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Saks Fifth Avenue's 25th

Store's anniversary is quite a site for Downtown

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By LaMont Jones, Post-Gazette Fashion Editor

Connie Rockwell was browsing Saks Fifth Avenue, Downtown, when her long white dress got caught in the escalator and was almost ripped from her body.

Talk about an embarrassing moment.

That was 25 years ago at the store's gala preview opening, a benefit she chaired for a half-dozen local arts organizations and that featured an appearance by designer Bill Blass.

This Thursday, Rockwell will be extra careful on that escalator when she visits the store to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The city has proclaimed it "Saks Fifth Avenue Day," and Mayor Murphy will join others at 9:45 a.m. in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting akin to the one on Aug. 22, 1977.

The theme is "25 Beautiful Years," and festivities will include refreshments, gift card bonuses based on purchases and the giveaway of a basket containing exclusive cosmetics and fragrances, a cashmere sweater set, fashion jewelry, a Les Copains scarf, a Zegna shirt and tie set and other items totaling more than $1,000.

The Pittsburgh Saks first opened Sept. 9, 1949, inside the Gimbels department store a block down Smithfield from Saks' present location at 713 Smithfield St. Back then, a man in a spiffy uniform operated the elevator that lifted customers to the sixth floor, where Saks occupied a 25,000-square-foot section -- about one-quarter of the floor.

Pittsburgh's original Saks was the only Saks housed in another store. Gimbels and Saks were owned by the same company. (Manhattan independent retailers Horace Saks and Bernard Gimbel teamed up to open the first Saks store in New York City on Sept. 15, 1924.)

The small boutique was just the ninth store to open in the growing nationwide specialty chain. Though Pittsburgh was by no means a fashion mecca, Saks quickly developed a loyal clientele for designer apparel by the likes of Evan Picone, Larry Levine, Pucci and Diane von Furstenberg.

Beyond superior quality, exclusivity was a big draw. As today, much of what the store sold was available locally only at Saks.

Space for prestigious brand-name merchandise more than quadrupled with the move on Aug. 22, 1977, to the present four-story building that formerly was occupied by W.T. Grant Co. The celebration included a ribbon-cutting by Mayor Richard Caliguiri flanked by local officials and Saks corporate brass.

The store has come a long way in 25 years. Electronic cash registers have replaced drawers with locks. The fur salon, once the store's only department that was leased, is now joined by Louis Vuitton, Les Copains and the Elizabeth Arden salon.

The store had employed about 40 workers before the move, and now it employs 200.

Over time, the Pittsburgh Saks became known for occasionally outperforming the other Saks stores in a number of categories, including Liz Claiborne career sportswear, Jones New York and Evan Picone.

Saks also became known as a place where larger and smaller women could find quality clothes when apparel in general was tough for them to find. The store carried styles for them by such names as Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Oscar de la Renta.

"Saks Fifth Avenue was instrumental in the growth of better petites and better women's sizes because the market didn't make anything like that," said vice president and general manager Alison Mayher. "Saks Fifth Avenue directed the market in production of those goods."

There's a larger appetite in Pittsburgh than many would suspect for the store's high-end merchandise. The Pittsburgh Saks leads the 60 branch stores (excluding the New York flagship) in sales of Yves St. Laurent cosmetics and Angel fragrance.

Linda Conti, head of the fragrance and cosmetics department, is the store's longest-tenure current manager. Hired in the sportswear department, she was among dozens of people brought on board in 1977 in anticipation of the move to the new store. (She still has the original newspaper ad for the job.)

The Pittsburgh Saks is also among the top sellers of luxurious St. John knitwear.

"We have the highest percentage in the company of loyal Saks Fifth Avenue charge customers," noted Mayher.

One of those customers is Rockwell. She said she's a lifelong Saks customer who began shopping more at the Pittsburgh store after the move.

"I think I was probably born in Saks," she said, smiling. "I've always felt very much at home here. I don't know any people who are more gracious."

While retail is known for high worker turnover rates, Pittsburgh's Saks has an unusually high number of longtime employees. Sportswear sales associate Romaine Brundage has 44 years with the store. She and a half-dozen others started at the original store, and a total of 14 current employees have reached the 25-year milestone.

Brundage, who came to Saks at age 19, said she has stayed because of relationships with co-workers and the store's family orientation.

"I thought we might lose the intimacy when we moved to a bigger store, but I'm happy to say, no, we have not," she said. "The atmosphere hasn't changed. We've managed to have four floors and still maintain relationships with one another."

What does the future hold?

The store plans to increase its contemporary offerings in every category and expand the number of designers, adding such names as Louis Feraud, Gianfranco Ferre and Yohji Yamamoto.

"While we have a lot of designers right now, not every store has every designer," Mayher explained.

Designer maternity clothes, which the store carried when it opened but discontinued in the early '80s, will be returning. Bridal apparel is being considered.

Store renovations are planned within the next several years, which will allow some departments to double in size, said Mayher.

"I feel enormously positive about the future of the store," she said. "We do extremely well right now. Imagine how we'll do when we renovate and increase our size. The sky is the limit!"

Post-Gazette Fashion Editor LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1469.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

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