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NEW YORK — Longchamp is bracing for a new downtown attitude.

The French firm known for utilitarian, collapsible nylon handbags is opening a flagship here on Thursday at 132 Spring Street. The opening will be preceded by a party on Tuesday. Industry analysts estimate the Spring Street store will do $4 million to $5 million in sales in its first year.

The flagship is the 58-year-old firm’s 100th store worldwide and seventh in the U.S., including one on Madison Avenue here. Longchamp also has plans to open a boutique in Oyster Bay, N.Y., on Long Island, in fall 2007.

The Spring Street store is another step in ushering in a fresh direction for the brand. Longchamp has signed Kate Moss to star in its ad campaigns for this spring and fall, and this week the brand will unveil a three-piece, limited-edition luggage collection designed by Jeremy Scott.

Longchamp also is preparing to take a stab at the ready-to-wear market. The first eight-piece collection, comprising dresses, sweaters and coats, will bow at the SoHo flagship and will serve as a test for the category.

The 9,830-square-foot Spring Street store, which includes 6,000 square feet of selling space, was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who first collaborated with Longchamp two years ago to create the Zipper bag and who is more widely known as the artist behind the U.K.’s tallest sculpture, a spiky steel piece called “B of the Bang” in Manchester. For the SoHo store, Heatherwick had to transform a three-story building that has a second floor that’s nearly three times the size of the ground floor into a selling space.

“It’s as much a commercial project as an art project,” said Jean Cassegrain, managing director of Longchamp Group and grandson of Longchamp’s founder of the same name.

The store experiments with materials and architecture. A 55-ton steel track spills from the center of the third floor down to the entry and acts as part staircase and part display area for products.

The second level, where most of the goods are merchandised, is a light-filled space and features a ceiling of laminated plywood that peels away to offer shelves for the brand’s handbags, small leather goods and shoes. The walls also are magnetized, so bags can be suspended via their metallic hardware without shelves or hooks. The third floor, which has a rooftop garden, is being used for corporate offices and a showroom.

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Our brand has changed in the past few years and we felt we had to communicate these changes more forcefully,” said Cassegrain.

Mitch Kates, associate director of strategic services for Kurt Salmon Associates, said, “Being aggressive with retail design can help change the image [of a brand]. It’s one of the ingredients.”

Longchamp got its start making leather coverings for tobacco pipes, which became popular among soldiers who fought in World War II. In the Fifties, the firm began making leather handbags in factories in Segré in the Loire Valley in France, where the family-owned firm still produces most goods today. The brand launched the best-selling Pliage bag, a nylon tote that folds flat, in 1993.

In the past two seasons, in an effort to tap into the lucrative luxury handbag market, Longchamp has upped the company’s design aesthetic and price range. The fall looks feature styles such as the Steppe, a patent leather shoulder bag with a patch pocket and buckle closure that wholesales for $355, and the $505 Rival, a slouchy tote with zipper pockets offered in a variety of materials, including a cheetah-print goat fur. Last spring, Longchamp’s average wholesale price for bags was $170. This year it is $499.

The firm also is looking to expand U.S. distribution. Longchamp already sells bags at Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and 150 specialty stores nationwide. For the first time this spring, Bloomingdale’s picked the line for six stores and is adding seven more stores for fall.