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More is more along Houston's 'Designer Dash'

April 9, 2005, 6:45PM
More is more along Houston's 'Designer Dash'
By CLIFFORD PUGH
Houston Chronicle


Until recently, whenever Debra Grierson saw a Louis Vuitton outfit she loved in a fashion magazine or on her favorite Web site, style.com, she called the New York store to place an order.

But now the Houston fashionista points her car toward the Galleria, where Vuitton and a row of boutiques bearing high fashion's biggest names await her.

"It's so much easier, and you want to shop where you live," she said.

Shopping has always been a sport of near-Olympic proportions in this freewheeling capital of conspicuous consumption. But now well-heeled Houstonians have even more reasons to shop till they drop.

Within the past 18 months, dozens of high fashion's premier names have opened or expanded stores in Houston.

Uptown Park, Highland Village and River Oaks Shopping Center have snared such notable names as Priscilla of Boston, Lilly Pulitzer, Kiehl's and Principessa. Specialty boutiques have also sprouted up in Midtown, Montrose and Memorial.

But the epicenter of the upscale action is Galleria I, where the second level has been transformed into a luxury corridor. The Galleria is now the fifth-largest retail center in the nation and has one of the highest concentrations of luxury stores.

In recent months, CH Carolina Herrera, David Yurman, Jimmy Choo, Luca Luca, Kate Spade, Christian Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton and expanded St. John and Ralph Lauren stores have joined longtime fixtures Chanel, Tiffany, Cartier, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Fendi and Gucci in the mall.

"It's like a mini Fifth Avenue," raved Melissa Mithoff, a 2005 Chronicle Best Dressed List honoree.

Before the year is over, Bulgari and Giorgio Armani will join the crowd. Bulgari has nabbed the space vacated by Versus, and Armani (which already has two Galleria stores) will occupy a prime spot for its top-of-the-line collection across from Ferragamo.

The luxury bookends — Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue — are keeping pace. Neiman's is undergoing a multimillion-dollar store renovation with a dazzling cosmetics area and expanded couture department. Under aggressive new management, Saks is beefing up its offerings, with new collections by Douglas Hannant, Marni, Tori Burch, Valentino, Chloe and Azzedine Alia.

It's no wonder fashion-forward Houstonians are weak at the knees.

"Now we don't have to fly off to New York or Paris to find something to wear," said trendsetter Lisa Holthouse.

The luxury market has been growing rapidly everywhere. Dior has opened nine new stores in the past 15 months. Three David Yurman stores debuted within a month last year. Burberry has averaged three new stores a year for several years. But growth has been especially pronounced here.

Houston's smart set has a storied reputation for flaunting designer labels and flashy jewelry. In the 1980s, when New York gossip columnist Suzy chided Mary Owen Greenwood for wearing diamonds during the day, the Houston society grande dame replied, "That's what I thought, honey, until I had them."

The luxury store stampede began after the Galleria opened a new wing anchored by Foley's and Nordstrom two years ago. "It freed up space that didn't exist in prior years," said Greg Vlahos, vice president of leasing for Simon Property Group, which bought the Galleria in 2002.

Yurman, whose jewelry has been available at Neiman's, Saks, Tootsies and other specialty stores for years, chose Houston for his largest free-standing store because the city "is an epicenter for us," he said at the grand opening last month.

Twenty-five years ago, he was so unknown that he "couldn't get arrested," Yurman recalled. "Houston was one of the first cities to accept me. There was this precious woman, Jan Becker, who was such an advocate of my work. She said, 'Don't give up.' "

Becker also advised Yurman to make larger pieces.

While his jewelry has gotten bigger, Yurman has noted during regular visits to Houston that something else here has shrunk: There's not as much big hair.

"It's come down," he said.

Big hair isn't all that's been dispelled. The notion of the gaudy, provincial Texas hick is a relic of the past. Luxury retailers new to the area say today's Houston shoppers are sophisticated, travel often, keep up with the latest trends and have a great sense of style.

"It's a very fashionable market. There's a real thirst for luxury goods," said Eugenia Ulasewicz, president of Burberry USA.

Recognizing the sophistication level, Dior officials created a boutique resembling a "mini New York flagship store." It opened last August, with a wide assortment of shoes, purses and clothing. "We wanted (clients) to feel everything important in Dior is in Houston," said Marla Sabo, Christian Dior president and CEO.

Sabo says Houston customers want "the hot things from us."

"Runway items typically sell out," she said, citing John Galliano's new version of the classic bar jacket, a key piece of Dior's spring-summer collection. The fitted jacket, cinched at the waist and flared slightly over the hips, was a reinvention of the jacket from Dior's own 1947 "bar suit."

Made from a variety of fabrics and embellished with quilting, lace and crystals, the jackets were shown over slim dresses, knee-length or minis, slim and flared trousers and shorts.

Sabo expected well-heeled shoppers to find the store. But she's been surprised that the typical mall shopper — a young woman on a budget but willing to splurge — has also discovered Dior. "It's almost as if we have two kinds of business," she said. "The young girls like the pouches, the sunglasses and the costume jewelry. These clients are the ones you can cultivate."

Louis Vuitton officials have been pleased since quadrupling their Galleria space in late 2003. Their runway fashions often sell quickly here, too.

"When (Houston shoppers want) something from the shows, they call the store and get their name on the waiting list. They know that's what they need to do to be able to get the product," says regional vice president Kim Harrington.

"The Houston customer is not afraid of fashion. We do really well (here) with things that are more flashy and more glamorous." Last fall, for example, the Houston store sold out of a hip-looking monogrammed mink stole and satin pleated pumps.

The Galleria's luxury store concentration has become a magnet for other upscale retailers who want a piece of the action.

Jimmy Choo CEO Tamara Mellon jumped at the chance to open a Houston outpost of the chic London shoe store next door to other luxury boutiques last year.

"When someone's shopping, they often want to do everything at once," she said. "We probably have the same customers as Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton, so we get all the passing-by traffic."

Her strategy seems to have worked. Mellon said sales of the pricey Jimmy Choo stilettos made famous in Sex and the City have been fantastic in Houston.

"The Houston woman is really fashion-forward, and she loves to buy luxury brands," Mellon said. "That's definitely our target market."

Another enticement is Houston's proximity to wealthy Latin American shoppers. Houston's international reputation led Carolina Herrera to choose Houston over Dallas for her first Texas store, CH Carolina Herrera.

"She's very well-liked by the Latin community," said an Herrera spokeswoman.

The store, which features men's and women's casual clothing and accessories, is Herrera's fourth in the United States. Others are in Manhasset, N.Y.; Las Vegas; and Coral Gables, Fla. Herrera and her daughter, Carolina Jr., launched the CH label in Spain in 2001.

In Houston last fall, Herrera designer Beatrice Folguera noticed how stylishly women dressed here, compared with those in Las Vegas, where she was working on another CH store.

"In Las Vegas, it's tourists. Here it's the working lady who likes to be feminine," Folguera said.

Ferragamo also chose Houston over Dallas for its first Texas store, which opened last spring. Ferragamo USA chairman Massimo Ferragamo said in an e-mail that sales of clothing and shoes, which the store is known for, have been phenomenal and exceeded expectations.

He said he was surprised by response from Mexican visitors.

"We knew Houston was a strong market for Mexican tourism, but that has proven to be an understatement," he said.

Even with all the new stores, there's always room for more.

"We need a Prada store badly," Mithoff complained.

Are you listening, Miuccia?
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