High End Haven : One on One with MATTHEW WHITMAN LAZENBY

 “All of our existing tenants are looking for more space and all the tenants that we have been speaking with over the years are clamoring for an entrance into the market.”

This isn’t your ordinary shopping destination. Bal Harbour Shops have undoubtedly become an institution in American retail venues. As the highest grossing mall per square foot in the United States, the luxury shopping locale houses some of the world’s most established high-end fashion and jewelry outposts.

It’s of little surprise that Bal Harbour Shops has garnered the attention of discerning consumers worldwide, since it houses outposts for nearly every eponymous, established fashion and jewelry houses and multi-label retailers carrying luxury goods.Equally posh dining options complete the location as a one-stop-shop for Miami’s elite.

What started as a dream continues to develop at a breakneck pace, growing in size and scope with each passing year. And it’s a family affair. Owner and developer of Bal Harbour Shops Stanley Whitman is joined by his son Randall Whitman, the managing partner, and the next generation of leadership, his grandson Matthew Whitman Lazenby, the operating partner.

And this generation is hard at work. Since he joined the business, Lazenby has worked alongside Bal Harbour residents to establish new ground rules that will work for all involved. At the onset, the retail location housed top name European fashion brands in what was their first foray outside of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Today, some of the shop’s tenants still find it to be next best thing to Manhattan, making Bal Harbour Shops a retail destination not only for Miami locals, but for globetrotting travelers looking for the very best in luxury offerings.

Since its establishment in 1965, the mall has steadily progressed despite erratic economic times. Blueprints for expansion reveal 100,000 square feet of new stores over two levels, a premium ticket luxury theatre, a 500-seat social venue and a 90,000 square foot specialty department store – possibly a Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman or Bloomingdales spinoff. Lazenby also confirmed that shoppers can anticipate the imminent unveiling of five additional retail shops – Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Panerai, Breguet and La Perla.

“In order for us to remain not just competitive, but the dominant force in luxury retail, it is important for us to evolve and grow with the market and with the realities of luxury retail,” Lazenby said. “It’s not about evolving the project into something that is inconsistent with the current feel and nature of the center, it’s about improvement.”

What was once the site of World War II army barracks in Miami’s suburb of Bal Harbour has since become the site of a trendsetting retail destination. While indoor, air-conditioned malls were in vogue, Whitman envisioned an open air mall where guests could revel in luxury retail while soaking up the Miami sun. The trailblazer continued to tread his offbeat path with the addition of an upper floor in 1983 instead of sticking to the traditional parameters of horizontal developments.

Rather than merely creating a structure that housed retailers, Whitman created a destination. He complemented the mall’s location near the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay by incorporating flora and koi ponds into the design, making the venue seem more like a serene garden than a shopping center. Although decried by many, Whitman also decided to charge for parking and prohibited the use of illuminated signs on storefronts.

Needless to say, his instincts were dead on. Spurred on by the presence of Bal Harbour Shops’ prominent anchor stores, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, clientele surged. It seems this family business has come a long way from its initial 30 stores. The directory now features nearly 105 fashion powerhouses like Hermès, Audemars Piguet, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Kiton, Custo Barcelona, Fendi, Oscar de la Renta and Tiffany & Co., and restaurants such as Carpaccio, Makoto and La Goulue.

“Neiman Marcus was a tennis court and Saks was a gas station so a lot has obviously changed since then,” Lazenby said. And it keeps changing. After a lull between 2007 and 2009, sales skyrocketed in 2010, grossing higher than ever before.

“We were hoping for 2010 just to sort of start moving in the right direction again from 2009, but we shot way past that, such that it was our best year ever,” he said. “So far in 2011, we are up about 25 percent versus our best year so really, it is record breaking.”

Lazenby is also excited about the prospect of fulfilling his grandfather’s dream by creating more space in the shopping center and finally making a dent in the current tenant waiting list.

“The demand for space, including the upper level, outweighed the supply so this has been a dream that has been 50 years in the making,” he said.

Lazenby is referring to the previous negative association for retailers on the upper level, an association that is now long gone. Hard hitters like Gucci, Tiffany & Co. and Jimmy Choo now sit on the second floor and their numbers are through the roof.

The current expansion could not have come at a better time.

“All of our existing tenants are looking for more space and all the tenants that we have been speaking with over the years are clamoring for an entrance into the market,” Lazenby said.

Prior to finalizing the structure’s annexes, which would entail the relocation of a church and Bal Harbour’s Village Hall to other nearby locations, Lazenby has been busy discussing the development plans with Bal Harbour’s mayor and city council and informing the public.

But Bal Harbour’s success hinges on getting the right brands.

“It’s never just about who is going to ring in the high sales,” Lazenby said. “Obviously we want our stores to be successful and by and large they all are, but the mix and feel of the center and the community that is created by the tenants is very important to us.”

This attention to detail continues to pays off; and Bal Harbour is consistently the choice among retail connoisseurs across the globe.