Tysons Galleria in McLean. This mall, opened in 1988, is the upscale companion of Tysons Corner Center. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

Fourteen years after Spanx was founded, company executives began scouting locations for their first-ever retail store.

The answer, they say, came quickly: Tysons Corner Center in McLean.

“We needed somewhere where we could reach mothers, daughters and grandmothers all in one place,” Spanx founder Sara Blakely said at the time of the store’s opening, late last year. “The [Tysons] area already had a strong customer base online. It was a very good location for our first store.”

It was the same model Apple had followed more than a decade earlier, when it picked the mall as the site of its inaugural retail store. In the years since, Tysons Corner Center and its upscale sibling, Tysons Galleria, have become coveted launch pads for big-name brands entering the Washington market.

“A lot of people think malls are concrete jungles, but Tysons Corner has a certain magnetism,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research firm. “[The malls] are very selective about which retailers they bring in, and that just builds on itself.”

Joe’s Jeans store manager Kathryn Smith shows a pair of cropped jeans to customer Carla Seebald at Tysons Galleria. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

In the past year alone, Joe’s Jeans, C. Wonder and Vilebrequin, a line of men’s swimwear from St. Tropez, have all set up shop in the Tysons area. Yves Saint Laurent and Porsche Design are arriving later this year.

But as new shopping destinations such as Bethesda Row take shape, analysts say competition for upscale retailers is becoming stiffer. CityCenterDC (scheduled to open later this year), the forthcoming Trump Hotel in downtown Washington and Rock Spring Center in Bethesda are also vying to topple Tysons Corner’s reputation for inaugurating new brands.

“More luxury retailers are expanding or opening new stores,” said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “And they are more willing to take a chance on a new development as long as all of the fundamentals check out.”

The roots of luxury

The Tysons Galleria was built 25 years ago as a joint venture by Lerner Enterprises and Homart Development Co. But it wasn’t immediately an easy sell.

“It was originally intended to be the luxury complement of Tysons Corner Center across the street, but it took some time for that to take hold,” said Rich Dinning, the mall’s general manager. “There has definitely been an effort to improve the merchandising and get it to where it is today.”

Dinning says he credits the arrival — and success — of iconic brands such as Chanel for the mall’s success in attracting other upscale shops. Today, the Galleria’s roster of stores includes Burberry, Cartier and Gucci.

“When retailers see the success of a [store such as ] Chanel in a shopping center, that carries a certain cachet,” Dinning said. “Other people see that and want to be a part of that success.”

That’s the way it went for Joe’s Jeans, which arrived at the Galleria in April.

“Tysons was a no-brainer,” said Marc B. Crossman, the company’s chief executive. “Of course we looked at all the malls in the surrounding area, but Tysons was perfect for us in terms of the upper-clientele that it draws.”

In the two months since the store opened, Crossman says sales have been 30 percent higher than projected.

An affluent base

Both the Galleria and Tysons Corner Center benefit from their proximity to Washington’s well-heeled visitors, as well as affluent residents in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties — the three wealthiest counties in the country, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The two malls — one home to Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s, the other anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus — have become ideal partners for one another. Shoppers can easily transition from one to another, and just as easily, from the upscale (Emporio Armani, Louis Vuitton) to the mid-range (Crate & Barrel, J. Crew).

“They understand that wealthy people buy from mainstream shops as well as high-end shops, and [Tysons Corner has] a really great mix,” Pedraza said. “That seems to be the reason everybody, from teenagers to older, wealthy adults, thinks it’s one of the best places to go shopping in the nation.”

Tysons Corner Center racks up more sales-per-square-foot than any other mall in the region, said Bob Maurer, the mall’s senior marketing manager.

“When retailers go to new markets, they look to see where the most successful centers are — and that’s typically where they want to be,” he said. “If they want to be in Washington, Tysons is on the top of their list.”

Not every retailer makes a beeline for Tysons Corner, though. When Jonathan Adler, the home décor and accessories company, opened its first area store in November, it headed to Georgetown. The retailer spent two years looking for the ideal location, said David Frankel, the company’s president.

“We like to introduce our brand in an area with a vibrant, downtown feel and we like to be surrounded by other brands that are the same caliber us,” Frankel said in an e-mail. “Georgetown offered us all of this, and, ultimately, it is just the coolest spot in D.C.”

Improving economic times and a resurgence in real estate development in downtown Washington mean that competition could be heating up further.

“There’s a push to attract more retail [in downtown Washington], and we see ourselves becoming a shopping destination,” said Karyn LeBlanc, a spokeswoman for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. “When CityCenter opens, that will really open the gates for additional retail to come in.”

Analysts say it’s too soon to tell how newer developments will affect Tysons Corner — that may partially depend on what sorts of tax breaks and financial incentives adjacent counties and cities may be willing to offer newcomers. But one possibility, they say, is that high-end retailers may use the opportunity to open an additional store in the Washington area while maintaining their presence at Tysons.

“Sometimes having two stores in a similar area is quite effective,” said Pedraza. “We see that all the time in New York: There will be a store on Fifth Avenue for the tourists, and another on Madison Avenue for the locals. It’s something luxury brands often do.”

Just ask Liljenquist & Beckstead. The company, which has its flagship store at the Galleria, and another outpost — called Lenkersdorfer — across the street at Tysons Corner Center, says each location serves a distinct purpose.

“The clients are completely different and the sales are completely different,” said Joe Turchiarolo, who oversees merchandising for the company. “But when you look at both centers, Tysons is really the epicenter of Washington shopping.”

Turchiarolo says stores at both malls carry jewelry by Bulgari and watches by Rolex. But the Galleria also carries higher-end designer pieces. Gemstones that cost more than $50,000 are the norm, as are watches by Breguet and A. Lange & Söhne that can cost upwards of $80,000.

“These are very exclusive — pieces that are so rare and luxurious that you can only find them in certain places in the world,” Turchiarolo said. “It’s for the people who travel here looking for something special.”

It’s that clientele that Vilebrequin is going after at its new Galleria location. Men’s swimwear typically sells for $370 but later this year, the company will introduce a line of swim trunks embroidered with 22-karat gold.

“There are a number of places with upscale or luxury retailers, but clearly the Galleria is a gathering place for purveyors of luxury goods,” said Brian Lange, president of the Americas for Vilebrequin. “It’s the place in the Washington area where consumers go to find the best products.”

It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more big brands come to Tysons, the more want to follow.

And that was more clear than ever back in 2001, when Apple decided it was heading to McLean to open its first store. Retailers looked at Tysons Corner Center in a new light after that, Maurer said.

“A lot of retailers respect the Apple brand and what they’ve done with it, so it was a big moment,” Maurer said. “Apple saw something in us.”