PARIS — True to Phoebe Philo’s low-key style, there will be no fanfare — not even a store cocktail — when Céline’s long-awaited London flagship opens today on buzzy Mount Street.
While whisper-quiet, the opening of the 3,240-square-foot unit marks a key milestone for London-based Philo, as Céline’s only U.K. store closed in 2009 shortly after she took the creative helm of the brand and began a meticulous makeover that involved overhauling all product lines and shuttering almost a third of the company’s directly operated stores.
The high-profile London location, boasting 79 feet of frontage, is also the first of a wave of 15 new stores this year for the French firm, part of luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
“We’re ready to roll out a little bit now,” said Marco Gobbetti, Céline’s chief executive officer, who generally is as prone to understatement as Philo is averse to the limelight.
“But it’s very targeted,” he hastened to add. “We are not really multiplying our presence in cities, but we want to open some relevant stores in the important cities while keeping the distribution fairly tight.”
Among scheduled openings are a 6,500-square-foot flagship on Avenue Montaigne in Paris on April 28; a 7,000-square-foot unit with 90 feet of frontage on Omotesando in Tokyo, slated to open May 31, and a 5,900-square-foot location at IFS in Chengdu, one of the richest and fastest-growing cities in China, targeted for April 6.
A 4,300-square-foot store in Crystals in Las Vegas opening May 14 and another on Wooster Street in New York’s SoHo district, budgeted for late August, telegraph that the brand is ready to ramp up expansion in America, which Gobbetti characterized as having strong potential for Céline.
The U.S. accounts for about 15 percent of the brand’s sales and “there is a great affinity in terms of aesthetics,” he said. “The American client is one of our best clients, so we know that we have an enormous potential there.”
Europe, Céline’s largest market at 35 percent of sales, is also seen as ripe for growth, with Venice among cities getting their first freestanding Céline stores this year.
“I think we have a lot of opportunity in the Western side of the world,” Gobbetti said. “It’s a very controlled growth, but substantial.”
In a rare interview, Gobbetti sounded upbeat discussing Céline’s next development phase, which will see it add between eight and 12 freestanding stores and shops-in-shop over the next two to three years.
“We are investing in our network in every single market,” he said, also describing an intensive program of expansions and refurbishments, with 32 projects completed in 2013 and roughly 30 more on the docket for this year.
The executive declined to disclose any figures, saying only that Céline continues to grow at a double-digit pace and hinting at exceptionally high sales density, with its highest-growing unit in the world the “temporary” store on François 1er in Paris, with its raw, still-under-construction decor.
According to market sources, Céline generates annual revenues north of 500 million euros, or $688 million at current exchange, meaning it has rapidly made the leap to become a midsize player in an industry where scale matters.
In a potent symbol of its strength, Gobbetti has secured a large hôtel particulier on Rue Vivienne that is to become Céline’s new Paris headquarters, reuniting offices and showrooms scattered across several sites in the French capital. Employees are slated to start moving in this fall.
The London store is key for the brand and Philo, as Céline’s design studios are based in the British capital, which Gobbetti described as “clearly one of the three or four most important metropolitan retail markets” with an international clientele.
Until now, Céline has catered to its London clientele with shops in Selfridges, Harrods and Dover Street Market, where the brand ranks number one in terms of productivity.
The new Mount Street flagship, formerly a bank, is located across the street from stores including Balenciaga, RRL Ralph Lauren and Christian Louboutin, and its back windows overlook the tranquil Mount Street Gardens and the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The facade is made of Portland stone, with big windows framed by dark brown iroko wood.
Inside, the store has the feel of an exotic island. Floors are an elegant patchwork of 6,000 strips and squares of marble, onyx and glass in colors such as russet, midnight blue, emerald and yellow, while ceilings the color and texture of bumpy concrete are partly covered with delicate light boxes.
The space, which Philo had a big role in helping to create, is divided by curving Venetian plaster walls that encourage shoppers to take a journey into areas dedicated to ready-to-wear, footwear and leather accessories. The building’s original steel girders remain, painted black for a dash of industrial chic.
The Danish artist known as Fos has designed a number of pieces for the new store, including the thick, sculptural steel handle on the front door; the nubby, Flintstones-like terra-cotta flower pots that hold banana plants; the spidery brass chandelier in the center of the store, and the full-length mirror that resembles a French window in the footwear area. The store also features some traditional Céline staples, such as the chunky marble and onyx cubes for merchandise displays and the travertine shelving on the walls.
All of Céline’s forthcoming retail stores will mark an “evolution” of recent concepts, Gobbetti said. They’re a blend of raw and extremely refined materials, such as the colorful stone that sparked a craze for marble among designer and high-street players alike.
Céline ended 2013 with 83 directly operated stores, a far cry from the nearly 105 locations there were when Philo and Gobbetti initiated their rejuvenation drive and weeded out 35 doors.
Until now, “we haven’t really expanded enormously the network,” Gobbetti said.
“We are succeeding in developing significant sales and good performance per square meter in most of our points of sale, and this allows us to expand from a strong base,” he said, adding, “We are building the brand for the long term.”
Gobbetti described costume jewelry and footwear as explosive categories, the latter fueled by such popular styles as slip-on sneakers, sandals and pumps. Céline recently opened stand-alone in-store shops for shoes at Printemps in Paris and Isetan in Japan.
Gobbetti stressed that future growth would derive from existing collections, rather than forays into new product categories.
“We still have an enormous potential,” he said. “Everybody is asking us to do men’s wear, but we have no plans to do men’s wear.…I’m sure we could, but we won’t in the near future. We are very focused, I think that’s the name of the game for me.”
In handbags, the three styles Philo introduced with her debut collection — Luggage, Classic and Cabas — continue to sell strongly, along with the Trapeze. Newer styles include the Tie and, for fall, Belt.
“We always have a lot of novelty within our bestsellers and within the categories we are already in,” Gobbetti noted.
Céline continues to shun online selling, preferring to engage with its customers directly “in the way they like to be engaged” and to use advertising, including in newspapers, to drive traffic to its stores, he added.