ONE hundred George Washingtons hardly go far these days. It doesn't take an accountant to tell you what any clotheshorse worth her shoe collection already knows too well, especially once the shoes, as well as the jewelry and any other touches, are factored in.
But when the challenge to assemble a great outfit, head to toe and not for a penny more than $100, went out to Lauren Conrad -- the ambitious blond of "The Hills," which kicked off its third season last week, not coincidently as her new campaign for Avon appears in magazines and a signature fashion line launches on her e-commerce site -- the pop culture phenom accepted.
Not that it would be a snap. Conrad might be the architect of her own made-for-MTV life on the reality-drama series, as well as its predecessor, the still heavily rotated "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County," which premiered a lifetime ago in 2004. But this challenge would force the 21-year-old away, far away, from the air-conditioned sanctuaries with valet parking she frequents.
"I shop just about every other day," Conrad admits, citing Bleu on La Brea Boulevard and Madison on Melrose Avenue among her haunts. "We do so much shooting, and I never know what scenes are going to make the cut. So if you're in the same outfit twice and it ends up in the same episode, it looks like you're wearing the same outfit all the time." It's the job, in other words, not a compulsion. She swears.
Nor would this challenge be as easy as dropping into the Beverly Center's Forever 21 or Steve Madden flagships, where Conrad scores her cheap-chic fixes before a night out at Hollywood celeb spots Les Deux or Winston's. "I hate ruining a pair of $500 heels when I go out dancing. It's so dark and crowded, no one even knows what you have on from the waist down."
It's obvious, in fact, that even for this clever mall babe, the challenge wouldn't so much be the budget as the destination: Santee Alley.
To the initiated, the four blocks known as "the Alley," starting at Olympic Boulevard and ending at New Alley, are the pulsating heart of downtown L.A.'s fashion district (albeit a heart with arteries clogged by the bacon-wrapped hot dogs, topped with jalapeños, served from carts parked everywhere).
It's all here: off-season costume jewelry, off-the-truck fast fashion from local factories, fake designer goods. It's a mad cacophony of fast-talking foreign speak, sticky smells, deafening music, rude shopkeepers, pushy hordes of customers and questionable, cheap products and even cheaper prices.
It's nirvana for wardrobe supervisors in film and theater, for fashion addicts and bargain hunters. But for others, Santee Alley might as well be the swampy fifth rung of Dante's hell.
"It's not where I'd normally come to shop," Conrad demurs, clutching a tall Red Bull in her right hand, a roll of greenbacks in her left (it's pretty much cash-only in the Alley), as we march beyond the entrance at Pico Boulevard and Maple Avenue. "I like finding bargains. But I usually like going to thrift stores like Out of the Closet, which I'm obsessed with, for party dresses from the 1950s. I'm not used to this, not this. It's a lot of counterfeits. It's a lot of cheaply made things."
But Conrad is game. If there's one reality she immediately accepted when MTV viewers and US Weekly readers embraced her as L.C., it's that some days wouldn't be a walk in the park.
Or a walk on Rodeo, either, as one stranger, a twentysomething Latino, points out in whispers, "Hey, isn't that the chica from Laguna Beach? Shouldn't she be on Rodeo?" he asks, pronouncing the storied Beverly Hills thoroughfare with the long vowels associated with cowboys.
"It's OK if she wants to shop here, no?" snaps a middle-aged mother, now standing next to him. "My daughter loves her."
Celebrity doesn't fly with the shopkeeper at a stand crammed with rows of oversized Coach bags in every pattern imaginable. The woman physically pushes us out. Yes, she watches the show. But these are fake bags. No photographs.
As we forge ahead, there is no shortage of photo-ops. Despite Conrad's comment earlier that she's rarely called out in L.A. -- "I mean, half the population here's been in their own reality show," she quips -- it appears the other half is here, thrilled to pose with her as their wives or girlfriends or moms steady their camera-phones for the scrapbook.
Inside a shop called Remember, Conrad slings a white cotton sundress over her head, the hanger resting on the nape of her neck, while she stands in front of a mirror. Around us, dozens of separates dangle off the walls up to the ceiling. A sparkly brown jacket with large, covered buttons recalls a Marni original, but is tagged $32. On a rack is a colorful sweater with a deep neckline that suggests Missoni. It's $10.
