Sunday, September 10, 2006

Luxury shoppers' new spot

Samantha Thompson Smith, Staff Writer
The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

CHARLOTTE - Less than two years ago, it was nearly impossible to find a real Louis Vuitton handbag for sale in North Carolina.

Never mind an Hermes tie, Gucci loafers or anything by Dolce & Gabbana.

That, of course, was before the state's luxury department store invasion -- before Saks Fifth Avenue came to Raleigh and Neiman Marcus' opening next week in Charlotte.

Saks may have been first to tease us two years ago with a taste of real luxury, but Neiman Marcus will take us to the next level.

The store will open Sept. 15 stocked with an impressive list of who's-who designers: Prada, Akris, Stella McCartney, Missoni and Tory Burch. You'll also be able to shop for Shu Uemura cosmetics, Manolo Blahnik pumps, Chanel handbags, Paul Smith men's shoes and Baccarat glassware. Once the store opens at SouthPark mall, only a few major designers will not be readily available for sale in the state.

For Triangle shoppers, the only big hurdle will be the three-hour drive to SouthPark.

But for the real fashionista -- the one who drools over Fendi handbags, who won't go to a business cocktail party without Diane von Furstenberg, who can't leave the house without trailing the scent of Clive Christian, and for whom money is not a problem -- the shopping should far exceed the cost of gas.

"It's a great complement to the existing retail," said Heather Jones, the public relations manager for the Charlotte store. "The clothing is anything they wouldn't be able to get anywhere else between Atlanta and D.C."

Neiman Marcus regulars, however, say it's more than those big names that keep them coming back.

"I just love good service and good quality," said Trish Healy, a Dallas native who moved from California to Raleigh almost two years ago. "And I love the history of the store."

Healy, who grew up shopping at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, said the chain's consistent store merchandising is the main reason she'll be making the trip to Charlotte to shop.

"It's a very, very real culture," she said. "It's not just about the designers. It's about a true understanding of merchandising."

She said Nordstrom may have a larger selection of shoes, but Neiman Marcus' selection makes you want to buy. "At Neiman's, you want every pair," she said.

Big names in store
The new 80,000-square-foot store, which is the same size as Saks at Triangle Town Center, won't be as big as some Neiman Marcus shoppers are used to. It won't have a third-floor restaurant or a children's department, and the store won't sell bridal gowns. But it will have many of the same names and in-store boutiques, such as Chanel, Escada and St. John, that have made Neiman Marcus among the top tier of luxury, Jones said.

While day-to-day shopping might not be enough of a draw for Triangle shoppers, they might feel the tug of designers themselves. Jones said the store will regularly pull in top-name designers for personal appearances and trunk shows.

The store already proved it has some serious clout.

The first designer appearance was last month, when Carolina Herrera -- who is best known for her glamorous evening gowns and classic suits -- gave a fashion show at the Duke Mansion in Charlotte of her newest resort collection. She also met with established and potential customers from around the Charlotte area.

Herrera said she was happy to make the appearance, something she does regularly for the department store chain. "I have a long relationship with Neiman Marcus," she said.

Jones said expect more like the Herrera event, the only difference being the shows won't be exclusive to top customers or credit card customers.

"We don't try to exclude anyone," she said.

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