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SAINT-TROPEZ, France — Given this seaside playground’s sunny skies, celebrity swarms and $1,900 a day docking fees, it was only a matter of time before the luxury brands rushed in.

From Giorgio Armani to Christian Dior, the number of high-end shops is exploding, adding to the piquant mix in this postcard-pretty Mediterranean portside town.

“It’s getting to be incredible,” said Serge Astezan, Saint-Tropez’s deputy mayor. “Luxury brands see a gold mine here. They see all this disposable income and they want a piece of the action.”

Ever since Brigitte Bardot cavorted barefoot with the paparazzi in tow, the high-octane crowd — with its mammoth yachts, unquenchable thirst for partying and extravagant style statements — has made Saint-Tropez a must on the international circuit.

Today, it seems, little has changed in that regard.

“Just to dock a boat here costs about 1,500 euros [$1,920] a day,” said Astezan. “We can have as many as 100,000 visitors a day in town during the high season. Officially, there are only 5,400 actual residents.”

The jet set continues to gather at the beachside Club 55 for long lunches and copious amounts of rosé wine before soaking up some rays, while the hoi polloi still congregate to gawk at the demimonde and occasional celebrity. At night, the crowds head to Les Caves du Roy discotheque to party.

Surprisingly, however, luxury brands remained largely on the fringes of the fete. That’s now changing fast, especially as Saint-Tropez becomes a year-round destination spot, outgrowing its old summer seasonal appeal.

Banking on the town’s continued ascendance, Giorgio Armani, Diane von Furstenberg and Patrizia Pepe opened this year, Boucheron just revamped its store and high-end sportswear firm Napapijri opened this spring, as did, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Castaner espadrille brand and the trendy Havianas flip-flop concern.

Last year’s arrivals included Dolce & Gabbana, while Louis Vuitton, Tod’s, Dior and Pucci all hung up their shingles in the last couple of years.

Real-estate sources said more companies want in. Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Loro Piana and Cartier are among those said to be on the prowl for a Saint-Tropez site.

This story first appeared in the July 6, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

They might have to be patient, though. Realtors said boutiques aren’t easy to come by in this small town, particularly in the right spots — the Rue Gambetta (Dior, Boucheron) or the Place de la Garonne (Vuitton, Tod’s and Pucci).

Giorgio Armani, who managed to secure a plum two-story locale on the Place de la Garonne, said he wanted to open here because Saint-Tropez remains a magnet for “affluent travelers.” “The town’s vibrant energy makes an exciting retail environment,” he said. “It’s charming and cultural, yet energetic and modern.”

With more and more money pouring in from eastern Europe, especially Russians with a proclivity to pay in cash, and a constant stream of travelers from inclement northern European climes, the town seems to have an insatiable appetite for more boutiques.

“There is a definite market here for luxury products,” Armani continued. “More and more luxury brands now recognize that. I found that visiting customers spend more on a single purchase than local customers. About 10 to 20 percent more, in fact.”

But the affluent clientele isn’t the town’s only draw. Saint-Tropez’s local officials are savvy enough to let stores basically write their own opening hours, including Sunday. This is unusual in France, where operating in the evenings and on Sundays is subject to draconian control. (Louis Vuitton currently is battling in a Paris court to keep its flagship on the Champs-Elysée open on Sundays after a complaint from a worker’s organization forced it to close that day of the week.)

“We try to be business-friendly,” explained Astezan. “Staying open late or on Sunday isn’t a problem for us. We think it gives the town more ambience.”

Other reasons make business attractive, too.

“You conduct sales 24 hours a day,” said Boucheron president Jean-Christophe Bedos. “It’s done on boats, on the beach or in a club. It’s not only in the stores. You have to be at the parties, be with the right people. Public relations are an important part of it. It’s who you know.”

Bedos said he knew of several high-profile jewelry businesses that “do a respectable amount of business here in season and don’t have a shop. They don’t need one. They know the right people.”

He continued, “Saint-Tropez is the only city in France where the jet set has fun. It’s very cosmopolitan. There aren’t only French, but also Russians, Italians, English, northern Europeans. It’s a real mix. You don’t get that in Portofino or Porto Cervo.”

Dolce & Gabbana agreed the international mix makes Saint-Tropez attractive during the spring and summer. But the firm’s spokeswoman said it had seen strong off-season business, too.

“We already have a very strong client base residing in the South of France,” agreed Armani, who also said he expects business to go beyond seasonal trade.

Loic Berthet, who sits on the board of swimwear brand Vilebrequin, has his own explanation for the recent changes. “Saint-Tropez has grown up,” he said. “It’s not as wild as it used to be. It’s become chicer, more luxurious. That means people are pursuing quieter pastimes.”

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