"Oh, my God, this is just like something I got at Traffic," Conrad marvels, pulling at the bottom of a shift cut from mauve and lavender striped cotton.
The shop girl dashes to find a suitable tube top to wear under the dress when Conrad deems that the lavender crochet band at the bust reveals too much. The girl returns with one in bright white and another in an even brighter grape, each $5.
Conrad graciously takes the white tube and disappears into the dressing room. Despite the terrific $20 price tag, the white dress doesn't fit well across the chest. The lavender is a possibility.
As we rush by one of the many stands crammed with knock-off designer sunglasses, she grouses: "I wish they'd make the sunglasses without the labels. I don't care what brands they are, but I don't want to wear them as fakes, counterfeits. No label is the best label."
We stop at a mannequin wearing a sage satin dress, pleated from neckline to hemline and cinched at the waist with a black ribbon. Lanvin, we agree. It's $34.99.
Despite the reference and price, Conrad passes. "Up close," she says, "the fabric looks cheap, the hem looks cheap. You can get away with cheap with more casual clothes, but it gets tougher when it's dressier fabrics."
We race by stalls with a gonzo array of stuff. There are lotions promising to erase cellulite next to color photographs of baggy bellies; there are fabulously gaudy studded-leather belts draped over guardrails; tables piled high with banded gym socks or bagged rhinestone jewelry; tulle polka-dotted party dresses squished in between more knock-off designer totes and metallic Mexican wrestling masks. And all of it priced to go for a fistful of dollars.
Despite the wild success of "The Hills" and "Laguna Beach," there is no wardrobe budget to speak of. Conrad pays out of her own pocket for everything. "It is a reality show," she points out.
She still does her own hair and makeup, and she doesn't employ a stylist, because, well, "Why would I pay for something I love doing myself?"
Her real life is played out week after week in tabloids and in the blogosphere by her frienemies and detractors. It recently got so bad that the cable network put the kibosh on the entire cast airing any more dirty laundry in the press. In a slick shop called SoCal, the attractive owner points to a tabloid on the counter. Conrad is on the cover.
"Yes, it's her," I nod as she busies herself in the dressing room with a $25 teal jersey bubble dress.
'Just get over it'
Later, when asked how she keeps sane against the tirade of unflattering shock talk lobbed recently by two cast members, Conrad takes the high road: "My mom reminds me to just get over it. I'm really lucky to have these opportunities, and I'm just grateful and try to keep focused on the positive. It wouldn't matter if I were on TV or not. There's always people who try to bring you down no matter who you are."
Indeed, despite the sweaty heat and dizzying sounds coming out of every stall here, Conrad sweetly accepts every request to be photographed or sign an autograph. That kind of real-world accessibility, down to her girl-next-door looks, is invariably why Avon signed her as its first spokesperson of the youth-oriented Mark brand. (Earlier this month, Avon signed Conrad's hero, Reese Witherspoon, as its global ambassador. "I was sooo excited," she gushes.)
It's not that Conrad is going to shift the perspective on a silhouette or set any trends. A fashion icon in the making she's not. But what she is, possibly, is an entrepreneur-in-training, a reality star who's parlaying her 15 minutes into a valid career and lucrative brand that she hopes will outlast her youth.
Conrad stars in the Mark magalog, a promotional magazine that boasts some 6 million recipients monthly. But the real payoff will come in the Conrad-Mark co-branded products that are part of the deal.
Among her idols are Diane von Furstenberg and Cynthia Vincent, women who helm their own successful fashion businesses, built on contemporary clothes real women can wear and afford. She'll launch sales of her collection on her website, laurenconrad.com, on Sept. 15; an expanded collection will hit stores in the spring.
"I didn't go into this because I wanted to act," says Conrad, a Newport Beach native, despite the cameo -- as herself -- in the spoof "Epic Movie" earlier this year. "I've always known I wanted to design my own line, that I wanted to go into fashion. I saw 'Laguna Beach' as an opportunity toward that. And I did 'The Hills' as another step closer to reaching that goal."
