Saturday, December 24, 2005

The high-low trend continues on Rodeo (By Booth Moore, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer)

Note of the caption: The famed shopping strip is now less billionaire’s boulevard and more suburban shopping mall. (Richard Hartog / LAT)

December 23, 2005

AMONG the many symbolic moments in the history of Rodeo Drive, this was one for the books: Last week, bebe, the women's clothing maker known for $36 rhinestone camisoles, opened a mega store on the former site of Frances Klein Estate Jewels, the elegant boutique where Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra shopped for diamonds and sapphires.

It wasn't exactly shocking. For years, Rodeo Drive, the famously intimidating Beverly Hills shopping area, has been steadily and deliberately changing its vibe, welcoming a growing contingent of ordinary shops and even requiring "sensitivity training" for sales clerks at luxury emporiums. Last year's $18-million makeover changed the look of the place to become less billionaire's boulevard, more suburban shopping mall. And, especially during the holiday weeks, the street has been packed with shoppers.

Yet to some in the L.A. fashion world, when bebe joined the lineup, it marked the end of an era: Gone for good was the fabled time when a glamorous crowd lingered in shops unique in the world. Now Rodeo Drive is yet another place for all of us to pick up designer knockoffs and jeans.

"I don't understand bebe on Rodeo Drive," said Vincent Boucher, a celebrity stylist. "When you can get it at Anywhere Mall, USA, it's kind of like, 'Why?' I'm not a snob, I like high and low, but just not there."

The high and the low are peacefully coexisting on famous shopping streets around the world. Like Rodeo Drive, Chicago's Miracle Mile, New York's Madison Avenue, London's Bond Street and Tokyo's Ginza district all have lower-tier retailers along with the expected lineup of global luxury brands, such as Gucci, Prada and Fendi.

"You used to be able to go to Europe and see brands and products that you couldn't see anywhere else," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "Now you go over there and see the same brands you see at a mall in Middle America. As the world becomes a smaller place and the online shopping experience expands, we are seeing a dilution of the high-end market. So, for these shopping areas to survive, they must become more diversified."

The high-low development also mirrors shoppers' changing tastes, Cohen said. Now it has become more than acceptable, even fashionable, to pair a designer bag with a bargain pair of pants or a Target cashmere sweater.

"The experience of luxury is changing and the city has to move with that," said Michael Robinson, spokesman for the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. "There was a sense in the past of Rodeo Drive being too exclusive. We are finding with this new phase to the street that we can retain luxury not only from an economic standpoint but from an experiential standpoint."

Once upon a time, Rodeo Drive had so much real stardust it didn't need the extra frosting of Baccarat chandeliers. Throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, it was the address for excess, home to a who's who of luxury, including Christian Dior, Hermès, Giorgio Armani and Chanel, which opened in Beverly Hills even before New York City. Gucci had a private, second-floor salon for special customers who needed a key to get in. Bijan catered to kings and presidents with over-the-top items, such as $19,000 ostrich vests and mink-lined jean jackets. In 1978, Merv Griffin even hosted a TV salute to the street, where Saudi princes reportedly used to shop with two limousines in tow — one for family, the other for purchases.

Back then it was open season for celebrity spotting on Rodeo Drive. From 1961 until it closed in 1989, Fred Hayman's Giorgio Beverly Hills was practically a clubhouse for Lucille Ball, Ali MacGraw, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Duke.

Hayman helped establish the street's snob appeal by persuading designers to create exclusive designs for his store, and offering such luxuries as an oak bar for noontime pick-me-ups, a pool table to keep husbands occupied and a vintage Rolls-Royce to transport camera-shy clients.

But on a recent afternoon during the busy holiday season, there was nary a star in sight. The typical shopper's uniform was a track suit and sneakers, Cheesecake Factory doggie bag optional. The new, wider sidewalks, mid-block crosswalks and transplanted palm trees only contributed to the overly manicured feeling you find at modern malls like The Grove.

"When you haven't shopped here before, you get images of 'Pretty Woman,' where they won't let Julia Roberts in the door," said Eleni Langas, a psychologist visiting from Sydney, Australia. "I expected it to be more luxurious."

The turning point for Rodeo came in 1993, when the Western-themed Guess? Ranch opened, selling Guess T-shirts and jeans, postcards and bubble gum cigars. The store, which had tepees for fitting rooms, was credited with bringing a new kind of customer to the recession-weary thoroughfare.

