Candy-Colored Dreams



ON a recent Wednesday afternoon, Dylan Lauren, 30, the proprietress of Dylan's Candy Bar, sat with her creative director, Randy Buck, in their East 62nd Street offices, pondering a flip-flop.

  The shoe, ringed with the lush colors of the company logo, is the first clue that Dylan's Candy Bar is not just about candy anymore. Ms. Lauren has set her sights beyond low-margin bulk candy sales to an array of candy-inspired goods and services.

All around Ms. Lauren and Mr. Buck were designs in development: plates, umbrellas, bags. These, along with the rainbows of M&M's, gummy bears and jawbreakers -- plus the chocolate bubble bath, Swarovski crystal Pez dispensers, striped scarves, candy panties and ''I3/5sheart 4/5 Goobers'' T-shirts already for sale -- are the signs of what Ms. Lauren hopes will grow into a diversified candyland in which candy girls, and perhaps a few candy boys, will turn to Dylan's not just for sweets but also for candy-theme housewares, apparel, spa products and parties. 

  In this aim she is not unlike her father, the fashion-to-lifestyle crossover king Ralph Lauren, whose empire is now valued at more than $5.5 billion. But Dylan's, which opened in 2001, is not yet profitable. Whether Ms. Lauren's business will do for candy couture what her father has done for cashmere, or become a costly, somewhat girlish art project, remains to be seen.

  In the meantime Ms. Lauren is focused on fun.

  ''We like to have fun, right?'' she said, smiling at Mr. Buck. In her world, fun -- the kind found on waterslides and at amusement parks, a pink bubble gum kind of fun -- is a gift worth giving.

  ''We do,'' Mr. Buck said.

  ''It's about the humor,'' Ms. Lauren said.

  Yuk, yuk, went Mr. Buck. ''Edgy humor,'' he said. ''Adult.''

  ''Right,'' Ms. Lauren said. ''Adult spins on candy.'' Fun is a cherished principle at Dylan's Candy Bar, for its colors, packaging and people may be just the things that will make middling chocolate and gumballs worth real money.

  Dylan's Candy Bar flagship store -- 10,000 square feet of Willy Wonkaesque splendor on Third Avenue and 60th Street -- has become a destination for A-list moms and their children. The appeal has extended to tweens and girls about town in need of a little something sweet. Paris Hilton was spotted at the new Dylan's boutique at Henri Bendel's; Anna Wintour stopped by to check out a display of candy dresses. (She left a note: ''Fabulous! See you soon.'')

  Apparently Ms. Lauren understood something her father -- who says he does not like candy -- did not: ''Dylan knew that girls go and love candies,'' Mr. Lauren said.

  Not just any girls. Girls like her: trim, cool girls with good skin, perfect teeth and stunning clothes. ''These Park Avenue sophisticates,'' Ms. Lauren said, ''who go to the Polo store and spend trillions of dollars on cashmere sweaters are going to buy gummy bears in my store. Just because they buy certain clothes and wear mink coats and whatever, they still have an inner child. They will buy lollipops.''

  Ms. Lauren considers herself the model for the sparkling creature around which her business is coalescing: the Candy Girl, who appears every now and again in conversation. As in: ''The Candy Girl can be sexy and young and thin. Candy's not about fat people.''

  And she is betting that one day Candy Girls -- not just in New York but across the nation -- will buy things like lollipop plates and have lollipop bachelorette parties too. As Ms. Lauren expands her product lines, she is also building a distribution network. In 2003 she added four locations nationwide, and in November she opened a seasonal boutique in Bendel's. She plans to open a store in Los Angeles next year and is scouting sites in London, Tokyo, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Aspen, the Hamptons and Palm Beach.

  It's because of this growth, she says, that her company as a whole is not yet profitable. She says that she pumps all the proceeds, including her own salary, back into the business. Still, given the strength of her family support, Ms. Lauren has what may be the greatest luxury of all: she can build her brand exactly as she pleases, without really having to worry about quarterly profits.

  She says she has turned down rich business deals from, for example, Target, that other company owners would probably kill for. ''It's not about the money to me,'' she said. ''I believe I'm here to do something, to create something that makes people happy and expresses myself.''

  Aside from fancy hot chocolates and banana splits, nothing is actually made at Dylan's Candy Bar. The candy and the flip-flops many be prettily dressed, but they are fairly standard issue. Her business is not about production; it's about packaging.

  And it is when talking about packaging -- rock candy that looks like diamonds, Harry Potter exclusives, private-label candy canes -- that Ms. Lauren is most animated. She likes stuff, not fine stuff, but stuff that is fun, and the evidence is scattered across the shelves of her office: candies from Japan, thrift store polka dots, the Nesquik Bunny, a Safari cologne box. ''This is just gorgeous to me,'' she said, holding an American Spirit cigarette package. (She doesn't smoke.)

  Andrew Lauren, one of her two older brothers, sat musing on his sister's fascination with wrappers one recent afternoon in the 23rd Street offices of his film production company. ''Isn't that sort of what my dad does?'' he said. ''It's about presentation. The family is about aesthetics. Is it pleasing to the eye, and does it move you?''

  The pleasures of the eye are of intense interest to Ms. Lauren, not only in assembling her store, but also in assembling herself. She typically runs about seven miles a day; she also loves biking, basketball, volleyball and tennis. ''I know what I'm eating, and I'm cautious,'' she said. ''I feel like I have to portray an image for my company.'' She says that her daily spiced chai latte, from the cafe at Dylan's, has helped stop her from picking at candy all the time.

