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Twenty years ago, Giorgio Armani introduced a new retail concept in New York’s SoHo neighborhood designed to appeal to a young, urban customer.

This story first appeared in the April 27, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Now, A|X Armani Exchange operates more than 200 stores in 24 countries and has evolved into a lifestyle brand for men and women enamored with the fashion sensibility of the legendary designer but at a more accessible price point.

To commemorate the birthday, A|X has created a special limited edition capsule collection, AXX, that will be carried in select stores around the world and online this year. The items, which are updated versions of some signature items, are identified by a separate hangtag. Looks include oversize sweaters, suede jackets, classic dress pants, pima cotton Henley shirts, fake leather minidresses and fake fur coats. Accessories such as fake leather purses are also a key part of the collection. There will be monthly deliveries in around 25 percent of the store fleet, with a significant push for September and October. “We looked for things that felt very Armani,” said Patrick Doddy, senior vice president and brand director, “but young Armani.”

The company has also created special shopping bags which read “AXX, Twenty Years,” and the anniversary is being touted in store windows and on the Web.

Harlan Bratcher, president and chief executive officer of A|X, who was a consultant to the company when A|X launched, said in the beginning, the brand was more focused on denim. But today, denim is only 15 percent of the mix. “Now, it’s more smart sportswear with a strong denim component,” he said. “We are Armani, but we are the accessible Armani.”

The brand was predominantly men’s when it began, but is now about evenly split between men’s and women’s. The male consumer gravitates toward dressy jackets, loose sweaters and contemporary pants that can take him from day into evening. For women, dresses and accessories are top sellers, Bratcher said.

Instead of throwing itself a huge event this fall to commemorate the 20th anniversary, Bratcher said the brand is holding smaller events every month throughout the year. “Our customer is very young, so we’re saying it’s our 20th birthday.” Tom Jarrold, chief marketing officer, added: “We want to look forward.”

As a result, the company is putting a big push behind its digital efforts. It recently launched A|X Stylepad, an interactive create-your-own app for iPhone and iPad users which allows them to design their own A|X pages by selecting a background, casting a model from supplied images and writing a personalized message over the image to share with friends on social networks.

Jarrold said the app is being updated for fall so it can be “customized, shareable and shoppable.”

“We have tremendous digital credibility,” Bratcher said, noting that the company’s recent Neon Carnival party resulted in half a billion media impressions.

Overall, Bratcher said the brand is “doing really well,” and is “very profitable,” despite the downturn in the economy. But instead of resting on its laurels, the plan is to continue to grow. Another 50 stores will be added this year to bring the total to 250 by the end of 2011. “We’re in expansion mode,” Bratcher said, noting that South America is a key focus this year with additional stores expected in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Colombia. Stores will also be added in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Dubai, Mexico, Korea, Japan and China.

All of the new stores will feature a prototype design from Giorgio Armani and architecture firm Gensler. London and Tokyo were the first to get the new design and SoHo will be remodeled by the end of the year. Bratcher said remodeled stores, such as those in Atlanta and Aventura, Fla., have resulted in a significant jump in sales. “It’s better for business,” he said.

“For a designer company,” he added, “nobody else has this many units. A|X has evolved into a very successful model and the model works.”

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