Seeking a new look with an Eagle's eye

American Eagle Outfitters unveils upscale, older model with new Martin + Osa store

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McLEAN, Va. -- A young man in an American Eagle hoodie and a young woman in jeans stood in the corridor of a Virginia mall taking pictures with their cell phones.

They weren't snapping photos of rock stars. Instead, their focus was a new storefront with wood-panel walls broken only by a horizontal stripe of glowing blue glass molded with the words Martin + Osa. Thumps of cranked-up music and flashes of white light seeped out the store's center entrance, but a black cloth draped over a mesh curtain obscured the space inside.

The scene also drew curious looks from a few early-bird mall walkers. The real anticipation was building inside from people associated with American Eagle Outfitters, the Marshall company based in Thorn Hill Industrial Park off Interstate 79 that operates hundreds of stores selling hoodies and jeans to youth across the country.

Martin + Osa, an entirely new brand that cost millions to develop even before the first store opened in suburban Washington, D.C., is expected to produce $1 billion in revenue within a decade. The project is meant to help the teen retailer grow up and grow older in style, instead of finding itself trapped and in crisis with ripped jeans and no room for more of the American Eagle stores that it has lived on for years.

Wednesday's launch of the first Martin + Osa felt like a graduation. Finally, the new growth concept has a name, a wardrobe and a purpose. It's been more than four years since Jim O'Donnell, American Eagle's chief executive officer, cited development of a new concept as one of his top priorities.

The black curtain came down at 9:41 a.m. After upbeat staff members posed for pictures and set off the store alarms a few times, Mr. O'Donnell took a simple pair of sheers and, at 9:54 a.m., cut a white ribbon to make it official.

Still, the cheers, sighs of relief and excitement came tempered by the uncertainty that follows dreams, Wall Street critics and big investments.

Those two young people out in the mall corridor were employees from a nearby American Eagle store eager to see what the designers came up with behind closed curtains. Two older, gray-haired men in suits who went inside to carefully poke through piles of denim and nylon jackets were American Eagle board members working to understand the venture's corporate impact.

"We're moving to a space that we feel really provides an opportunity that no one's filled," said Ken Pilot, president of the new brand.

The American Eagle venture is, in fact, similar to new brand launches by competitors such as The Gap, Pacific Sunwear and Abercrombie & Fitch. The retailers all share a need to find more ways to sell more goods to more varied groups of people.

Mr. Pilot makes the case that the strategy driving his new brand is different. The designers envision offering comfortable, stylish clothes that can be used in an active lifestyle without looking like gym clothes or track gear or the outfits of a college sophomore.

The Martin + Osa name is borrowed from a married couple from Kansas who explored the world from 1917 to 1936. The 30-year-olds this new store targets may not remember Martin and Osa Johnson, but their books, photographs and films helped inspire the physical setting as well as the clothes.

A movie shown on flat-screen TVs through the store shows a couple wearing the chain's styles as they shop funky stores, buy flowers, play with their dog and fly over the water in a small plane.

Whether Martin + Osa's customers actually fly in small planes to adventure or just take tedious business trips to Cincinnati and push strollers in the mall, the goal is to treat them like grown-ups who haven't lost all sense of cool. In other words, former American Eagle shoppers who've gotten better, not older.

The two chief product designers, Michele Donnan Martin and Charles Martin, seem a natural fit for the task -- even up to their last names.

A married couple with a 12-year-old son, they worked together on the creation of the children's version of Abercrombie & Fitch.

Mr. Martin also was involved in Hollister, a teen brand launched by Abercrombie.

The day before the Martin + Osa opening, a bandana-clad Mr. Martin in blue T-shirt and green pants labored over the men's clothing displays, stopping to explain the importance of using outerwear fabrics on the waist band of a pair of pants to improve the fit and choosing wax-rubbed nylon to give jackets a more nuanced texture.

Just as important has been American Eagle's willingness to invest. It has hired experienced design talent and financed trips to find fabrics and study architectural styles. "It's been a very big deal to have the support and funding," Mr. Martin said.

Having been through this process before, the designer said he was not surprised when Chairman Jay Schottenstein questioned how he could know that these clothes, great as they seemed, would do well with customers. No matter how much research is done, there's nothing like real world experience, said Mr. Martin, who will be studying the daily sales reports closely.

Over on the Osa side of the store, Ms. Martin, in a comfortable black blouse and pants, set her own standard for determining if women are cozying up to the brand's new sweat chinos ($78 to $98), nylon anoraks ($98) or the sheer merino raceback tanks ($48). For one thing, she'll watch to see if customers buy key items in multiple colors.

She'll also be paying attention in coming holiday weekends to see if women braving the crowds at the airport wear Martin + Osa clothes. Few places better combine the demands for looking respectable while being comfortable.

The store built for the new clothes also seeks to make its 25- to 40-year-old customers comfortable as they aspire to bigger lives.

Wood-walled dressing rooms offer room for strollers while the strategic use of mirrors and wall murals is meant to give the feel of trying on clothes in the great outdoors. In the Refresh zone near the dressing rooms, staff offers bottled water, apples and the use of two restrooms.

Stone walls throughout the store intersperse with warm wood beams shaped rather like a pergola, while lighting subtly shifts and ebbs to mimic the effect of clouds passing overhead.

The ribbon cutting did not signal a finished project. Staff continued to fuss with jeans on tables and clothing stands posed at the dramatic, if cryptic, store entrance. Store openings are scheduled for the next three weeks in malls from Texas to California -- no Pittsburgh-area stores are planned -- and the collection for fall 2007 is in the works.

Meanwhile, the very early reviews were starting to come in. "Is it a men's store?" asked a woman from a nearby mall kiosk as she stood puzzled across the hallway. The eye-catching opaque storefront confused her, she said.

Karen Taher, of Fairfax, Va., walked through the store in her jeans and pink flats to check things out. She pronounced the store beautiful and the quality of the clothes good although the prices seemed a bit high to her.

She didn't buy anything, adding that she would wait until she knows "what kind of brand it is."

The store sold a pair of shoes to a man who worked in retail and didn't want his name used. His impression was of a place that looked upscale outside but offered useful, everyday items within.

Vienna, Va., resident Maria Cocito described herself as a Bloomingdale's, Gap and Abercrombie shopper. She seemed almost startled that this store was created by American Eagle.

The company might not be happy to hear it reminded her of Ruehl, a line of stores being opened by Abercrombie, but she praised the layout and clothing. "Actually, I really like it," Ms. Cocito said, promising to return. Today, she said in words familiar to retailers everywhere, she was "just looking."


Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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