Aoki, is intended to maximize product viewing at every turn.

“We’re bringing it to the flagship level,” said Jean-Marc Gallot, chief executive officer for Louis Vuitton North America. “We are already way over projection on business in New York and…will soon be in the top five stores in the world in terms of business — and definitely the number two store in North America.”

Customers enter a two-floor rotunda, which has as its showpiece a two-floor wall display of vintage steamer trunks dating from as far back as the 1880s. Display cases and shelves with the must-have bags of the season are on either side of the steamer trunks.

The store’s facade, a stone rendering of the luxury house’s checked Damier print, is the work of Peter Marino, who also designed the outside of the Manhattan store, among others.

But that’s about as simple as it gets. VIPs — this is Hollywood, after all — can be escorted by a sales associate into one of the store’s design gems: a 1,500-square-foot all-glass lounge on the third floor that overlooks Rodeo Drive.

Dubbed the “Magic Cube” by Vuitton, the room, decorated with white leather couches, a white leather rug and a monogram fur thrown in for good measure, plays on the company’s iconic steamer trunk design. The glass walls feature decals of the company’s Fleur design that are 11-feet in diameter and impart an airy atmosphere that is unmistakably Southern California.

A 2,000-square-foot patio with a wall of night-blooming jasmine and river rocks extends off the cube and will serve as the locale for events such as Tuesday night’s VIP dinner. 

Gallot, who said that Vuitton was expecting a lot of A-listers — he wouldn’t name names — and wants to court some red-carpet business, hopes that “this location will be a way for [celebrities] to have a private and intimate shopping experience.”

The VIP rooms, which many stores now see as a necessity to serve their Hollywood clientele, are not a completely new idea, said Gilbert Dembo, a partner at Dembo & Associates, a Beverly Hills real estate company. “The VIP room seems to be the new trend,” he said. “Chanel was the first one to put a VIP lounge in, now several stores have them.”

Retail experts estimated that the old Vuitton store brought in about $25 million per year. The company declined to disclose projected new figures for the revamped site. Louis Vuitton has seen a U.S. sales boom, posting record sales growth in the last quarter of 2003 — in excess of 50 percent — and its Manhattan flagship has been key in helping to accelerate increases in the U.S. marketplace.

Vuitton, which is offering the full collection of handbags, ready-to-wear and shoes on Rodeo Drive, also is banking on a little bling to expand and vary its offerings. The company has launched the Emprise jewelry collection for the first time on the West Coast. The collection, designed by Marc Jacobs, is the first full jewelry line for Vuitton and will offer an array of items, from chokers to oversized rings and pendants ranging from $1,000 to $250,000. Vuitton’s one-of-a-kind, bezel-set diamond solitaire for $252,000 is on display and for sale.

The few jewelry styles that Jacobs had available before — charm and monogram-style bracelets — were on most-coveted lists before they even began hitting stores a couple of years ago, and the company expects that these new designs also will be as good as gold.

“In fine jewelry, we are definitely making an entrance which is a strategic one, and we want to make it a substantial part of our business in the next three years,” said Gallot, who declined to release projected sales figures for the collection, but cited the retailer’s success in the shoe arena as a benchmark. “It’s quite difficult to quantify [the sales of jewelry], but what is amazing and spectacular is that we have been in the shoe business only six years and we are already perceived as a key player in the shoe industry.”

If the rampant knockoffs of the handbags have been any indication of the cachet that the Vuitton name carries, then replicas of the jewelry collection could be considered a bellwether of the success of its new venture as well. But for parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, imitation is not the highest form of flattery.

LVMH filed a complaint in Manhattan federal court on Sept. 30 accusing Wet Seal of selling copies of its Theda and Sac de Nuit handbags, as well as a copy of Jacobs’ Ventia bag. According to the complaint, the items were sold at Arden B. stores. Last month, Vuitton failed to win an injunction against Dooney & Bourke for allegedly copying its Murakami handbag design.

A paralegal representing Wet Seal said that the company had issued a recall of the items.

“The company is now thinking about what comes next and how to address this challenge,’’ Gallot said of the lawsuit. “Unfortunately, sometimes this is the price to pay for success.”

While Vuitton’s designs may be in jeopardy from copycats, the luxury market is not in any danger at the moment, analysts said. Rodeo Drive shoppers are going strong and paying homage to their favorite brands.

“Our expectation is that [luxury’s] a part of the market that’s going to continue to do well and it’s going to continue to be strong,” said Richard Giss, retail analyst with Deloitte and Touche. “The street is going to do well for [Vuitton]. It really speaks to that target audience, and high-end retailers want to have a presence on that street.”

— With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris

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