The Puget Sound area's ritziest shopping center opens this week at The Bravern in Bellevue amid warnings by economists that consumers might be too worried about the recession to splurge on a new leather jacket or pair of Jimmy Choos.

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The Puget Sound area’s ritziest shopping center opens this week at The Bravern in Bellevue amid warnings by economists that consumers might be too worried about the recession to splurge on a new leather jacket or pair of Jimmy Choos.

But those economists haven’t met Sammamish mom Amy Huish.

“I think it’s great we’re going to have all these new options,” Huish, 38, said. “I’m looking for a new fall coat and jacket — and boots. I love boots.”

Huish hosted a party for about 50 friends at her spacious home overlooking Beaver Lake last month to help Bravern developer Schnitzer West celebrate the upcoming opening of its 305,000-square-foot shopping center.

Clothier Tory Burch, which will open at The Bravern near the Northwest’s only Neiman Marcus store, provided the party’s DJ, as well as models to show off new fall looks.

It’s a much different environment from when Schnitzer broke ground three years ago, touting a strong economy and The Bravern’s proximity to wealthy Eastside neighborhoods.

The question now for Neiman Marcus and others at The Bravern is whether they can persuade shoppers to part with, say, $4,750 for a red cocktail dress or $3,975 for a Chanel purse, despite widespread layoffs and a finicky stock market.

Even people with solid jobs and lots of money probably feel less well-off after declines in their stock portfolios, said Theresa Williams, director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Williams doesn’t predict failure for The Bravern’s opening this Friday and Saturday — just smaller sales than would have been expected before the recession. “People are hungry to see something new and exciting. Whether that converts to actual purchasing, we’ll have to see,” she said. “No one is untouched.”

Besides Neiman Marcus and Tory Burch, The Bravern will have a large gym, day spa, several restaurants, including Wild Ginger and John Howie Steak, and more than a dozen shops. Among them: Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Brooks Brothers Country Club, Piazza Sempione, Anthropologie and Salvatore Ferragamo.

It’s part of a larger downtown Bellevue development where about 2,400 Microsoft workers take up two office towers totaling 755,000 square feet and a couple of nearly complete condo buildings reportedly have lined up buyers for a quarter of the 455 units.

The Bravern is the first major shopping center to debut locally since Westfield Southcenter and Northgate Mall completed expansions last year, said Charles Staadecker, a real-estate broker focused on the retail sector. Neiman’s 126,000-square-foot location at The Bravern is its 41st full-line clothing store and its only new one this year.

Two dozen of The Bravern’s 35 retail spaces are filled, and all but one will open this week, according to Schnitzer. French fashion house Hermès has set its opening for late October.

“I’d love to say we’ll be fully leased by fall 2010,” Schnitzer senior investment director Tom Woodworth said. “It really depends on how successful the opening is for retailers and how the rest of the economy recovers.”

Signing tenants was a feat

At a time when other developers have pulled plans for new retail projects, Seattle-based Schnitzer draws praise from tenants who note The Bravern is opening on schedule and with an upmarket roster as promised.

New York chef Terrance Brennan, who will open an Artisanal Brasserie and pizzeria at The Bravern, recalls that after the economy crashed last September, another developer with whom he was working on a new downtown Chicago restaurant quit, citing the credit crunch. “I was doing a restaurant in Las Vegas, and that got put on hold, too,” Brennan said.

Wayne Hussey, senior vice president of store development for Neiman Marcus, said he’s “extremely pleased” with The Bravern’s retail lineup. “To be able to sign that many leases under these difficult economic conditions was an admirable task,” Hussey said. “I think they’ll have no trouble leasing the remaining spaces.”

But Kemper Freeman, owner of Bellevue Square, a 1.3-million-square-foot mall downtown, said Schnitzer has “its work cut out for itself.”

Freeman put off plans for a Rodeo Drive-like collection of storefronts next to Macy’s after realizing “we were walking straight into a trap,” he said, meaning the recession.

“Thank God we were able to stop. Almost everywhere these projects could stop, they stopped, because developers did not want to open in this” economy, he said.

Three years ago, when Neiman Marcus agreed to take about 40 percent of The Bravern’s retail space, Woodworth figured he was well on his way to filling it up. Microsoft reinforced that notion in 2007 when it leased all the office space.

But after the economic free-fall last September, said Woodworth, “We revised our expectations from being 100 percent leased at opening to having a core tenancy” covering at least 80 percent of the shopping center. (Now 85 percent of its retail space is taken.)

Woodworth said one number in particular gives him satisfaction: Ten of The Bravern’s retail tenants have signed on this year. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another retail project in the U.S. that has signed 10 leases year-to-date,” he said.

The shopping center also boasts 13 tenants with their only Northwest locations at The Bravern, so it could be a regional draw.

Hussey said Neiman expects to attract shoppers from Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, based on what it knows about its regional following from Internet and catalog sales, as well as credit-card transactions in such locations as San Francisco, Chicago and Las Vegas.

Tenants say that regional pull could soften the blow of local layoffs and the possibility that The Bravern’s condo buildings won’t be full when they open next year.

A quarter of the 455 units are presold, according to Schnitzer. But presales these days aren’t as solid as they used to be.

Many presale buyers at other high-end condo projects in downtown Bellevue and downtown Seattle have backed out — sometimes walking away from substantial earnest-money deposits — or requested extensions because they couldn’t sell their existing homes or get financing or didn’t want to pay 2006 prices in 2009.

When a real-estate-industry group visited The Bravern this summer, Woodworth acknowledged the softer condo market with a joke: “If every one of you would buy one before you leave, that would really help us.”

Neiman “upbeat”

Burt Tansky, CEO of Neiman Marcus Group, took a similar tack with Wall Street analysts in June when he discussed the Dallas company’s disappointing financial results for the three months ending May 2. Tansky coaxed one analyst to check out “some new looks” in designer handbags.

“I think you’ll be pleased,” he told her. “You’ve got to start shopping, though, if you’re going to help us.”

Neiman Marcus reported a $3.1 million loss for the quarter after sales dropped 24 percent from a year ago to $810.1 million. Tansky described consumers as “very, very cautious,” saying they were reacquainting themselves with their closets and “doing some shopping there.”

Neiman’s 40th store, which opened a year ago in Topanga, Calif., has been “difficult, and obviously we’re not meeting our expectations,” Tansky said. “In terms of Bellevue, we have the same issue. We started planning this some two and a half years ago.”

Tansky, nevertheless, said he’s upbeat about its prospects. “There is a consumer there that has a real interest in fine merchandise.”

One hopeful sign: A recent runway show by Neiman Marcus and clothing designer Zac Posen on Capitol Hill in Seattle attracted a strong turnout.

“We ended up taking a nice amount of special orders on Zac Posen merchandise. We were frankly surprised by that,” said Karen Katz, president and CEO of Neiman Marcus Stores.

Huish, the Sammamish mom, said she thinks twice now about dropping hundreds of dollars on something new to wear, even though she and her husband, Scott — an owner of numerous developments, including Family Fun Center in Tukwila — have remained financially stable through the recession.

“It just doesn’t feel like you need as much as you used to,” she said.

“But it’ll be really nice to have The Bravern in my backyard,” she added. “I love options.”

Amy Martinez:

Seattle Times business reporter Eric Pryne and staff researcher Gene Balk contributed

to this story.