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America's Coolest Stores

America’s Coolest Stores 2012: Big Cool 4 Versani

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Jewelry stores can be intimidating. From strict security to perfectly merchandised cases, retailers often institute a confusing velvet rope policy that sends inexperienced customers back out the door before they’ve even had a chance to browse. Not so at Versani, a subterranean space that beckons passersby with upbeat World music and bold contemporary jewelry for men and women. Owner and designer Ara Mansour calls his brand “a lifestyle, an experience, a philosophy” — and has created a space for his loyal clientele to dream, shop, and yes — even dance.

“Ara started making jewelry for himself because he couldn’t find what he was looking for,” explains Yaf Boye-Flaegel, general manager of Versani’s retail division. “His vision was to design for that cool, strong, urban customer who wanted jewelry that could go to work or be worn on the weekend.” The brand’s first location opened in Manhattan in 1992 and featured small gifts and housewares in addition to jewelry, and relocated to the current SoHo storefront in 1998.

Although the store has a footprint of 4,000 square feet, handmade touches throughout the space make the shopping experience intimate and unique. “Ara completely transformed the space,” says Boye-Flaegel, noting that he built everything by hand, including the wood showcases and architectural details. “He loves working with wood — we all joke that he should moonlight as an interior designer.” This completely one-of-a-kind interior is a reflection of the creative spirit of the brand, echoed in Versani’s signature silver and wood collection made from Central American Bocote.

With natural light only coming in through the narrow street-level entryway, the store is able to create an entirely separate world just beneath one of New York City’s premiere shopping districts. The newest and most requested collections sit up front, including the staple “Simply Silver” that features heavy, masculine designs like ID bracelets and chain links. Other standouts include private label watches with black diamonds and sterling silver bracelets; tension-set gemstone chains in blue topaz, garnet or peridot; and the Key Design line that references a keepsake from Mansour’s childhood.

Just out of sight lies the company’s on-site workshop, allowing for custom design to play a major role in Versani’s business. Engagement rings and wedding bands, infused with an expected dose of edginess, are big sellers, as are one-off “Cinderella Rings” made from 18K gold and diamonds. Not made to be sized, these unique pieces have to find their perfect match organically.

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Toward the back of the store, Ara is able to give some space to works in progress such as a leather handbag line that debuted last year. Discontinued styles, including jewelry and accessories like lighter cases, belt buckles and money clips, are put on sale here to encourage an impulse purchase. “We really think that having people wear and enjoy our pieces is better than melting them down,” Boye-Flaegel explains. If it sounds like there’s a lot on display at Versani, that’s because there is. “There are easily 2,000 pieces on display at one time,” she says, “but we try to make the flow of the store natural and easy to navigate.”

Although Versani enjoys a loyal clientele and a distinct point of view, Mansour isn’t content to sit back in his store and relax. The brand decided to exhibit at Baselworld last year, even though the economy was still in the midst of major turmoil. “Very few independent retailers would take that step,” he says. “But you have to take risks to continue growing.”

TRY THIS

Extra Points for Personalization UAlthough Versani offers branded boxes with purchase, they also stock a selection of handcrafted presentation cases made in Poland. Placed right by the register, these special add-ons give the customer another way to customize a gift for a loved one.

SHOP TALK

“There’s a certain type of customer that we call the ‘President Bush.’ The nickname started during George W’s tenure, and it refers to clients that are often architects or engineers who purchase custom pieces. We wanted a way to tell our production team that every detail needs to be precise, so it’s code for absolute perfection!” — Boye-Flaegel


QUICK FACTS
 

Location: New York, NY
URL: versani.com
Owner and designer: Ara Mansour
Founded: 1998
Opened Featured Location: February 2012
Year Last Renovated: 2005
Area: 4,000 square feet
Employees: 10 full-time, 2 part-time
Tagline: Stay Cool Be Strong
ONLINE PRESENCE
Alexa Traffic Rank: 2,748,932
Facebook Likes: 316
Yahoo Rating: 4 Stars

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“I noticed that with a good 70 percent of the merchandise being large, masculine and solidly bold, Versani seems to cater mainly toward handcrafted men’s jewelry — which is a rarity. And I loved it.” — Lady O, New York, NY

 
     
   
 

“We’re usually playing a mix of World Music from DJ collections or club mixes, which helps people relax and have fun. It also relates back to Ara’s different cultural backgrounds as his parents are from Lebanon and he was born and raised in Liberia. Plus, it reflects the mix of ethnicities right here in Manhattan.” — Boye-Flaegel

 
     
   
   
 

MANSOUR opened his first location as an outlet for his design company of the same name. Has marketing emphasizes the experience of his brand and store.

 
     

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FIVE COOL THINGS

1. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION Situated in the heart of SoHo, a world-renowned shopping destination, doesn’t hurt Versani’s foot traffic. But it’s the proximity to the Mercer Hotel — a fashion destination and celebrity hangout — that has brought in the star power. “People like Russell Crowe and Robin Williams shop with us, and we make sure to treat them like a part of the family, just as we would with any customer,” Boye-Flaegel says.

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2. WORK/SHOP Versani’s full-time, on-site production team allows for plenty of custom orders as well as quick repairs. The workshop keeps the creative juices flowing and gives the brand a made-in-America edge.

3. LET’S DANCE Upbeat music keeps the party atmosphere going strong all day long. “People come into our store just to dance,” Boye-Flaegel says. “The experience is meant to be fun and relaxing. I always tell people: Come in when you want to play dress up!” Favorite CDs are for sale at the register for customers who want to bring the mood home.

4. GETTING TOUCHY-FEELY Instead of the traditional setup that places sales associates behind the counter, all of Versani’s displays open to the customer. “We want people to look and browse,” Boye-Flaegel explains. “It makes the experience so much more interactive and less intimidating.”

5. USING NATURE TO NURTURE Forget costly custom-designed displays — Mansour prefers found items from the great outdoors. Rings rest on river rocks, dangle from branches and sit alongside cacti. In fact, most of the store’s interior was made with reclaimed wood from Hudson, NY.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Harry Friedman: Current drama with enough charm and fun to make you want to be young enough to wear the jewelry. Even if you’re not, you want to wear it anyway. What a store. Exciting and cutting edge. Wow!

Andy Malis: Here’s a store that not only has a distinctive, rustic look but creates unique pieces that can be found nowhere else. The coolest thing about Versani is its appeal to men. Manly men. They will be comfortable shopping here.

Jim Rosenheim:They have a very strong point of view as to the style of their jewelry, and I think it carries forth with the design of the store. The rough-hewn aspect of the cases and framing of the decor is a good complement to the strong design elements of their jewelry. Their marketing surely mirrors both their product and their establishment. I love the clarity of their visual and media message.

Pam Levine:There are some good ideas that other stores can learn from this retailer. Versani seems to understand how to ignite the senses and entertain shoppers. Music, dramatic lighting and a unique environment offer young customers a non-traditional jewelry experience. Some concerns: Window and interior merchandise presentations appear over-propped and overcrowded and haphazard, which can be overwhelming.

Jim Rosenheim: The interior use of color and natural materials is very appealing. The diamond wall is a very creative concept for giving clients the ability to shop and compare shapes and appearances of diamonds of various qualities

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