Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Fifth Avenue Matron Vamps It Up

Marni, a new boutique at Saks (John Lei for The New York TImes)

It may be a renovation in midstream, but with the changes that are taking place at Saks Fifth Avenue - new designers on every floor, a more knowledgeable sales staff, less clutter - the store is beginning to resemble its uptown rival Bergdorf Goodman. And that is no accident, for over the last few months Saks has been plotting to win back its upscale clientele.

"I used to shop here a lot, but I hadn't been for years," said Kim Hicks, a designer, who arrived at Saks on Monday night to attend a party there and ended up a shopper. "I have to say, the store is more elegant than it had been for a while."

Ms. Hicks was among the guests who had come to christen a boutique for Roger Vivier, the French shoe and handbag label. The shoe department is on the fourth floor, but Vivier was offered prime real estate facing a Christian Dior boutique on the third floor as an incentive to bring the brand - a hot label of the moment - to Saks. It was an offer that appealed to Bruno Frisoni, Vivier's design director. "There are a lot of great department stores in New York," Mr. Frisoni said. "But this one is moving forward."

Those will be heartening sentiments for Saks. Over the years a series of management and ownership changes had led to bloated selling floors with no real point of view. And although sales at the chain have improved in recent quarters, its earnings have been limited by the costs of the makeover.

"We're not waiting for the full renovation to move forward," said Ronald Frasch, the store's vice chairman and chief merchant, who was formerly the chief executive of Bergdorf. In the last month the store has played host to parties for a line of children's clothing by Lucy Sykes, the Edun label of ecofriendly fashion and the evening wear collection of Monique Lhuillier. New additions include Ruffian women's wear; Victor & Rolf's fragrance, Flowerbomb; and the Italian label Marni, which is presented on swooping silver sculptures.

A few weeks ago, when Valextra, another new label, was brought into the New York and Beverly Hills stores, several handbags, including a $15,000 crocodile model, were sold as they were being unpacked.

While the fashion industry has taken note of changes in the New York flagship, which is also scheduled for a structural overhaul in 2007, the transition of Saks stores around the country is expected to take longer. Those plans could be affected by the sale of the chain by its parent company, Saks Inc., which has been rumored in recent weeks.

That caveat has not diminished the surprise of longtime Saks shoppers. Adrienne Vittadini, who retired from her knitwear business in 1998, was at Saks on Monday. "It's amazing to see how much wonderful novelty there is, as so many things in fashion are flat," she said. "I want to come back tomorrow and be a consumer."

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