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ROMANCING THE RICH : Retailers Romance the Very Rich With Special Sales Strategies

Times Staff Writer

The women who shop Torie Steele’s Valentino boutique were ripping plastic garment bags to shreds. They trampled tissue to grab newly arrived $2,000 suits. But rather than officiate this chaos, store buyer Tom Bruno encouraged it.

“It’s fun for them to see a mess once in a while,” Bruno says. “I’m sure they’ve never seen a mess like that in their own homes.”

Bruno knows that selling fashion to the very rich of L.A. requires skills bordering on a diplomat’s. And if that means creating a strategic mess, it also can mean spreading a $10,000 bill among cash, check and credit card to conceal from a spouse the amount of a purchase. Or acting calm when an actress decides to flash open her blouse to quiet a buzz of male fans in the store.

Yet reaching L.A.'s wealthy is tricky, because there are so many kinds: old money, new yuppie, show business swank. Hence the varied positions of L.A.'s upper crust fashion retailers, ranging from the austere, concrete Maxfield boutique on Melrose Avenue to the classic French decor in parts of Bullocks Wilshire, where customers are called “patrons,” always, and where ladies-who-lunch attend fashion shows in prim designer suits.

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“Our flowers are fresh. Our music is appropriate. We’re very civilized,” boasts Rosemarie Troy, fashion merchandise director of Bullocks Wilshire, which draws on L.A.'s Old Guard and may provide the closest thing to a glimpse of home for those who’ve moved here from the East.

If retailers differ in style, they share two observations: The buying power of the very rich is greater than a decade ago, and this customer seems to be getting younger. Demand for the $1,000 dress or $10,000 gown is far from waning.

“I think it’s the whole Hollywood-entertainment syndrome. No limits,” says John Martins, general manager of Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills, where he says the median customer age is 37.

“Prices get higher and higher, and I ask: ‘Where’s it going to stop?’ ” says Tommy Perse, owner of Maxfield in West Hollywood. “But the clients who come in put the garments on their backs. They look in the mirror. And if it’s fabulous, they buy it.”

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But selling high-priced fashion is more than bartering the “fabulous.” It’s an intangible mix that includes service, atmosphere and the touchy matter of snob appeal. A wet bar or the lure of cappuccino no longer is the exception. Many retailers bring in lunch, so the high-rolling client needn’t miss a beat in the dressing room. They call clients at home to report new arrivals. They send clothes to the house for inspection.

Amen Wardy, the plush Newport Beach designer boutique, sends wares to clients in a “clothesmobile,” the deluxe van owner Wardy bought this year to service far-flung customers in Santa Barbara or Palm Springs. He arrives at a home at 9 a.m. with clothing, shoes and accessories, he says, and, “She comes out in her driveway and does her shopping.” Altered clothes are delivered a couple of days later.

Bijan on Rodeo Drive, which claims to cater to ‘the wealthiest people in the world . . . not just your average millionaires,” also makes house calls--by plane, Vice President Jeffrey Starr says.

Owner and designer Bijan Pakzad recently flew to Geneva in his private eight-seater, Starr says, because a client in that city had gained 10 pounds and no longer fit in his formal wear.

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“Bijan went over there with his staff of head fitter and several assistants,” Starr reports. “He rented a beautiful suite of rooms. Everything was made, fit and finished so the gentleman could have it all the next day.”

For the chance to buy $35 socks, a $2,200 suit or a $2,400 denim jacket lined in leather, the customer doesn’t stroll into Bijan’s “showroom,” as Starr calls it. He makes an appointment. Bijan may have four customers a day, he says. Or fewer.

“Nobody may come in the whole day, and then at 5:30 p.m. we’ll get a phone call that an ambassador from a South American country that is close to the United States is coming with his entourage. He may be the only customer for the day, but he may spend $75,000.”

All that may sound intimidating, but no one in the game of selling pricey fashion likes to admit that snobbery comes into play. At Saks Fifth Avenue--which General Manager Martin Fischer says caters to a wide spectrum of people, including the wealthy--management has no patience with uppity salespeople.

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“If I ever have a complaint of that kind of service, that salesperson is going to change attitude or quickly be out,” Fischer says. “There is only one job we have, and that is to stimulate the customer.”

Torie Steele, who owns a row of designer boutiques on Rodeo Drive, including Valentino, Ferre, Versace and Krizia, also insists snobby is out, friendly is in.

“The clothes are intimidating enough--the prices,” says Steele, adding: “It’s very hard to get out of here without spending at least $1,000--lowest.” Her top-priced item is a $200,000 Fendi fur. “I mean, our salespeople could be intimidated by the clothes.”

Steele’s clients include the society matron who prefers her fittings on a pedestal, the rock singer looking for “something strange,” the rich kid coming to be outfitted for school in Krizia or Valentino.

