With a flagship store, a retailer or manufacturer makes an ultimate statement about the qualities driving its business. Here's how four companies have defined themselves through flagship store designs.

Benetton has owned the historic 10-story Scribner building on 5th Avenue in New York City since 1988. A few years ago, the company decided to open a U.S. flagship store on the first floor, to complement its corporate offices located on the top three floors.

The decision led to a $4 million restoration of the landmark building, handled by The Phillips Janson Group, New York. Dennis Janson, the design principal in charge of the project, undertook a painstaking research effort to re-create the original 1913 design.

At the grand opening in October 1996, Benetton unveiled a building with a stunning metal grid and glass store front rising two stories above the street. Inside, two mezzanine levels and a 30-foot vaulted ceiling frame the 13,000 sq. ft. retail floor. Two spiral staircases flank the front of the space, and a grand staircase in the back rises up to a spectacular glass floor landing beneath a skylight.

The merchandising reflects Benetton's U.S. strategy. "In Europe, Benetton caters to families," says Carlo Tunioli, director of Benetton's North American operations. "But our U.S. market is totally different. Our focus here is women's products, although we also show children's wear, men's wear and accessories."

The Benetton flagship displays the company's other lines, too: tennis equipment, ski-wear and eyewear, giving customers a full look at its complete lines of merchandise.

Here Benetton has taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to a manufacturer's flagship: It showcases a complete line of products and sets an image that customerswill carry to merchandise sold by other retailers.

Without a doubt, a flagship will showcase merchandise and convey image, but there are other reasons to raise a flagship.

Bloomingdale's created its newest flagship to introduce its name, image and four new stores to the new and, at least for Bloomies, foreign market of California.

The four-store debut in California in November 1996 introduced a dramatic new look for the ever-dramatic retailer. The flagship of the effort, the 200,000 sq. ft., four-floor Bloomingdale's at Century City mall culminates a long search for a new national Bloomies prototype. Gone is the old, theatrical design with its blacks and silvers and dramatic lighting flourishes.

"The new Century City store offers a clean, white, brightly lighted environment that focuses on the merchandise," says Ramsey Weatherford, design director for Dallas-based Robert Young Associates, which handled the project.

The contemporary store front features translucent glass panels with brushed nickel trim. Inside, the light levels are up by 50 percent over previous Bloomies locations. The merchandise displays feature loft-like designs done in simple whitewashed oaks and plain maples. The flooring is an agglomerate with a very fine texture that takes on a matte appearance and offers pink highlight stripes.

With its new flagship, Bloomies has replaced its hip 1980s image with cool 1990s flair.

Lacoste expects its new flagship will do more than update its image. The goal here is to reinvigorate a brand that has sagged in recent years. To that end, the manufacturer recently unveiled a flagship on Madison Avenue in New York City.

The new flagship represents an ambitious re-entry into the U.S. market. Clad in French limestone, canopied in steel mesh and capped with a signature crocodile, the exterior look of the store is high tech, yet warm and inviting. Inside, honey-toned woods mix with brushed steel, rich green carpeting and white walls.

Forbes Shea, with offices in Freeport, Maine, Minneapolis and New York, handled the flagship design and construction management. Principal Bart Forbes directed the design work. "We renovated five floors of the building," Forbes says. "The retail boutique is on the first floor. The upper floors house offices and a design studio."

The merchandise includes the brand's original pique knit shirts, available in 40 colors. The rest of the Lacoste collection is here, too: sportswear for golf and tennis, leisurewear, active wear, and accessories for men, women and children.

Some retail chains can support more than a single definitive flagship image.

Indeed, the 147-store Harris Teeter chain of supermarkets views the flagship concept quite differently than many retailers. The chain has many flagships and opens a new one at a prime location each time it enters a new market.

In June 1996, the company opened a new flagship in Princess Anne, Va. At 66,670 sq. ft., it is one of the largest stores Harris Teeter has ever built.

Little & Associates Architects of Charlotte, N.C., designed the store, creating a market hall concept reminiscent of a rural farmer's market with gabled style roofs.

The exterior walls are done in split-faced block with an alternate striping pattern. The gable canopy and upper fascia are standing seam panels with a galvanized metal finishing designed to contrast with the rest of the exterior.

Inside, Little and Associates drew out the rural farm theme with special propping to call out the departments, which are further identified by different metal, fabric and wood finishes. A series of silos, for instance, line the walls of the dairy department.

Throughout the store, the flooring is done in colored concrete and ceramic tile. Colorful signage hung from the tall, open ceiling adds contemporary interest to the departments.

In the end -- whether a flagship stands as a chain's single definitive statement, as a manufacturer's showcase or as one among many flagships -- these stores are the jewels in the companies' crown. They are the ultimate expression of quality, and the clearest possible rendering of what a business wants to mean to its customers. Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Shopping Center World magazine.

The Players Benetton 5th Avenue, New York City Architect: The Phillips Janson Group (New York) Design Consultant: Rivera Design Engineer: Robert Derector Associates General Contractor: Americon Construction Inc. Lighting: Joseph DiBernardo, Hillman DiBernardo Metalwork: Edelman Metalworks Merchandising Consultant: Axo Design Studio

Bloomingdale's Century City Mall, Los Angeles Architects: Kohn Peterson Fox (Sherman Oaks, Calif.), Associated Architects & Planners (Sherman Oaks, Calif.) Designer: Robert Young Associates (Dallas) Store Planner: Robert Young Associates Fixture Manufacturers: Amertec Granada Inc. (Miami), T.J. Hale (Menomonee Falls, Wisc.), Hughes & Co. (Denver), Modern Woodcraft Inc. (Farmington, Conn.), Builders Furniture Ltd. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), Carlson Store Fixtures (Eagan, Minn.), Otema Store Fixtures (Markham, Ontario, Canada), MET Merchandising Concepts (Chicago), Standard Cabinet Co. (Los Angeles)

Lacoste Madison Avenue, New York City Design/Construction: Forbes Shea (Freeport, Minn.) General Contractor: Price Woods Inc. (Mesa, Ariz.) Store front/Glass: Coordinated Metals Inc. (Carlstadt, N.J.) Awning: Hudson Awning & Sign Co. (Bayonne, N.J.) Stone: Liberty Marble (New York) Lighting: Modular International (Pittsburgh) Specialty Lighting: New Metal Crafts (Chicago) Fixtures: Maine Wood and Design (Cape Neddick, Maine), La Chemis Lacoste (Paris) Custom Door Hardware: Forms and Surfaces Carpet: Stanton Mills, Carter International Carpets, Bloomsburg Carpet Mills Signs and Banners: Kaltech Signs (New York) Millwork: Maine Wood and Design Skylights: Kern/Rockenfield Inc. (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Harris Teeter Princess Anne, Va. Design: Little & Associates Architects (Charlotte, N.C.)