Postscript : 'Too many people tried to drain us.' : Entrepreneurs' Dream Now a Riches-to-Rags Nightmare

Audrie boutique in Sherman Oaks has remained open the past few months only under the graces of bankruptcy protection. The owners of the Ventura Boulevard store are doing everything they can to keep the business afloat.

Two years ago, Audrie was a flourishing new boutique. At the time, it was in Encino's fashionable Plaza de Oro shopping mall. The store was a dream come true for Audrie Benjamin, who at 22 was able to open a shop with her 25-year-old sister, Debbi, using money they had saved from part-time jobs they had as teen-agers.

Audrie Benjamin still believes her boutique had all the ingredients for success.

"We were good retailers," she said. "There were just too many people who tried to drain us, and they succeeded."

Benjamin's problems began a year ago. Several competing women's shops in Plaza de Oro complained bitterly because Benjamin was selling the same clothing at lower prices.

In the business of high-tone retail fashion, "discounter" is a slur reserved for those who go against the unwritten rule of 100% markup on prices. Benjamin still insists that she marked up 100% but was able to sell at lower prices by paying wholesalers with cash up front, buying in volume and finding wholesale specials.

Suit Charges Conspiracy

Regardless, other merchants said Benjamin's undercutting threatened Plaza de Oro's exclusive image.

According to two lawsuits Benjamin has filed, competitors conspired to drive her out of business by asking clothing suppliers not to sell to Audrie. At the same time, Benjamin alleges, Plaza de Oro unfairly evicted her on the ground that she was selling shoes in violation of lease terms that allowed her to sell only clothing.

Two Plaza de Oro retailers confirmed that they had spoken with suppliers in the interest of protecting the lines' image.

An attorney for the mall's business manager declined to comment on the eviction, citing the pending litigation.

Meanwhile, Benjamin and her sister sell clothing a world away from Encino, in a store between an office building and an optician's office. And neither of the new neighbors cares at what price Audrie sells its dresses. Some of Benjamin's Encino customers are willing to drive to the new Sherman Oaks location, but business is not nearly as profitable as it was in Plaza de Oro. Benjamin hopes to hold on long enough to find another Encino site.

"My feeling is that, no matter what happens here in Sherman Oaks, one day I'm going to come back into the business and be able to be strong and build up a good clientele again," she said. "I would never give up. I love this business too much."

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