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NEW YORK — Is Fifth Avenue the next Ginza?

Gucci’s new 46,000-square-foot flagship at 725 Fifth Avenue in Trump Tower takes Manhattan’s designer retailing to a whole new scale, dwarfing many of its nearby competitors. The opening of the store, and Giorgio Armani’s plans to open a 47,000-square-foot retail site on Fifth Avenue this fall, raises speculation as to whether Fifth Avenue is set to experience the luxury brand building boom seen recently in Tokyo’s most famous shopping district, where one store is taller than the next.

This story first appeared in the February 5, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Gucci’s launch comes at a time when the difficult economy is putting a crimp in spending, and not just among low- and moderate-income shoppers. Luxury shoppers are being influenced psychologically by the downturn, retail experts said.

“Of course, we are reading the newspapers and following the situation like everyone else,” said Gucci president and chief executive officer Mark Lee. “The local business through the fourth quarter was very solid. Our first focus is on the local customer base” as opposed to tourists, he said.

The Gucci flagship, opening Friday, completes creative director Frida Giannini’s vision for the brand, and marks a definitive end to vestiges of the Tom Ford era, which were still evident in the previous store concept. The store replaces a 33,000-square-foot unit at 685 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 54th Street, which will close its doors on Thursday. The brand first came to New York in 1953 and has been at that location for almost three decades.

Gucci’s new three-level store makes an impressive and imposing brand-building statement across 158 feet of frontage and a four-story facade.

Sources said Gucci hopes to do $100 million in sales in the first year. The company is reported to be paying $16 million in annual rent. Lee declined to discuss the rent or volume projections. “With a profit of 611 million euros in 2006, we have to do a lot of business in Gucci,” he said.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s 36,000-square-foot flagship at 720 Fifth Avenue is said to do $100 million in annual sales.

Gucci had to completely gut and rebuild the Fifth Avenue space, which was formerly occupied by Asprey. Giannini said she came to New York three times in the process of designing the store and spent much time with her design team in Florence working on the materials and with the architectural drawings. Creating the new retail look offered her a “great opportunity to explore another area of aesthetics and design that is not just about gowns or handbags, but the overall concept of my vision for Gucci,” she said. “Also, my second passion after fashion was always architecture. I am the daughter of an architect.”

The new store features separate floors for accessories, men’s wear and women’s wear, with specific areas for ready-to-wear, evening, footwear, accessories and pre-collections. Some of the categories have double exposure in special displays.

Gucci touches abound, from a subtle double-G patterned carpet in the women’s footwear area to the iconic “web” stripe, which often features prominently in the collection and is etched into the frames of the glass fixtures. For the furniture pieces sprinkled throughout the store, Giannini sought inspiration from interior and furniture designers of the Thirties and Forties, including Gio Ponti and Jean-Michel Frank. Another inspiration was the Gucci store on Via Condotti in Rome, which just underwent a similar makeover and expansion (see related story on opposite page).

With white marble floors, the Art Deco-style sofas, chaise lounges, smoked glass coffee tables and dark rosewood cabinets, the store has the feel of an expansive Upper East Side townhouse whose owner has a taste for luxury and a penchant for mid-century modernist style. A mix of ribbed glass windows and clear windows reflecting natural light into the space offers views of Fifth Avenue, a departure from the previous concept, which was darker in its execution.

“The idea was also to create a special environment with an emphasis on transparency and light,” Giannini said. “The bronze glass, the use of white marble and black marble and the use of gold are new, because, for me, gold is one of the most important colors for Gucci today.”

A key feature of the store is the three-level free-floating staircase, delineated by vertical gold and clear Plexiglas rods.

White marble with a stripe of black marble down the center and charcoal carpets cover the main floor, where Heritage, a new department described as part museum and part limited edition product, is located. Samples from Gucci’s archives are displayed in glass cases. Newly reissued exclusive products are sold here, such as Leonardo, an accessories collection named after a Fifties print Giannini found, designed for the launch. Leonardo handbags are trimmed in precious skins and have bamboo handles.

