NEW YORK — Esprit has returned to retailing in the U.S.

The German-based sportswear brand’s roller-coaster ride stateside took a positive turn Thursday with the debut of a 10,000-square-foot unit at 110 Fifth Avenue, at 16th Street.

Esprit, intensifying its bid to reestablish itself in the U.S., said a lease also has been signed for 583 Broadway at Prince Street in Manhattan’s SoHo, a 8,500-square-foot location on the former site of the New Museum. In addition, Esprit has picked out space at a Manhattan mall but has not completed the deal.

“People in this area need to rediscover Esprit,” said Jerome Griffith, executive director and chief operating officer of the company, which has its main business operations near Düsseldorf and financial operations in Hong Kong. Esprit, a 36-year-old brand, is owned by Esprit Holdings Ltd., a Hong Kong-based, publicly traded firm.

Esprit is continuing to seek leases in the Northeast, generally in the 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot range, Griffith said. He declined to identify the mall site in Manhattan. Already, Esprit signed leases for stores opening this fall and through December in New Jersey’s Menlo Park Mall, Freehold Raceway Mall and Bridgewater Commons, as well as Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y. An outlet will also open in Woodbury Common in Central Valley, N.Y.

“By year three, we hope to go back to the West Coast,” where Esprit has its roots, Griffith said.

The brand, founded in San Francisco by Doug and Suzie Tompkins, grew stale after the breakup of its founders and ownership changes. It has been repositioned in the U.S., primarily as a better contemporary label, from its origins in juniors, and there is only about a $12 million wholesale operation in the U.S.

However, the distribution in Europe and Asia is huge through wholesaling and retailing. Total sales are $3.5 billion worldwide, including licensed products. In Europe, about half of Esprit’s stores are franchised. Griffith said franchising is not in the U.S. game plan, but didn’t rule it out for the future.

The company recently reorganized its U.S. team so it can increase volume. The brand still is widely recognized in the States despite its small wholesale volume and the absence of Esprit stores for three years.

This story first appeared in the September 3, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The new store at 110 Fifth Avenue, which has 6,800 square feet of selling space, is aiming for sales productivity levels in line with other stores in the Flatiron district, which Griffith said yield $700 to $800 per square foot. He wouldn’t give a specific volume projection.

The space has a spare, loft-like character, with exposed brick walls, vaulted ceilings and arched windows that peak at 19 feet. When Emporio Armani occupied the site — an 1899 landmark McKim, Mead and White building — much of the original architecture was hidden and the columns were wrapped in Sheetrock. “We gutted the whole place,” Griffith said.

Just past the entrance, a column wrapped in mosaic tiling and a steel plate that’s laser cut with the Esprit inscription provide visual impact, as do the frosted glass and frosted plexiglass display tables, illuminated from within.

Now the store is completely open, with sight lines from front to rear, a stretch of 120 feet for a sense of depth and brand magnitude. The women’s clothes are on the right, representing about two thirds of the assortment, and men’s lines are on the left. There’s an Elixir shop to the right of the entrance selling smoothies, juices, espresso, muffins and other snacks.

The core of the business resides in four components: the Casual and Collection lines for men and women, with jeans, cotton pants, and T-shirts among the bestsellers. Price ranges for Collection are pants, $79-$129; jackets, $149-$249, and blouses $49-$99. The range for Casual is pants $59-$99; jackets, $99-$149, and blouses, $39-$59. Esprit also offers edc, a juniors line, but that’s not a growth priority in the U.S., though it’s big in Europe and the company plans to sell it in SoHo, but not on Fifth Avenue.

Each month, about a third of the store will transition into new merchandise. “The sweet spot is really a customer who is 28, but we sell to people in the low 20s to mid 40s,” Griffith said. “We are on trend, not trendy.”