With close to 70 stores under its fashionable belt, the in-house design team at Kenneth Cole Productions has raised its signature urban chic to the level of high art. But its Kenneth Cole New York store in the landmark Rockefeller Center building has a unique twist: the look of a downtown loft in midtown Manhattan.

“We tried really hard to bring a downtown aesthetic, a vibrant, urban, New York feeling, to midtown retail,” says Christine Russo, vice president of store design and development for Kenneth Cole Productions (KCP). “We also wanted to set the Kenneth Cole brand apart from our Rockefeller Center neighbors,” which include Banana Republic and J. Crew, among others.

Russo describes the design of the 17,500-sq.-ft. store as “pure and slightly edgy.” It is more constructivist than minimalist in that it doesn't try to hide the means of construction, but often integrates it in the form of raw materials and exposed bolts and rivets. “The juxtaposition of raw materials such as concrete, glass and oxidized steel, executed in a very clean way, is what gives this store its energy,” Russo explains.

The space covers two levels, with men's apparel on the ground floor and the new line of Kenneth Cole New York women's apparel, accessories and jewelry on the larger second floor. The salon-like women's shoe department includes comfortable seating and huge windows overlooking the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. The second-floor café affords views of Fifth Avenue and 49th Street below.

A dramatic bluestone staircase with blackened-steel railings connects the two levels. KCP made the cutout for the stairwell as large as possible so shoppers could catch glimpses of the upper floor and be drawn toward it. To emphasize the verticality of the space and help connect the two levels visually, two 27-ft. scrims made of strands of silk and polyester flank the stairwell from the second-floor ceiling to the ground floor. These dramatic “curtains” shimmer with light directed from ceiling-mounted fixtures and serve as projection screens for Kenneth Cole fashion videos.

“We tried really hard to bring a downtown aesthetic, a vibrant, urban, New York feeling, to midtown retail,” says Christine Russon, vice president of store design and development for Kenneth Cole Productions.”

The scrims were the brainchild of Ilan Waisbrod, principal of Studio Gaia, a New York design practice known for its contemporary restaurants. KCP was well into space planning and design for the store when it asked Waisbrod to collaborate on the space, his first retail venture. “We wanted to partner up with someone familiar with New York City and New York design. When we met Ilan, we knew he would bring a fresh approach to our look,” says Russo. “The wonderful contrast between raw, natural materials and clean, streamlined detailing are what he brought to the table, and we responded to that.”

Waisbrod and the KCP team carefully edited the store's colors and materials palette so the merchandise would take center stage. Walnut-stained, rift-cut oak is used for upstairs flooring, display cases, cashwraps and shelving, while blackened steel with exposed bolts is employed in railings, hardware, T-stands and other fixtures. Glass is another staple of the palette, and walls are painted white and mushroom.

KCP was guided through the design and construction process by architect-of-record The Phillips Group, a New York firm with extensive flagship retail experience, including many projects at the Rockefeller Center. The building's historical status meant KCP could make few changes to the exterior, and the interior construction was challenged by a 3-ft. drop in elevation on the first floor from the front entrance to the rear, says Stephen Segure, The Phillips Group's project manager for the store. Working with locally based construction manager Lehr Construction, the architects devised a built-up floor system to level it.

Other challenges included installing a new elevator and the huge stairwell without disturbing other tenants. Lower-than-ideal ceiling heights were also an issue, especially since the second-floor space had previously been used as office space, adds Segure. “We ended up raising the ground floor ceiling to 11 feet, 6 inches, which added a lot to the space.”

Opened in November 2000, the Rockefeller Center store is going strong, with sales on target with KCP's projections. KCP will open 10 new stores this year, including a 7,200-sq.-ft. store at San Diego's Valley Fair Mall (opened in March 2001), and the new Kenneth Cole Reaction store in New York on 57th Street and Lexington Avenue (opening this fall).

While Russo feels her team has a successful formula for its store designs, she says there's always room for refinement. “It's an evolutionary process,” she says. “We're going to keep moving forward and tweaking as we go.”

Contact: The Phillips Group, New York, 212.912.3280; Studio Gaia, New York, 212.691.7766.

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based writer.