September 22, 2011 10:34 pm

Milan floats a big idea

Recently a new fashion store opened in Milan. This would not in itself be a notable occurrence, especially during fashion week, but this is a vast, 43,000 sq ft “directional emporium” with internal floors, walls and stairwells that float in space.

Sited in a former cinema on the edge of the shopping district and designed by Parisian architect Jean Nouvel, this is Excelsior, Italy’s first upscale concept department store in the Selfridge’s/ Barney’s mode.

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The store is the first venture in the luxury end of the market for Gruppo Coin, which owns lower- and mid-market chains OVS Industry, Coin and Upim.

“It’s totally new for Milan,” says Stefano Beraldo, the group’s chief executive. “Here, if you are a luxury brand you set up your own store or you sell a very limited selection to boutiques. There are no luxury department stores.”

That begs the question: if there are no luxury department stores in Milan, could there be a reason?

“The charm of shopping in Milan is the street of shops,” says Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty of London. “It’s elegant and timeless, but perhaps a bit quaint. Yes, Excelsior addresses a more modern approach to shopping: people are seeking an edited version. But it will have to convince Milan.”

Maurizio Borletti, former chairman of La Rinascente, one of Milan’s oldest department stores, points out other challenges: “location, size, price points, and the economy in Italy”.

Mr Borletti, who is also chief executive of Borletti and chairman of Printemps, the Paris department store, adds: “While there is a lot of travel from wealthy Chinese in particular, Milan is not as desirable as London and Paris. Excelsior’s pricing and size may also prove a challenge to getting the high volume of sales, as it is quite narrowly focused on luxury and fashion. It is also very close to a high traffic area in Milan, but is not in it.”

Coin devoted €30m ($26.3m) to the project, which Mr Beraldo characterises as having “the services of a small boutique but all the international brands of a major store”.

The fashion content is overseen by Antonia Giacinti, founder of Italian multi-brand boutique collective Antonia, and includes Balmain, Haider Ackermann, Levi’s Limited Edition, Valentino and Vanessa Bruno – many of which are either new to Italy or little distributed. Manolo Blahnik will open his first shop in Italy in the store.

Film-maker and art director Marco Braga has curated its art selection. There are videos by digital artist Matt Pyke, and it boasts its own “sound identity” courtesy of Italian DJ Stefano Fontana. There’s a ground-floor cocktail bar with regular shifts in music and scents, a Ladurée confectionery stand, a gourmet food emporium and three restaurants.

An industry figure estimated that for Excelsior to make a healthy profit it would need to bring in €60m-€80m a year, and €40m to break even.

“My first impression is that it seems quite museum-like, with high design concept, product behind glass and sparse merchandising, which can be a barrier to getting the kind of high volume sales necessary,” says retail consultant Robert Burke.

Yet, design and fashion blogs have been won over and, as Mr Borletti points out: “In the Milan shopping landscape, there is little competition in this format.”

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