“There will be new product every six months,” Lee said. “We’re thinking of our New York customers and their desire to have something special exclusively. We did tons of different exclusives for New York such as the metallic ostrich bag from the Hysteria collection.”

“Gucci [Love] NY” products will be sold while supplies last to mark the flagship opening. Handbags, a briefcase and luggage made of shiny white canvas printed with GGs share a motif of red and royal blue stripes that looks like a baseball uniform. All proceeds from the “Gucci [Loves] NY” products will be donated to Playground Partners of the Central Park Conservancy, Lee said.

Men’s takes up the second floor, while women’s occupies the third. That 10,000-square-foot floor is divided into a series of rooms, each with a pair of gray or chocolate couches facing opposite sides of a coffee table. Rtw has also been allotted more square footage than in the old store, reflecting the fact that “total rtw sales increased 21 percent in 2007,” Lee said. “This store will help us continue that momentum.”

The women’s fitting rooms, replete with touches of gold and rosewood, feature silk velvet walls, and there is a special VIP room, which can be accessed through a separate elevator and entrance on 56th Street.

Meanwhile, jewelry makes a bold statement with its own three-level shop, accessible through an entrance on Fifth Avenue and a pass through to women’s rtw on the third floor. Of the jewelry store, Lee said, “We butt up to the wall of one important competitor,” referring to Tiffany.

“There’s a big gain and presence for fine jewelry,” Lee said. “Fine jewelry in the [54th Street unit] was relegated to a 350-square-foot space tucked in the back of the store. From the space we’re investing, we believe we’re going to grow the jewelry category. We’ll have the complete range and have done some exclusive, very luxurious pieces such as a special necklace and earrings for $500,000.”

Giannini admitted that, when she first saw the empty space, she thought, “Oh my God, it’s so big, how will I fill it?”

But she soon came to relish the scope of the project. “The old stores are a different mood,” she said. “We wanted to begin again.”

Giannini herself coined a name for her new retail concept: “At the beginning, I used to refer to it as the ‘strategy of diversity,’ because it is important that the ideas are the same, but you can have a different emotional approach in each area.

“This store concept will hopefully help take away this idea that we are now a mass-market brand,” Giannini added. “This is a new important step that we can bring the brand to a different level.”

Lee dismissed the idea of the store as a loss-leader used to market the brand. With 30 percent more space than the old store, there’s an opportunity to do strong business. “We’ll absolutely be a profitable store,” he said. “It should not be seen as a vanity project or marketing tool. Seventy percent of our business comes through our own stores.”

Of Gucci’s 42 U.S. stores, New York is “the most important store in America,” Lee said. “This will be one of the highest-grossing stores in the world.” Gucci operates 233 stores worldwide. 

And the brand is arriving here with one of the most anticipated parties of fashion week. Gucci on Wednesday will cohost an event with Madonna at the United Nations to benefit UNICEF and Raising Malawi. There will be performances by Alicia Keys, Timbaland and Rihanna, and the co-chair list includes Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek, Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Téa Leoni and Lucy Liu. For the occasion, Giannini has created special dresses for herself and Madonna, having held meetings with the performer at her home in London.

It made sense for her to hold a major event like this in New York. Giannini, a native of Rome, considers herself a big fan of the city, and has a particular fondness for downtown. When in town, she likes to dine at eateries such as Balthazar, Indochine, Pop Burger and Pastis, and Da Silvano and Bar Pitti particularly in the summertime, and favors Michael’s for business lunches, especially since it’s just a stone’s throw from Gucci’s headquarters. “I hear so much about Brooklyn,” she said. “I have some friends there and would love to visit them if I have some time.”

Conceiving the new flagship allowed her to bring some of New York into the store design. “It’s mostly in the open space,” she said. “I think of New York, and I think of open spaces. When I first came here 20 years ago, I kept looking up at the buildings, and I’m still awed by the skyline.”

The Gucci [Loves] New York collection ranges from $360 for a scarf to $6,900 for a suitcase. Handbags are $630 to $770. Leonardo prices range from $5,800 for a hobo to $16,900 for a pop bamboo. Heritage styles start at $3,690 for a python top handle handbag and go to $28,500 for a crocodile top handle.

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