Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — Can a flagship in Manhattan really catapult the fortunes of a European designer?
According to Nicole Farhi, the white box that has shrouded construction on the site of the old Copacabana nightclub on East 60th Street for 10 months has already worked magic, boosting her wholesale business in the U.S. and piquing interest in the brand from other retailers, including Canada’s tony Holt Renfrew chain.
And now that the 16,000-square-foot emporium finally opened for business around noon on Thursday, she’s confident it will make an even bigger impression.
It should.
The massive three-level store, which includes a 120-seat restaurant and two double-height atriums, is the largest Nicole Farhi store in the world and the only one in the U.S. It showcases the breadth of the London-based designer’s product lines, from complete women’s and men’s collections, footwear, accessories and casual sportswear to linens and hand-painted dinner plates. With its gentle colors, warm woods and curved shapes, it is also a reflection of the designer herself: open, warm and soft-spoken.
“I was very much anti-white space and cold and spare,” the 53-year-old Farhi said during a tour of the store. “I wanted warmth, warmth, warmth.”
Designed by Michael Gabellini, who is perhaps best known for his work for Jil Sander’s boutiques worldwide, the store is essentially minimalist, but not as stark as Gabellini’s other work. It’s punctuated with rounded elements: large elliptical columns, curving racks for clothing and oval settees. Even shelves curve downward, so much so that the stacks of Farhi’s cashmere sweaters look as if they might slide off.
There is also rich, dark walnut everywhere: in the curving racks, on grand staircases and in the hulking bridge that leads shoppers to fitting rooms with opaque sliding doors that resemble Japanese shoji screens. And there is widespread but subtle use of a smoky blue that has become somewhat of a signature color for Farhi.
Farhi said the space suggests a feeling of “floating,” with the front and rear atriums exposing the middle floor.
“There’s something very light-looking about the space,” she said. “It represents everything I like because the clothes are very simple and there’s enough color in my clothes to decorate the space.”
Upon entering the store, shoppers find themselves on a broad walnut bridge with glass sides. Below and to the right lies the restaurant, Nicole’s. Customers can head down to it via a staircase, take another staircase left down to men’s wear, or go straight ahead to the main shopping area for women.
Farhi said she wants visitors to feel relaxed in her store, which is why there are strategically placed antiques and home objects on the selling floor. One of her favorite elements is a large, dinner-table-sized abacus that sits in the middle of the women’s wear area.
“My father used to have beads and all my life that made him very peaceful and relaxed,” she explained.
Farhi said the New York store will set the tone for all future sites and renovations. There are nine Nicole Farhi stores in the U.K. and one in Tokyo.
Like many designer boutiques in New York, Farhi’s contains an area devoted to home furnishings and accessories, with glassware, tableware and linens of her own design. Scattered among the shelves are a few gardening books, pillows, decorative objects and a few pieces of antique furniture.
Farhi acknowledged the ambitious nature of the store, especially given its location: across the street from Barneys New York and within sight of the Calvin Klein Collection and DKNY flagships. In a recent interview, she described opening the New York flagship as one of the biggest steps in her 25-year fashion career.
“We looked for a big place to make a statement about what we have been doing all these years,” she said. “I think this will be the beginning of our name going out and our clothes being sold much more. The stores will come and they can see what they can do with the product.
“We are not a little shop and a little company,” she said, with emphasis. “We are a successful company. We’re not selling just a few frocks.”
Farhi pointed out that the new store is not her first retail attempt in the U.S. Until about five years ago, she operated a small shop on West Broadway that carried only women’s wear, she said.
Born in Nice, Farhi studied fashion design in France and worked briefly in Paris before moving to London, where she met Stephen Marks and began working for his company, French Connection. Ultimately, he provided the backing that allowed her to launch a signature collection in 1983. The company went public in 1984. Men’s wear was added in 1989. Today, Nicole Farhi products generate some $75 million at wholesale, with women’s wear accounting for about 60 percent of the business. Farhi and Marks are major shareholders in French Connection.
At present, the U.S. is Farhi’s third-largest export market after Japan and continental Europe, accounting for less than 5 percent of revenues, said Marks, chairman of the house. But the potential here, the partners agreed, is vast.
“We really believe in this marketplace,” Marks said. “I think we’re doing something unique. I think it’s going to help our business in North America.”
Farhi’s wholesale accounts in America include Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel.
Marks declined to provide sales projections for the store, explaining that the company is in a quiet period until it releases its first-half results later this month. However, he said, Farhi’s sales per square foot in London shops exceed $1,000 “and we certainly don’t expect to do any less here.”
According to market sources, the store cost $9 million to build.
Farhi, who is married to playwright David Hare, has been frequently described in European and American publications alike as Britain’s Donna Karan. The proximity of the new DKNY world flagship store, which opened two weeks ago on Madison at 60th, and the new Farhi flagship has done nothing to quiet such descriptions.
Farhi became crestfallen at the mere mention of those comparisons. She said she wished she could shoo them away.
In fact, the two designers have never met and Farhi would prefer that consumers draw their own conclusions about her work.
“In England, I’ve created my own niche,” she said. “There’s a comfort in my clothes that is quite special.”
Farhi feels the American designer market is full of “party clothes,” whereas she prefers to think of her designs as “constant friends.”
She said she expects bestsellers at the New York store to echo those in London. So far this fall, they include flat ponyskin boots for $385; knee-length leather skirts with ruffled hems for $720; Mongolian sheepskin vests for $1,600; hand-embroidered cashmere cardigans for $625, and beaded mohair and wool cardigans for $330.