A steady stream of down-market labels followed. In 1995 BCBG opened its first store, now a 5,600-square-foot flagship. In 1997, Tommy Hilfiger arrived, constructing a 20,000-square-foot white behemoth. (The store closed three years later and is now a Brooks Brothers.) In 1999, the contemporary women's label XOXO opened on the street.

There's been a flurry of openings in the past year. In November, Coach leather goods set up shop, followed this month by De Beers LV, the diamond-mining giant that's attempting to become a high-end jewelry brand.

Of the original Rodeo Drive entrepreneurs, only Herb Fink, who owns the boutique Theodore, is still in business there. Jerry Magnin no longer owns the Polo Ralph Lauren franchise, and Hayman left retail in 1998, leasing his property to the global luxury goods firm Louis Vuitton.

Carroll & Co., haberdasher to Clark Gable and Fred Astaire, moved two blocks over to Canon in 1996 to make way for Tommy Hilfiger. In the past few years, Hammacher Schlemmer came and went, and the 99 Cent store was rumored to be sniffing around for a spot.

"Certain retailers were disappointed to hear bebe was coming to the street because it wasn't known historically as a big luxury brand," said Chuck Dembo of the Beverly Hills real estate firm Dembo & Associates, who does many Rodeo Drive deals.

Rodeo Drive still has its luxury contingent. Last year, Roberto Cavalli and Michael Kors opened stores and Prada unveiled its $30 million Rem Koolhaas-designed epicenter.

Next year, the openings will continue the high-low trend: Omega watches, Dior Homme, David Yurman and Graff jewelry will be added to the retail mix, and Harry Winston will open a new flagship next door to bebe.

"I love most all the stores on the street today," said Hayman, 80, who has retired to Malibu and a full social schedule. "And maybe the others will humanize the street a bit more. We can't be too elitist."

Monthly rents are averaging $25 a square foot, up from $10 a square foot a decade ago, Dembo said. Ideally, a store's rent should represent 10% of its sales, so if your rent is $700,000 a year, you should be making $7 million in sales. Dembo guesses that most Rodeo Drive stores are profitable, though for some, that's not the point.

"It elevates a brand to be associated with a higher level of importance in the marketplace," said Cohen of the NPD Group. "You can't buy that kind of publicity."

Part of the result is a topsy-turvy situation where stores along Rodeo Drive feature the most expensive designs fashion has to offer, just steps away from places that sell the knock-offs.

"We just got these in," a saleswoman at BCBG said, opening a shoebox to reveal a pair of $185 moccasins with grosgrain bows. "They look just like Yves Saint Laurent." And sure, enough, a gander at the shoe selection down the street at the Saint Laurent boutique reveals a similar bow-tied style, for $285.

At bebe, an oversized black-and-white stripe mohair sweater is a steal at $69, compared to a similar one shown on the Christian Dior runway that sells for $1,295 at the Dior boutique across the street.

Bebe's Chief Executive Officer Greg Scott said his brand may have been defined by imitation in the past, but that the Rodeo Drive store is a symbol of change to come. "In the last 10 or 20 years, we might have been more inspired by others," he said. "Now we really want to be more inspired by our design team."

Bebe has more than 220 stores nationwide and is heavily mall-based. The Rodeo Drive store features merchandise not found anywhere else, including an $800 Swarovski crystal baguette handbag and $500 Swarovski crystal-heeled shoes, which have been top sellers. "Now, we're representing two lifestyles — the less is more and the more is more," he said

Along with this new spirit of democracy has come a new emphasis on customer service, which is just as friendly whether you are shopping for a $25 charm bracelet at Guess? or a $1 million Neil Lane necklace next door at De Beers.

"Rodeo Drive is famous for the kind of attitude that it costs money just to look in the windows," said Langas, the Australian tourist, who was initially reprimanded for taking a photo inside the Sergio Rossi shoe store, only later to have the manager give the OK.

At bebe, a saleswoman was situated near the front door to explain the store's layout: logo sportswear on the third floor, casual wear on the second floor; black tie garb, suits and accessories on the ground level.

At Fendi, sale information was readily offered: "40% off ready-to-wear, select shoes and accessories."

Further up the street, it was Hermès 101. "These are our famous scarves," a saleswoman said, unfurling a colorful design on the glass counter. "They are 100% silk."

You don't say.

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