NEW YORK — Gabriella Forte, Dolce & Gabbana’s U.S. president, has a new flagship to anchor the brand’s growth.

The three-story, 14,000 square foot space at 825 Madison Avenue is the largest Dolce & Gabbana store in the world. The interior is spare and modern with dark gray basalt floors and stairs, white walls and teak fixtures. However, lush antique elements such as baroque chairs, zebra skin rugs, Italian paintings and antique planters filled with Sicilian cacti are found on each level and lend an Old World charm to the store. The company’s expected sales for the new store are $18 million.

“What I think this store does most importantly, is that it points out the fullness of Dolce & Gabbana that hasn’t always been apparent in its distribution,” said Forte.

The company has set its sights on expanding globally and as Forte said, “making sure that all of our products are represented in all their breadth, that the totality of the collections is represented in both men’s and women’s.”

The U.S. currently accounts for 28 percent of the company’s sales, and Forte expects that proportion to remain intact despite additional growth here. “We’re expanding in Japan, we’re expanding our shops in Europe and in the U.S. In each area there is activity going on simultaneously. In the United States it is about how we now unite the brands in both distribution and focus,” said Forte.

“As for our expansion in the U.S., we want to do a mix of speciality stores and our own stores,” said Stefano Gabbana, chairman of Dolce & Gabbana. “We aren’t following any other designer’s model in the U.S., not Armani’s, not Prada’s — we want to develop our own business model for that market.”

Dolce & Gabbana currently has two other directly owned U.S. stores in Bal Harbour and Beverly Hills. They plan to open a Las Vegas store this fall. However, where they will expand after that is still a question mark. “In the U.S., we don’t have immediate plans of expansion because we’ve just finished this store. After this year, we will have to assess, and we’ll see where we will be expanding,” said Forte.

Currently, about 20 to 25 percent of the company’s business is retail. The line is carried at major retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“There is an aggressive worldwide expansion,” said Forte. Dolce & Gabbana are opening stores in Milan, Bologna, Rome, Venice and Paris later this year.

Stefano Gabbana said, “We don’t design for the American market — or for any market for that matter — in particular. But I think American women like our clothing because there’s a good balance between the fashion content and wearability. We have a pre-collection that has clothing for every part of a woman’s life: work, weekend, cocktail parties, Oscars, you name it. We also try to pay attention to what’s going on on the streets. I love walking around Manhattan — uptown and downtown — and looking around to see how women are dressed.”

A mere two hours after opening the doors, the Madison Avenue store was littered with rabid shoppers fingering denim stilettos, silk ribbon belts and sharply tailored pant suits, while waiters milled about serving white wine, hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and bread with salami.

“It’s Sicily in a modern context with a hint of the past,” said Forte, the newly appointed president of Dolce & Gabbana USA. “But the most important thing is not the space, it’s the clothes.” David Chipperfield, the architect of this and other Dolce & Gabbana stores, concurred.

“In designing the stores it has been our ambition to provide a backdrop for the setting of the clothes,” said Chipperfield. “The background, whilst quiet, is also sensual in its subtle use of materials. The monochrome and rather monolithic atmosphere is designed to show the clothes at their best.”

The understated decor and the store’s size allow the entire collection of men’s, women’s and accessories to be displayed for the first time in their entirety in the U.S. The store is on the same site as Dolce & Gabbana’s previous Manhattan flagship, but is about three times the size after the designers took over the top two floors.

In a store walk through Monday, Forte carefully explained how each rack of clothing was set up as an exercise in wardrobing. Classic pieces were paired with distressed jeans or racy, colorful items so that each shopper could wend through the collection picking and choosing pieces representative of her taste. This contrast was well thought out, “in order to show both worlds of Dolce & Gabbana,” said Forte, which is moving to softer sexy looks as opposed to the more overt sexuality of its previous collections.

The first floor houses the men’s line while the second floor features the women’s collection and accessories. The third level carries evening, cocktail and one-of-a-kind pieces. A VIP dressing room replete with a private fitter is also located on the third floor.

Retail prices for the women’s line range from $300 to $975 for tops, $275 to $1,200 for pants and $450 to $2,500 for dresses. Average prices for accessories are $450 for shoes, $550 for handbags and $260 for scarves.

Although plans to build the Dolce & Gabbana brand have been in the works for the last two years, Forte, who was appointed to her post in January, is set to spearhead the company’s expansion plans. Her substantial expertise in growing both a mega-Italian brand, Giorgio Armani, and a mega-America one, Calvin Klein, is clearly a boon to Dolce & Gabbana, whose total company volume for 2001 was $471 million.

Before coming to Dolce & Gabbana, Forte was the president and chief operating officer at Calvin Klein Inc. for five years. She had a pivotal role in expanding Klein’s business into Europe. Prior to that, she spent 15 years at Armani, where she rose to the position of executive vice president.
Despite her lengthy track record, Forte, for her part, remains humble. “In the past, my experience was with well-grounded houses with mature brands,” she said. “This is a well-established brand, but it is a brand whose flux of creativity and energy is like Mount Etna. Within it there is such opportunity and such focus, that it is like starting fresh. So after almost 30 years in the business, for me it’s like starting all over again.”

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