  The phrases ''boot camp'' and ''suicide ride'' come up when her friends talk about mornings at the Lauren family home in Montauk at the tip of Long Island. ''Dylan says everyone's going for a morning bike ride: Go, go, go, go, go, go!'' said her friend Michael Dweck, a photographer who often spends summers with her at Montauk. ''She'll keep up with you for a mile and a half, and then all of a sudden she's gone.''

  ''When you spend time with Dylan, you're young,'' he added. ''You don't get that from many people in your life.''

  By many accounts Ms. Lauren is a lot like her father, so much so that she is building Dylan's not in his image, but in her own. The candy bar's Pop Art suckers and preschool colors may well be the antithesis of the august mahogany of the Polo mansion on Madison Avenue.

  ''I think there's always an issue with fathers and daughters and fathers and sons,'' Andrew said. ''Maybe psychologically Dylan wanted to rebel and say, 'I'll do this,' to say: 'Dad, Mom, let me show you my vision. Hear me.' ''

  Ralph Lauren suggested polka dots for his daughter's logo; she chose stripes. He said her T-shirts were ''very souvenir shop''; she countered that they were sexy.

  ''He's like, 'You're telling me what to do?' '' she said, laughing.

  She even wrested her name from her dad, back when she was 16 and he wanted to brand one of his perfumes Dylan. ''I was like, 'No, I'm saving my name for something I own,' '' she recalled.

  And now the name is indeedhers. ''She has created a name for herself,'' Tom Julian, a trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide, an advertising agency, said about the Dylan's brand. ''She is an entrepreneur who has seen a space in the market.''

  The shop was a hard sell at first, even within the family. ''We were optimistically hesitant,'' Andrew said.

  Ms. Lauren has always had a sweet tooth, and in retrospect the candy bar seems inevitable after a youth devoted to Tootsie Rolls and M&M collages.

  As a child she had rabbits named Chocolate and Vanilla. ''She'd go sit outside with the bunnies,'' said her mother, Ricky, ''and play with them and have Oreo cookies and bubble gum, things she loved. That's when I think a lot of this began.''

  At Duke, Ms. Lauren majored in art history, and she spent her spare time enjoying the bright splendor of suburban supermarkets, rather than keg parties. ''I'd look at all the packaging,'' she said.

  She founded Dylan's Candy Bar when she was 26, with Jeff Rubin, a veteran of F. A. O. Schwarz. He brought candy expertise; she had the concept and the cash. She won't say how much money her parents gave her to start the business, except that it was ''a lot.'' She also contributed money of her own.

  By some measures Dylan's has been thriving. Total sales for 2005 are up more than 15 percent from the year before, and noncandy divisions have seen the most robust growth, said Frank Dinunzi, the executive vice president for merchandising at Dylan's. Bulk candy accounts for only 30 percent of sales; apparel pulled in about 10 percent of 2005 revenues.

  Already the flagship store is a hot spot for birthday parties, for adults as well as children. In 2005 the company started a celebrations department, to increase its event-planning business, including off-site parties. If the company is able to expand as it hopes to, Mr. Dinunzi said, it could become profitable this year. (It is privately held, and officials declined to release total sales figures.)

  Like her father Ms. Lauren has resisted going mass market, but unlike him she is trafficking in ordinary gumballs, not deluxe suede. She said that Target, and the British stores Selfridge's and Harrod's had all approached her for distribution deals, none of which she agreed to.

  These days that amounts to bucking the mass retailing trend. ''I can't say I see it as smart, knowing the way the marketplace is and knowing the way other entrepreneurs have become successful,'' said Mr. Julian, the trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide.

  ''I've been seeing the Choxie advertisements Target has been doing on TV for chocolate truffles,'' he said. ''Why wouldn't that have been Dylan Lauren? That would have made perfect sense.''

  Not to Ms. Lauren, who said she wanted to build a brand first in her own space.

  ''I always learned from my dad, 'Believe in your concept, and stick to your guts,' '' she said. ''I knew we were going to make money. But I didn't need to make it in one year.''

  That approach is a luxury not all of her associates have been able to appreciate. Mr. Rubin, who plans to open his own candy shop at Caesars in Atlantic City in May, left the business in 2004. Both he and Ms. Lauren characterize the split as amicable. He wanted to go mass market, she didn't, Ms. Lauren said. Mr. Rubin declined to comment.

  Ms. Lauren said that her growing recognition, especially in the world of business (both Bendel's and Harrod's approached her directly, she said), has gotten her father's attention. ''He's like, 'How the hell did that happen?' '' she said.

  Ms. Lauren has not yet paid her father back for his initial investment.

  ''She's got another month,'' Mr. Lauren growled. He laughed. ''I don't consider it a loan. She does. If she wants to pay me back, it's very good of her, and I'll take it. If she can't pay me back, I know whatever she did she's done because she believes in it and was honest about it and works hard. I'm glad she had a chance to use her creativity and express herself.''

  In the meantime Ms. Lauren, happier in motion than at rest, continues to rush around her shop, urging people never, ever to forget the joys of the lollipop. ''So was this fun?'' she said, her habit upon parting. ''I hope this was fun.''