NEW YORK — Esprit has landed a prime site in the Flatiron district to launch its return to retailing in the U.S.

This story first appeared in the January 6, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WWD has learned that the company has signed a lease at 110 Fifth Ave., currently occupied by Emporio Armani. Emporio is expected to vacate by February, enabling Esprit to open in the spring.

The ground floor site, with 10,000 square feet, is on the northwest corner of 16th Street. Nearby retailers in the heavily trafficked neighborhood include Coach, Banana Republic, J. Crew, Anthropologie and Paul Smith. Esprit signed a long-term lease, but the terms were not available. Reportedly, rents in the area range from $150 to $200 a foot.

Heinz Krogner, Esprit Holdings’ chief executive officer and chairman for Europe and ceo of Esprit International in New York, could not be reached for comment. However, in an interview last November, he said the first store should open in spring or summer, six or seven locations were under discussion and that one lease would be signed soon. Asked where he wanted to open stores, he replied, “Why not Fifth Avenue, SoHo and some of the best malls in the area?”

For leasing the retail space, Cushman & Wakefield Inc. represented the landlord, a partnership of 110 Fifth Avenue Realty Corp. and Goldmick LLC. Responding to the Esprit report, Gene P. Spiegelman, senior director of Cushman & Wakefield’s retail services group, said, “The landlord was very selective in looking for a brand with the right image to keep the fashion on the street vibrant.”

Spiegelman said retailers in Flatiron can do well because the neighborhood is a “cut-through” for people going from the east side to Chelsea, or from uptown to SoHo or Union Square. “There’s also a young, hip base of residents and workers from architectural and media companies and a strong nightlife in the area,” he added. “This is a seven-day-a-week market.”

Richard Hodos, president of Madison HGCD, the retail brokerage firm working exclusively for Esprit on the rollout, said, “This preeminent location presents a great opportunity for Esprit to showcase its primary lines. It’s a great first step as they relaunch their brand in the U.S.”

For months, Esprit has been prowling metropolitan New York for sites for stores. The plan is conservative, calling for four or five mall stores between 4,500 and 5,000 square feet and one outlet in the New York area, in addition to the larger Fifth Avenue location, so the company doesn’t cannibalize its wholesale business.

With 10,000 square feet on the ground floor, the Flatiron site certainly has room enough for the primary Esprit collections: Esprit Women’s Collection, the Esprit Women’s Casual collection and the edc by esprit junior collection.

It is believed that men’s wear will also be sold on Fifth Avenue and that a cafe is being considered. On Regent Street in London, Esprit operates a 20,000-square-foot store, with a Starbucks inside. The company has 13 divisions for different categories of merchandise. Including licensed products, Esprit’s total sales are $3.5 billion. Without licensing, Esprit has about $1.6 billion in revenues, with 40 percent from retail and 60 percent generated at wholesale.

Esprit, under its previous owner, operated stores in the U.S. but closed the last seven or eight units about a year and a half ago. Esprit was launched in San Francisco 35 years ago, and sold its trademark rights in the U.S. and the Caribbean in early 2002 to Esprit Holdings Ltd., a Hong Kong-based, publicly traded firm. Much work has been done in the past year to boost marketing, licensing and now retailing. The company recently relocated its U.S. headquarters to New York.

In Europe, there are approximately 2,000 shop-in-shops, 3,300 smaller corners in stores, 400 stand-alone franchised stores and 150 owned stores. In China, there are about 600 points of sale, including directly owned stores, in-store shops and multibrand stores. Elsewhere in Asia, there are about 135 freestanding owned retail locations. In Australia, there are roughly 116 Esprit stores, and in Canada, about 40 — all owned by Esprit.

Although it’s closing its Fifth Avenue site, Emporio also has a store in SoHo, on the northwest corner of Spring Street and West Broadway, and at 601 Madison Avenue, between 57th and 58th Streets.