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Guess trying to recapture its past glory with Paris Hilton

With plans to open two new specialty stores worldwide, Guess is seeking to redefine itself in a fickle designer fashion market

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Paris Hilton appears in a brochure for Guess by Marciano in this undated photograph.

PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

When Paul Marci`no, the creative director of Guess, decided he wanted Paris Hilton to be the Guess model -- the one featured in all the coming advertisements -- he called her agent, who quoted what Marciano called "an astronomical fee."

That did not go over well.

Speaking with a trace of his French origins, Marciano said he told the agent, somewhat tartly: "That is not the way we work with our models." Finis.

When his office phone rang two weeks later, Marciano was not surprised. "Paris Hilton wanted to be the Guess girl," he said. "I told her I didn't want to meet business managers, lawyers; it would be just the two of us, no contract. We pay her, yes, way less, but think of the exposure for her -- worldwide!"

They each got their way -- the amount actually paid is a secret -- and now Hilton, photographed in semi-pornographic poses wearing silky pink cocktail dresses and much less, is the face (and body) of Guess, which, as a company, is getting its own makeover.

Last week, Guess introduced two new store concepts: the Marciano chain for a slightly older consumer, grown-up men and women eager for sophisticated tops, fancy jeans and, yes, even glittering evening dresses and fur capelets; and Accessories, mall-based boutiques with only handbags, hats, small leather goods, but no clothes.

The Marciano store openings -- one in a Los Angeles mall a week ago; one on Wednesday in McAllen, Texas; and one in Toronto on Friday -- were just the first. The company will open nine more Marcianos in this country in the next 12 months, and 27 more Accessories stores, here and around the world. And it is still opening Guess stores; altogether, 100 store openings are planned in the next 12 months.

Guess is climbing out of the depressed state into which it fell around the turn of this century, when it lost a significant chunk of its business to "streetwear," the brands put out by Sean John, Russell Simmons, and other rap stars and impresarios. Urban youth considered these brands more authentic than brands like Guess and Tommy Hilfiger.

"We were not going to change, or start running after the customer," said Marciano, who founded the company 22 years ago with his three brothers and, besides being the creative director is also a co-chief executive. "Not the streetwear customer, not the beach wear customer that Quicksilver and PacSun got; we still identify with the sexy young customer."

So there will be no change in image -- Hilton's ads prove that. Instead, Guess has chosen to reinvigorate its roots, trying to recapture the Guess customer of old, club-hopping 18 to 22-year-old men and women, as well as the fashionable crowd who wore Guess a decade (or two decades) ago, and now may feel left out of the scene.

The time is ripe, the owners say.

"The whole business has come our way," said Maurice Marciano, the other co-chairman and co-chief executive, who trumpeted the emergence of the premium denim market, with jeans that regularly sell for more than US$100. At the same time, Guess has upgraded the quality of the denim it uses, and lowered the waistlines. "The highest now comes only to the hip," he said. "More sexy, more cool, younger."

With better management and announcements of the new chain concepts, Guess' stock price has risen more than fivefold, to US$17.67 on Friday, from its low of US$3.32 on March 10 last year and is up nearly 50 percent this year.

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