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NEW YORK — Forever 21 is out to prove it has universal appeal — from Fifth Avenue here to London’s Oxford Street.

This story first appeared in the November 19, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The chain today opens a 45,000-square-foot unit at 693 Fifth Avenue, formerly home to the tony Takashimaya, where spare merchandise was artfully displayed and fresh flowers bloomed in the first-floor floral shop. Now there’s a shoe salon and trendy items such as fake fur vests ($22.80), fake leather bomber jackets ($24.80), looped wool ponchos ($24.80) and one-shoulder velvet dresses ($19.80).

Forever 21 has a temporary six-month lease. “We want to be on Fifth Avenue permanently,” said Larry Meyer, Forever 21 Inc.’s executive vice president. “We are focused on making this store work. We hope the economics work out.”

In the meantime, the space is being marketed by Thor Equities, the building’s owner. “We’re negotiating now with 10 different retailers,” said Joseph Sitt, chief executive officer. “They [Forever 21] are one of the 10.”

Forever 21 has been leasing retail space in some upmarket neighborhoods overseas, too. The retailer on Wednesday signed a lease at 360 Oxford Street, a former HMV store. The location is in close proximity to Selfridges and down the road from competitor Topshop. It’s part of an expansion program in the U.K. and Ireland. Last week the company opened units in Birmingham, England’s Bullring Shopping Center and Dublin’s Jervis Shopping Centre. An e-commerce site in the U.K. went live on Sunday.

In the U.S., Forever 21 was one of the most aggressive retailers in terms of real estate at the height of the recession and in 2008 teamed up with Kohl’s Corp. to buy 46 leases from the bankrupt Mervyns and assumed 13 leases from Gottschalks Inc., which was liquidated. Now the chain appears to be equally assertive overseas.

“We think we could do more than 100 stores in the U.K.,” said Meyer.

A 50,000-square-foot unit will open in late 2011 or early 2012 in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay, and in December a fifth store in Japan will bow in Shibuya, Tokyo. “We plan to open in one of the major cities in China over the next year or two,” Meyer said. “Next year we’ll open in Vienna, Brussels, Antwerp and Barcelona, as well as in France.”

Although Forever 21 sells the same products around the world, making few concessions to regional differences, its store design is surprisingly adaptable. Standing on the sixth floor of the Fifth Avenue store on Wednesday, Linda Chang, senior marketing manager and the daughter of founder Don Chang, said, “We try to adjust who we are depending on the surroundings. There’s a level of sophistication here. Times Square is loud and exciting every minute. There’s a lot of prestige that comes with Fifth Avenue.”

Chang said that despite the temporary lease, the company didn’t scrimp on design. “Just because we have a lease for only six months didn’t make us shy about what we wanted to do,” she said. Sitt estimated the company spent about $1 million on the store.

Although it has fewer bells and whistles than the massive Times Square location, the Fifth Avenue store has some unique features. The sixth-floor men’s department has a conveyor belt hanging from the ceiling that gives apparel a spin, a gray brick wall and vintage motorcycles. Luxury materials such as marble, wood herringbone floors, original moldings and coffered ceilings add a rich patina to displays.

“We pumped up Love 21 [the contemporary collection] with 100 percent silk items,” Chang said. “It’s a little more sophisticated and good quality.” On the third floor, in the midst of Love 21, is a large greenhouse with snow falling inside. Chang gave accessories a Fifties-style bakery environment. “I’m going to weave the accessories with [fake] treats like chocolates,” she said. “I like it to be a grabby experience.”

Meyer said Forever 21 may change the face of Fifth Avenue, but “that’s just retail reality. Whether it’s the Ginza in Tokyo or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where there have historically been luxury retailers, more popular stores” want to move in.

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