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In Pasadena, which veers toward emphatically quiet money, Harold Grant specializes in classic clothes for the “traditional Pasadena lady,” Manager Valerie Murphy says. The store aims for a “club” atmosphere, but it also has overtones of a “referral service,” she says, noting that customers avidly trade advice on cosmetic surgery.

“If a customer says: ‘I can’t wear a dress that short,’ we’ll say: ‘Listen, Marianne had her legs done. We’ll have her come over.’ And Marianne will give her the doctor’s name.”

Grant seeks out the wealthy through tearoom fashion shows and advertisements in such upscale publications as the Pasadena Symphony program and private-school brochures.

Similarly, Bullocks Wilshire aligns itself with the upper classes by working each year on major charity events and with public television. “Culturally, that’s the same kind of person we’re catering to,” a store spokesman says. “We’re intentionally civic-minded.”

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But other upper crust fashion sellers may strike a more egalitarian tone. At Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, where a man’s shirt may be bought for $19 or $500, exclusivity is avoided:

“I don’t want to pick a market and alienate others from coming in my store,” says Brett Wagner, vice president of Ron Herman Inc., which has several boutiques within the Fred Segal complex. “I want the guy who’s skateboarding down Melrose to come in for Maui & Sons jams and a Fred Segal T-shirt, as much as (I want) Lionel Richie to come in to outfit the band for his next European tour.”

In the cool gray expanses of the Maxfield boutique, owner Tommy Perse wears crumpled designer whites and peers from behind mirrored glasses.

“Hi Lesley,” he says, barely looking up, as actress Lesley Ann Warren wanders across the store to where actress Carol Kane is standing by a mirror.

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Perse cultivates the entertainment client, from the performers to their accountants, doctors, secretaries and spouses, he says. But he doesn’t cultivate an L.A. look. He sells international, often avant-garde, design priced $10 to $20,000.

“That is not to say it’s always appropriate to the L.A. climate and life style,” he says. “We’re not trying to be all things to all people.”

Instead, he chooses pieces that “look well next to each other,” presented in a far-from-coddling environment. The glass-and-concrete space is a “neutral canvas,” Perse says. “It’s very clear what we sell in here. In other stores, it’s not so easy to focus on what they have.”

Perse carries pieces by Comme des Garcons, Armani, Yohji Yamamoto and other “directional” designers. He says his client cares about taste--not about wearing overt status symbols.

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But L.A.'s affluent aren’t averse to showing station through fashion. Fred Hayman, chairman of Giorgio Inc., describes one society contingent:

“If you get an Adolfo or a Blass and put on your pearls, your proper pumps and any lovely-lady bag, then you look safe. You don’t create any waves. But if you have a definite personality, then you mix them (the designers) up.”

Major international designers always signal prestige, retailers say, even if names topping the heap rotate.

“This season, it’s Ungaro and Valentino,” Amen Wardy says. “It changes yearly. It’s like movie stars. They make two or three good movies, and then they make some bad ones.”

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When Lina Lee opened her namesake boutique in Beverly Hills in 1978, status meant wearing an expensive silk shirt and designer jeans, she says. Now it’s a more anonymous but “put-together” look. Yet there remains a subtle language by which the rich know their own, like carrying a $500 Judith Leiber bag or wearing a $700 crocodile belt.

“People who can afford a crocodile belt will recognize it from a mile away. But it’s still very understated,” she says.

Lee finds L.A.'s well-to-do unmoved by “true couture” or “uptight” clothes. She stocks light, relaxed coordinates, often by unknown designers. And she won’t change that formula for stores

she’s opening this fall in South Coast Plaza and in Dallas. Lee says her only concession to New York, where she has a boutique in Trump Tower, is to carry a little more black.

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Yet the rich do have regional fashion quirks--even within Southern California. Bullocks Wilshire, with six specialty stores locally, notices its Woodland Hills client buys the dressiest clothes, while the Mid-Wilshire woman buys more “serious suitings.”

In Beverly Hills, customers want “the latest . . . . They dress to be noticed, within taste,” says Neiman-Marcus’ Martins. By contrast, people of means in Pasadena and San Marino “don’t want to look as if they’ve spent a lot of money,” says Gene Burton, owner of the upscale Pasadena boutique by that name.

Despite these differences, the monied are not reluctant spenders. No need for the hard sell, retailers say.

“Someone who has to buy a $5,000 gown, you don’t have to convince,” says Sheila Speer, owner of the West Hollywood boutique, Alley. “They know you have the special commodity, so they come through your doors. It’s the simplest of all sales.”

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Simple, and often unpredictable. Every retailer has a story of the rumpled-looking drop-in who ends up buying out the racks.

Bruno, at Torie Steele, recalls one unremarkable man who walked in and said he was just looking.

“He proceeded to spend $5,000 on slacks,” Bruno says. “Then he said he’d come back the next week, when he was more in the mood to shop.

“And he did.”

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