Nevermind all the remarkable clothes -- L.A. is in the midst of a designer boutique boom that's as much about statement-making architecture and one-upsmanship as it is about selling bags and boots.
Phillip Lim opened a sculptural flagship on Robertson Boulevard last month. Alberta Ferretti is about to open its first U.S. flagship on Melrose -- not Madison -- Avenue. Lanvin is jockeying for real estate next to Oscar de la Renta on Melrose Place. And there are more on the way: Catherine Malandrino, Sportmax and Vera Wang are poised to roll out luxe new stores by the end of the year. Even Tom Ford is said to be looking. Once defined by shopping malls and denim-clad Valley girls, L.A. is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic places in the world to shop, even as the economy flags.
"They're coming because L.A. is the most fashionable city in the world," said veteran L.A. retailer Tracey Ross. "It may never be a runway capital, but it's a style inspiration capital."
The creative spaces are concentrated on three retail rows -- Melrose Avenue, Melrose Place and Robertson Boulevard -- and they represent a far cry from the '90s way of selling designer goods. Back then, designers such as Ford built global luxury brands by ensuring the retail experience was identical around the world. After a while, a kind of luxury fatigue set in, and one-of-a-kind boutiques such as Opening Ceremony and Colette began to have more cutting-edge appeal.
Prada was the first to turn things around, opening experimental "Epicenter" stores in New York, Beverly Hills and Tokyo. The $30-million Epicenter on Rodeo Drive, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, opened in 2004 and quickly became a magnet for tourists and fashion lovers. It brims with strange and wonderful architectural details, but most notably, it's missing a facade -- the entire front of the boutique is open to the street.
"L.A. seems more open in terms of pushing the envelope," said Brooklyn-based architect Dominic Leong, who designed Lim's new store. "The fabric of L.A. is more varied and more eclectic, so it inherently lends itself to a multiplicity of identities and styles, whereas in New York, the fabric is so strong that any difference has a very big impact on public opinion. Also in L.A., the building envelope isn't so constraining."
A year after Prada debuted, Marc Jacobs single-handedly turned Melrose Avenue and adjacent Melrose Place into a designer fashion district when he opened a flagship and a Marc by Marc Jacobs store on the two streets. The real estate experiment might not have worked had it been any other brand, but Jacobs is one of the most influential designers of his time -- and of course, the fashion world followed. Marni, Temperley, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera soon opened on Melrose Place, and landlords have since hiked monthly rents on both streets from $3 to $5 per square foot to upward of $16.
Jay Luchs, retail Realtor with C.B. Richard Ellis, said designer accessories maker Lambertson Truex signed a lease for $20 per square foot last year. Luchs, who's been touring Lanvin around town, recently placed Catherine Malandrino in a two-level, 6,000-square-foot building on La Cienega Boulevard and brokered the deal for the Sportmax store on Melrose Place, set to open in December.
The character of the districts has changed with the storefronts. Shabby-chic antiques stores, knit shops in A-frame houses and rundown mercantile spaces have morphed into gleaming monuments to the world's top fashion brands.
Walking into the new Balenciaga on Melrose Avenue feels like boarding a spaceship. Lights shaped like Tetris pieces illuminate bejeweled tunics and sculptural skirts hanging from industrial-looking racks. Some walls are texturized metal, NASA-style. Want the new City bag? Watch that you don't get punctured on the way in by the spindly cactuses lining the property like a sinister picket fence.
Down the street at Alexander McQueen, Robert Bryce Muir's nude skylight sculpture is the centerpiece of the all-white store, which was designed to feel as though it had been excavated out of a solid mass of material. Curved, cathedral-like archways help erect built-in shelves that look as if they were hollowed out of walls with an oversized ice-cream scoop.
Over on Melrose Place, nothing touches the floor at the new Ports 1961 store, which looks like a cavern swathed in richly hued velvet fabrics. Clothes hang from suspended bars that resemble giant metal licorice whips or are neatly folded inside near-translucent, sculptural shelves. Michael Gabellini, who designed that store and is currently designing two for Vera Wang on Melrose Avenue, said designers outside of L.A. are keen to try new things here architecturally.
"They have the sense that it's naturally a culture that is very open to outside influences," he said. "There is an effervescence and sense of freedom that may not exist in more established fashion capitals."
All about the brand
HAS FASHION forgiven us for the Uggs phenom so soon?
Apparently so. Celebrity endorsements -- whether impromptu or paid -- have become integral to modern fashion marketing. Unlike Milan, Paris or New York, this is a town where you can launch a media campaign curbside. Rachel Bilson or Kate Hudson carrying a Helmut Lang bag in a gazillion tabloids is better marketing than a full-page ad in Vogue.
And with the rise of the stylist in Hollywood, designers are far less afraid than they used to be of seeing a celebrity dressed badly in their clothes (remember when Ford asked if there was a way Gucci could stop Victoria Beckham from wearing his designs?).
The avalanche of designer retail is also about keeping up with the Joneses. "When we're driving around looking at available spaces, the companies are definitely looking at the names on stores," Luchs said.