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Steel fixtures, stone walls, wood furniture — and Goodyear tires.

Welcome to Cusp, Neiman Marcus’ new retail concept unveiled Thursday at Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va.

With Cusp, Neiman’s set out to break the elegant mold of its full-line stores and appeal to a 20- to- 30-year-old crowd. The retailer is targeting a contemporary customer, one of the fashion industry’s sweet spots, but it is becoming a crowded arena. Scoop is expanding nationally, Intermix has ventured as far west as Dallas and Calypso is seeking locations in London and Asia.

Neiman Marcus, which has 37 full-price stores, has just about fully tapped traditional affluent communities in the U.S. The concept for Cusp has been in the works for two years, the company said. That’s when Neiman’s began to see growth in its contemporary business — and the gains have continued.

Exposed duct work and concrete floors give the 9,500-square-foot store a raw quality that’s just this side of edgy. Metal chain-link curtains and stacked planks of wood form backdrops for products, and folded-up jeans and accessories are wedged into the grooves of wood. In one vertical display, ready-to-wear hangs from tree branches. In another, handbags dangle from the ceiling, attached to pieces of rope that can be raised and lowered. Elsewhere in the store, tires are used as props in the denim area and a smashed Porsche serves as the base for a glass-topped table.

The store has an open feel because there are no walls. “There are no boundaries,” said Ignaz Gorischek, vice president of store development for Neiman’s. Areas in the store are defined by their carpets.

“There [are] little delineations, but it’s much less like a big store’s different departments,” said Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Stores.

Furniture is organically shaped and often made of wood, from cedar to exotic zebrano. A wire sculpture next to a mannequin looks like so much frizzy hair on a humid day.

The humble materials are the antitheses of the glass vitrines and polished displays at Neiman Marcus stores, which can make products seem precious. It’s a big switch for Neiman’s, which commissions fine art for its full-price stores.

This story first appeared in the July 28, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The idea behind Cusp is accessibility.

The shoe area also makes this point. It features shelves stacked high with different shoe sizes. “In this, you are basically walking into a stock room,” Katz said. “You could go in there and pull your shoes yourself” or get assistance from a salesperson.

Tysons Corner is one of four Cusp units planned this year. In two weeks, an 8,000-square-foot Cusp will open in Century City in Los Angeles. An 11,000-square-foot store in Georgetown is scheduled for a February debut. The location of the fourth store has not been determined.

Katz declined to estimate how many Cusp units would ultimately open, but said, “We have high expectations. A year after we get the four stores open, we’ll have a much better idea of how big Cusp can be. The vision is that Cusp can go to a lot of places where there are Neiman Marcus stores, but the reach is bigger than where we would build a Neiman’s.”

Cusp’s merchandise appears to be targeted to shoppers with a predilection for the latest trends, whether short shorts or dark skinny jeans.

Resources at Cusp that are new to Neiman’s include 3.1 Phillip Lim, Jet and J Brand jeans and Morphine Generation. There is Repetto and Salvador Sapena footwear and handbags by Chloé, Marc Jacobs and Kooba, among others. “Some of the vendors are absolutely unique to Cusp” in the shopping center, Katz said. “Some you will find in other stores.”

The fact that Cusp is merchandised by complete outfit rather than by vendor makes the store unique, she said. “It’s really about the trends of the season. You walk in, and there’s a selection of skinny jeans. In another area, you see the whole lace and romantic thing going on. In another, there’s belted knitwear.

Leggings, dresses over skinny jeans, boots and big handbags are the trends we’re hoping will be important to the customer,” Katz said.

A popular item in the early hours of selling was a T-shirt with the image of a skull. “I think it’s one of these trends,” Katz said. “We’ve got to maximize it.”

Service is key at Cusp. The Tysons Corner store is staffed by 14 full-time sales associates, whom Neiman’s executives call “stylists.”

“We want the store to be about the customer developing an individual style,” Katz said. “It’s about the way they put their clothes together. Some customers are going to want more assistance than others. Sellers are trained to sell everything from Hanky Panky thongs to the top 10 beauty items, to shoes, handbags and rtw.”

Katz said sales associates will be taking the pulse of customers in the days ahead and possibly adjusting their approach. “We want to test the merchandise strategy we put together,” she said. “There’s so much traffic in this mall — enough walk-through traffic — that we’ll be able to figure out if we approached it the right way.” Then, the concept can be tweaked, if necessary.

Neiman’s isn’t planning on advertising Cusp — yet. In keeping with the young audience it is targeting, the retailer will launch a blog in the next few days, Katz said. “We think it’s a good way to reach Generation Xers,” she added. “We’ve hired an editor for the blog. It’s different than any marketing we’ve done for Neiman Marcus.”

An e-commerce site for Cusp will be launched in the spring.

Neiman’s is charting new territory with Cusp, but it’s not the first time.

“We tried the Galleries and learned a tremendous amount from it and applied some of those things to Cusp,” said Katz. In the Nineties, Neiman’s experimented with the Galleries at Neiman Marcus format, which specialized in jewelry and gifts. The three stores are no longer in existence. “It was a jewelry home store, but we learned a lot. Innovation is a good thing, and you always learn from these things. A dynamic company has to try new things.”

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