COSTUME NATIONAL’S BIG PLANS

LOS ANGELES — “There’s energy here — a lot of creativity,” observed Ennio Capasa, the Italian designer of Costume National, referring to the home city of the sportswear firm’s newest store.
And now that Costume National has opened its second U.S. store here, the clean, minimally-tailored sportswear is part of it all. The 3,000-square-foot store at 8001 Melrose Avenue, at the corner of Edinburgh Avenue in West Hollywood, is in a chic retail cluster known as Melrose West. For decades, Fred Segal Melrose ruled the retail roost, but in the past year, other high-end specialty stores — including Miu Miu, Emma Gold and Liza Bruce — have flocked to the area.
“L.A. has become more and more important. We have a lot of customers here,” said Capasa, during an interview in the store with his brother Carlo, the company’s manager who oversees operations. Both are tall, dark and sport curly black mops of hair, but Ennio has the creative edge; Carlo, the business head. The Milan-based sportswear firm, founded by the two in 1987, has recently been attracting Hollywood hipsters and celebrities with its sleek, tailored styles.
The store is expected to notch between $850 and $950 in sales per square foot in its first year, according to Carlo. The projection is on par with the current performance of Costume National’s first U.S. store, which opened on Wooster Street in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood in November 1997, he said.
“We’re expecting a little bit less than what New York is doing right now and a little bit more than what New York did the first year,” he said, noting the New York store pulled in about $700 per square foot in sales volume its first year.
The Los Angeles store carries Costume National’s ready-to-wear, shoes, handbags, intimate apparel, accessories and men’s wear. For spring and summer, there are magenta, sandy beige and black groups. The collection, with halters, plunging necklines and short miniskirts, reveals a lot of flesh.
Jackets are priced from $650 to $2,600, with snakeskin coats at the high end; skirts at $200 to $850; pants, $300 to $1,950; dresses, $250 to $1,200, and tops, $140 to $1,500, with beaded items the most expensive. Shoes are priced from $200 to $700; handbags, $200 to $800.
Costume National Luxe, a higher-priced, slightly more sophisticated designer label, is slated to arrive in stores this fall. Luxe is a fusion of traditional Western couture accented by elements of the Japanese kimono, according to the designer, and is priced 20 to 30 percent higher than the rtw line.
“For me, it was a challenge to work on top quality,” Ennio said. “With Costume, it starts with the ready-to-wear collection. It was important to keep that image, but, as a designer, after you get more mature, you need to prove yourself at higher levels. I did it without thinking. It really came out of what I felt.”
The designer said he’s come a long way from being the young Yohji Yamamoto protege in the mid-Eighties, and has much more confidence, although he says he’s still insecure about using his own name on the rtw line. He said he chose the name Costume National from an antique book about French uniforms.
The collection is available in Los Angeles at Ron Herman-Fred Segal Melrose, Maxfield, Barneys New York, and H. Lorenzo. Fred Segal Melrose will continue to sell Costume National shoes, but will stop carrying the clothing collection because the two stores are too close to each other.
The news hasn’t exactly been well received. “Good luck,” responded Ron Herman, owner of the Ron Herman boutique at the Fred Segal Melrose specialty complex, contending that it was his store that essentially established the brand in Los Angeles. The Capasas acknowledged that their collection did sell well at the Herman boutique. “They’re not as interested in us selling the product as they are in themselves selling the product. They don’t need us anymore,” Herman lamented.
Lorenzo Hadar, owner of boutique H. Lorenzo on Sunset Boulevard, which will continue to sell the collection, had a different perspective. He said the new Costume National store could build his business. “For me it’s a plus,” he said. “It will help me in the long run, more than hurt me.”
Two years ago, Costume National secured a $6 million capital infusion from British investment bank 3i, which it has used to open stores and boost advertising. As a result, 3i owns 15 percent of EC SpA, Costume National’s parent company, which is owned by the Capasas. They said they still plan to take the company public, most likely in Italy, though no firm date has been set.
In addition to the two U.S. stores, there are two Costume National stores in Italy, three in Japan and another in China. Each site adopts the mood of its location, according to the Capasas. The Melrose store has natural light to evoke a warm atmosphere. “Here in L.A., the landscape is so wonderful, we had to make people desire to be inside as much as outside, and I think that’s a hard thing to do,” said Ron Radziner, the design principal of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Marmol & Radziner Architects, which designed the store. The corner building has several well-placed skylights and large display windows in front. In addition to natural light, the store uses backlit glass.
Accessories sit on 17-foot-high floor-to-ceiling shelves and slanted floor-to-ceiling display walls. There are some soft touches — sitting areas with off-white leather and suede settees. Walls are finished in a beige-gray lacquer, reminiscent of sand. The walls are offset by bright white lacquer panels framing video screens.
The Los Angeles store reflects Costume National’s desire to control its product and image, and the capital infusion has enabled the company to buy back some of its licensing operations, they said.
The company currently controls the rtw and handbag production and distribution, and plans to take back the control of shoes and leather goods soon. The Capasas said the company’s operations should be fully vertical by next year.
Costume National’s annual wholesale volume in 1999 totaled $70 million, with rtw representing 40 percent; men’s wear, 30 percent, and accessories and shoes, 30 percent.
Next up for the Capasas, a visit to specialty stores in San Francisco that carry the label, and then to London for a winter 2000-2001 print advertising campaign shoot. Inspired by Hollywood, the brothers said the ads will be shot by photographer John Akehurst using a cinematic theme. The company currently spends $2 million on print advertising worldwide.
Costume National is also currently shopping locations for more stores in London, Paris and a larger location in Milan, and possibly more locations in the U.S. to keep the company moving forward.
“We better not lose our edge,” said Ennio.

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