So, too, was the internship at Teen Vogue, which sealed the spinoff, and has also been as good for the publication's exposure and subsequent sales at newsstands.
Conrad's only other visit to Santee Alley came as part of a class field trip to speed-sketch passersby -- she studies product development at the nearby downtown campus of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (which also appears on the show).
Readying to hand over $18 for a white fedora, Conrad admits it never even occurred to her to return to the Alley. She freezes as someone with her yells out: "How about $15?"
Without a quibble, the vendor, a tall man with graying wiry hair poking out from his rounded cap and draped in a colorful batik-printed floor-length robe, agrees. "My dad loves to barter, especially when we're in Cabo," Conrad says. Her father, Jim, is an architect; her mom, Katherine, helps run the business; and Breanna, 18, and Brandon, 15, round out the telegenic clan.
Just as unprompted, she offers the flip side. "My mom's the opposite. She'll just pay and get it over with. For me, it really depends. . . "
Her words drift off as she spots the perfect walking shorts, cut from a cotton weave resembling linen, to pair with her new hat. She trades the small size up for mediums, the white pair for black. "We should go masculine and slouchy. How about a men's T-shirt?"
At another stall, she locates a pack of three for $6. Bamboo bangles? Two for $2. Now she's on fire. With $31 still to burn, she already has two looks coming together in the black plastic bags looped around her wrists.
We charge through shoe store after shoe stall. A pair of very high wooden heels with faux python straps that crisscross on top of the foot are nixed. "They don't lengthen the leg," she proclaims like some pro stylist. Holding up a pale gold pump, with an open toe, a silver chain detail and a mirrored heel, she calls out to the saleswoman, "Seven and a half?"
The woman tells her they're $28. Maybe it's the breakneck scores in the last 30 minutes, but Conrad doesn't skip a beat when she responds: "$25." Sold.
With the few bucks left, Conrad makes a last stop at the 99 Cent Fashion Jewelry Store, a must-stop among Alley insiders, and Conrad immediately realizes why. She drops her last $6 on a pair of gold knot clip-ons and a gold tassel necklace.
"I should've gotten one of those gnarly fake Rolexes," she mutters as we pass a display on the way out of the district. "Talk about costume jewelry. I don't even care if it works or if it's real. It would be totally fun."
HOW SHE SPENT IT
Lauren Conrad got two looks for her hundred bucks on Santee Alley:
T-shirt $6 for three
Teal dress $25
Bamboo bangles $2 for two
Gold knot earrings 99 cents
Gold tassel necklace $5
AN ALLEY GUIDE
Where: The narrow, noisy alley that runs between Maple and Santee streets, from Olympic to Pico boulevards.
Hours: 10 a.m to 5 p.m. daily, including holidays. Mornings and Saturdays are the busiest; weekday afternoons are as close as it gets to leisurely.
Prime parking: The covered lot on Maple Avenue between 12th and Pico, $6 all day. A pedestrian bridge leads to elevators that go right down to the Alley.
Payment: Most stores are cash only. And even in stores that take plastic, cash is better for quick transactions and, more important, for bargaining.
Dressing rooms: Many places don't have them. Wear a tank top and shorts in case you want to strip down to try on clothes.
Don't miss: A lot of Alley stores don't have a proper address, and kiosks don't even have business names. But these are easy to find and worth the effort:
$15 summer fedora stand. You'll find a huge array of the banded white and ivory hats, so trendy right now, in the Alley between 11th and 12th streets.
99 Cent Fashion Jewelry Store. Bead necklaces in every color and great long chains with cute charm pendants. A big cardboard bin at the entrance is filled with wooden bangles, headbands and necklaces, all 99 cents each. The Alley between 11th and 12th streets.
Gold jewelry counters. They're all the over the place, but the most well-stocked kiosk is at the corner of 12th Street and the Alley, with large pendants, hoop earrings and customized name plates.
Pop USA. Unlike many retailers in the Alley, Pop USA sells the real thing, not knockoffs. Expect older or discontinued styles of men's and women's contemporary clothing, such as True Religion and Diesel jeans, for 30% to 70% off. 321 E. 12th St.
-- Melissa Magsaysay