NEW YORK — Napapijri, the intricately detailed and colorful Italian casual sportswear brand, is to open its first U.S. store today in SoHo.

“This can be an impactful business from the get-go,” said Michele Colonna, director of marketing and visual merchandising, of the 2,000-square-foot space at 149 Mercer Street. “We are comfortable projecting $900 to $1,000 in sales per square foot in the first year.”

Founded in 1986 in Aosta, Italy, Napapijri has had limited availability in the U.S. It has been sold at a few specialty stores, including Barneys New York, Fred Segal, Lisa Kline, Camouflage and Stanley Korshak. To some extent, that’s enhanced the brand’s mystique, which is built on imagery suggesting a spirit of adventure and exotic travel.

Two years ago, Napapijri — a Finnish name that means Arctic Circle and is pronounced “napa-piri” — was acquired by VF Corp., posing the challenge to Napapijri managers to grow the business for a wider audience without losing its aura and Italian flair. “There’s an underground, cult-like following for Napapijri. We want to keep that character,” Colonna said. “It will be kind of an artful balance, but we are still very much an Italian brand.”

A second U.S. store is planned in September in Miami’s South Beach. A site in San Francisco is being negotiated, and another is being sought in Los Angeles. There are 17 stores in Europe and Japan, though most of the $100 million volume is obtained through wholesaling in Europe, particularly Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The company’s goal is to have 55 stores around the world by 2010, including 10 in the U.S.

Though under the VF umbrella, “We are in control of our own destiny,” added Michael Boyle, vice president and general manager for Napapijri in the U.S. “We make our own marketing decisions. We make our own distribution decisions.”

Among the best-selling items are polos, priced from $125 for one with a logo to $275 for an item embellished with laser-cut embroidery, orange piping on the collar and the flag of Norway. There are linen shorts with zip cargo pockets, $130; tops with knit sleeves and woven bodies with embroidery, $135; jackets and anoraks with mesh linings, around $150; feather-weight linen sweaters, $90, and linen sarongs with African motifs, $138. Duffel bags, backpacks, leather belts, and travel and photography books are also offered.

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The SoHo store is the prototype for future units. It’s a straight run-through, constructed in four distinct sections, making the store seem larger than its actual size. Shoppers enter into a moody, tunnel-like room that feels like a gallery in a natural history museum, enclosed by glass-paneled walls with sprayed-on images of a dense forest. In the fall-winter season, the panels will be transformed with a winter scene. Fitting rooms are hidden behind the panels and the room is sparsely merchandised with jackets, tops and bottom.

The store then opens up to a larger area for accessories that’s distinguished by zinc floors and a zinc cash wrap. The third area, housing most of the collection, is distinguished by oak walls and floors, a flexible system for relocating tables and shelves, and airiness, from a 17-foot high ceiling. The back of the store is an indoor garden with a skylight and seating area.

Colonna wants the store to become a forum for monthly events that reflect the brand’s call to nature and spirit of exploration. For the opening party July 27, Napapijri is teaming with Global Green USA and Sebastian Copeland, a photographer and filmmaker, to unveil a photo exhibit entitled “Antarctica — The Global Warning.” Photo sales and 15 percent of the evening’s merchandise sales will benefit Global Green USA.

That all should support the primary strategy. “We are looking at retail to spearhead the wholesale,” Colonna said. “Because Napapijri is a very visual brand and visual experience, it’s difficult to wholesale effectively without a good retail strategy. There are a lot of layers to this brand.”

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