MILAN — As part of its international expansion, Gap Inc. opened its first store in Italy on Saturday, unveiling the seven-piece Valentino for Gap collection while also launching its online store.

This story first appeared in the November 23, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A flagship is also slated to open in Rome in early 2011, and, in the second half of next year, the San Francisco-based company plans to break into outlets in Italy. “Customers shop very differently, and we want to be able to respond to their needs,” said Stephen Sunnucks, president of Gap Inc. Europe and Strategic Alliances, during a preview walk-through on Friday.

An adjacent, 17,500-square-foot Banana Republic store is slated to open in the next few weeks. The Hercules & Love Affair band is expected to perform at a party on Dec. 1.

“We look at big cities first, where we open flagship stores, we build the brand and then move onto suburbs and smaller towns,” said Sunnucks of Gap’s retail strategy. Over the coming years, stores will open in other Italian cities ranging from Venice to Padua and Bologna.

“Italy is very important for us, and Milan is a very vibrant city. It’s the fourth-largest in clothing spend in Europe,” said Sunnucks. “Per person, Italians spend three times as much as U.S. customers. I’m very excited about the potential,” said the executive, declining to provide sales estimates for the store.

He said that, as only 12 percent of Gap’s business is generated outside the U.S., “there is an enormous opportunity to grow internationally.”

He said Gap created 170 jobs in Milan, out of 10,000 applications.

The country’s first flagship is located in one of Milan’s busiest shopping streets, on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and covers 25,500 square feet over three stories and carries all Gap collections. The heart of the venue is a historical staircase in cream Italian marble, restored to its original state with the removal of the paint and graffiti that covered it. The building previously featured an open-air gallery, where the staircase was located, but Gap, which directly owns the store, enclosed the staircase and the gallery, expanding the selling space. Cream marble floors are in sync with the staircase and a skylight above it add light.

In addition to the Valentino collection, which combines main elements of both Gap and the fashion brand (gray T-shirts with bows at 70 euros, or $95, and ruched green cotton parkas at 150 euros, or $204, for example), special items include Pierre Hardy shoes, branded Gap Milan T-shirts, shearling jackets and cashmere pieces displayed on aged oak shelves. There is also a big area dedicated to products with logos.

In the last five years, the company has doubled its base of European company-owned and franchised stores to 335 from 165, and expanded from two to 24 countries. Gap is online in 80 countries.

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