UNIVERSITY PARK -- For the well-heeled who wouldn't blink twice at $1,000 Gucci shoes and $3,500 men's blazers, the new Saks Fifth Avenue has something for every socialite.
The Mall at University Town Center Saks marks the first full-line opening for the New York City company in nine years and features exclusives most Saks in the country don't have. Saks left Southgate Mall in Westfield after 18 years to upgrade its regional presence.
The store opens Thursday with a 9 a.m. ribbon cutting at the Mall at UTC and will have performances by Los Angeles-based String Theory, which has performed at the Emmy Awards and the Grammys.
"The community support we had has been just outstanding," Saks Sarasota General Manager Joel
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Ellzey said. "That's the reason why we're standing here today because we chose Sarasota to open our first store in many, many years."
The Mall at UTC Saks will bring its shoppers from Sarasota. It will also draw Tampa Bay area shoppers since the Tampa Saks closed in May 2013.
"At the other location we said we were really a store of the keys -- Casey, Siesta, Lido, Longboat," Saks Sarasota marketing director Sally Schule said. "Here, we're saying we're really becoming regional because we'll pull from at least south of the bridge in Tampa down towards our Fort Myers store. We call ourselves the new star on the Suncoast."
Saks steps up
The 80,000-square-foot, two-level Saks features new experiences, dining and expanded selections of customer favorites.
And if you're too tired to shop, Saks has space for pampering.
Near the cosmetics department, Saks offers spa treatments and complimentary makeovers and facials.
"That's complimentary, it's a service that we provide and more people need to take advantage of," Schule said. "That's kind of a well-kept secret that we offer that service."
Upstairs, a contemporary department adds five new brands with on-trend designers featured on rolling racks. Once a trend fades, the racks will roll along to keep up with the growing teen population in East Manatee and University Park.
"We really feel being in this location, this is all going to grow rapidly," Schule said. "There's a younger base out here. We'll attract more of the high school shoppers, I think, than we did in Sarasota."
Staying on the second level, the exclusive Fifth Avenue Club has four consultation rooms instead of the three at Southgate, its own entrance to the outdoor terrace bar area at Sophie's and its own kitchen and ladies room and is free to join.
"It's simply that kind of service for somebody that wants to be more exclusive and want people to research things for them throughout the entire company," Schule said. "The consultants that work in this area, they really shop the entire store for the client."
From consultants to doormen, Saks employs 163 people and hired 68 new employees. New hires included some style experts on St. Armands or culinary kings of the area like assistant general manager Mark Resnick, who was the general manager of Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch. Some of the transfers came from as far as Atlanta, Boston and Texas.
"What we really look for is a person who has fashion knowledge and sense, loves people, develops relationships with people," Schule said.
For those who want to bypass the exclusive experience, Saks also has lounges for men and women where they can invite friends into an area for drinks. It also offers seating outside a bank of fitting rooms.
The men's lounge is new to the Sarasota market as is the men's store on the first floor. The men's store features brands ranging from Armani to Zegna, many with bright colors and patterns for a Florida feel. The men's department layout is a new concept the company launched in Chicago, inspired by the Library of Congress and a modern haberdashery. This is only the second Saks in the company to have the layout, Schule said.
In the handbag, jewelry and women's designer departments, Saks has 20 so-called "hard shops" where each brand has its own little living room to showcase merchandise. In the designer department, you'll see some overlap from the lower-level offerings in handbags, plus Dolce & Gabana and Donna Karan New York. Saks likes to have the "world of designers" to feature in each department, Schule said.
The retailer believes more designers will find their way here to put their lines in the store and offer personal appearances.
"When the word gets out and the other designers see the store, more and more will want to come to Sarasota," Schule said. "Usually, they think, 'Sarasota, what's that? Where is that? It's not a big deal.' I think we're really going to be put on the map."
Saks' "world of designers" even includes its own ZIP code -- 10022-SHOE -- the women's shoe department with everything from Stuart Weitzman to Gucci, fetching hundreds of dollars, reaching beyond a grand.
Sophie's, a new upscale dining restaurant and lounge, will make its East Coast debut after it first opened at the Saks Chicago. A third will open in March in The Mall at San Juan, which is another property managed by Taubman Centers, the developer of the Mall at UTC.
The 93-seat restaurant includes 59 indoors seats and 34 outside, 14 at the bar and 18 in a private dining room.
"We think of it as an upscale fine dining restaurant, but casually luxurious," said Michael Kaufman, president of Fifth Dining, a dining partner that operates for Saks nationwide. "That it's a place where you'll get chef-driven food and chef-driven drink, but not in a place where you would feel uncomfortable."
Whether it's a cocktail at the outdoor bar overlooking the west parking lot or a semi-dining experience, the restaurant aims to match the touch of class for its namesake, designer Sophie Gimbel. Gimbel was known for her elegant dresses and designed Lady Bird Johnson's inauguration dress. The sleek white and black restaurant décor also features some of Gimbel's dresses in the artwork.
"Our goal in creating this restaurant was not to create a museum that's a tribute to Sophie Gimbel," Kaufman said.
Some of the menu offerings include Garganelli pasta with short rib ragout, Amish chicken paillard and grilled cobia as well as sandwiches, breakfast items and custom cocktails.
The restaurant will be open 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.