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Fashion 87 : Malibu Shopper’s Profile Shows Affluence, Individuality

Times Staff Writer

One early lesson Jackie Robbins learned about retailing in the Malibu enclave of stars, wealth and A-list real estate came on her fifth anniversary in business. The owner of Leather Waves decided to celebrate her store’s longevity with a party. She ordered champagne and caviar, sent out engraved invitations to clients--and waited.

“Nobody came,” she recalls, smiling at her naivete. “In Malibu, they don’t do that kind of stuff.”

As Cross Creek Gallery owner Lee Spiro puts it: “People here don’t like highly structured events.”

But understanding what people do like in this town of “individualists,” as many refer to residents, means survival for the handful of fashion retailers who have chosen to do business in this huddle of 18,000 affluent people removed from the world by ocean, mountains and the Pacific Coast Highway.

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Malibu has its ways. It’s a place where wheat-grass juice is in vogue, where white is always the preferred fashion color and where only by exposure would anyone know that Malibu Laundry is a sportswear store--not a place to wash clothes.

For Malibu retailers, two rules quickly surface: Making a fuss when Barbra Streisand, Debra Winger, Madonna or another celebrity walks in is a sign of uncouth. So is high-pressure salesmanship.

“You don’t blow people’s anonymity. You don’t single people out or put them up-tight,” says Spiro, dressed in white sweater, slacks and Reeboks. “People here are into peace. They don’t want to be pressured into anything.”

And although the median income exceeds $40,000, according to the Malibu Chamber of Commerce (with a “nice” beachfront home in the Colony this summer renting for $25,000 a month), Malibu’s wealth doesn’t translate into a glitzy clothing market.

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Larry Hagman, a Malibu resident who putters by moped to the local stores, says he doesn’t dress up enough to need anything fancy.

“I don’t wear a suit, unless it’s a costume,” the actor on the TV show “Dallas” says. His main clothing purchase here: “Tennis shoes.”

Brenda Jacobs, owner of four Malibu clothing stores, confirms that many do their extravagant shopping elsewhere.

“People are probably more cost-conscious than you might think. They don’t want to think of something from here as a serious purchase. They might be more likely to spend the money in Beverly Hills,” says Jacobs, who with her husband, Bart, owns Malibu Beach Club Beachwear & Shoes, Malibu Beach Club Sportswear, Malibu Athletic Club and the Malibu Laundry, all at the Malibu Country Mart shopping center.

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When she first came here almost a decade ago after buying what was a Fred Segal sportswear store--later renamed Malibu Beach Club--she tried selling a few flashy cocktail dresses--a no-go.

Gradually she ruled out other items too. Anything stiff or too structured, “and any dark, drab, typically fall clothes just aren’t Malibu,” she says. “We’ve almost stopped selling wool sweaters entirely.” In contrast, cottons in pastels or white are always in demand.

Jacobs carries precisely that mix at the Malibu Laundry, the store she founded in 1985 on a self-service laundry theme. The store caters to a young audience, including students from nearby Pepperdine University. Clothes are displayed amid detergent boxes, clothes pins and washing machines. The idea hit her on a trip to Palm Springs, where “we ended up spending the whole day in Laundromats.”

Another Jacobs brainstorm was to cash in on the magic of the town’s name. After noticing many customers asking for shirts with a Malibu signature, she and her husband began manufacturing sweat shirts and T-shirts with Malibu scrawled across the front--a venture that has grown to 25% of their retail business.

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“People want a piece of Malibu, even if they are from just down the road,” notes Jacobs, 45, who grew up in West Los Angeles and attended UCLA. Similar to other fashion retailers, she says Malibu residents generate at least half of her business, with the rest from Los Angeles, the western San Fernando Valley and, in summer, tourists.

But whether tourist or local, shoppers don’t want to see the usual L.A.-urban fare when shopping here.

Joan Bryant, who has two Indiana Joan’s boutiques--one in Malibu and the other on Melrose Avenue--discusses her stores as if they were in different states.

“Wild, exotic, peculiar things go in the Melrose store,” she says. “My Melrose customer wants little black leather miniskirts.” Not so in her 18-month-old Malibu store, she says, where “feminine, fluid” things work best.

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Whimsy also sells.

Three years ago, actor Robert Walker Jr. and his wife, Judy, opened Tops, Malibu, featuring Southwestern furniture and jewelry. They doubt the store would succeed many places.

“People here have the imagination and creativity to understand what they’re seeing--and the money to be able to buy it,” says Judy, 38, surrounded by a clutter of mirrors, concha belts, chests and wild wooden animals, priced up to $12,000. “In Seattle, people might say this is poorly put together,” she says of a primitive green dresser by Taos artist Jim Wagner. “But here someone will appreciate it.”

She and Robert, son of ‘40s screen star Robert Walker and actress Jennifer Jones, have long felt an affinity for this strip of beach. Walker has lived here on and off since childhood: “There’s something about the earth here. I just feel I’m home,” says the khaki-clad actor, who mentions that on his first date with Judy, 11 years ago, he kayaked to her Malibu beach apartment for brunch. They have since moved to nearby Pacific Palisades.

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The Walkers don’t try to analyze the Malibu shopper. They’ve “winged it” with Tops.

“The store has its own taste, its own power,” Judy Walker says. “ It tells you what to buy.”

Actor Gary Busey, an eight-year Malibu resident, likens sitting around at Tops to “being in the head of a child in the happiest of times.” But he can’t say Malibu meets all his needs:

“I wish there was a sporting goods store and a 7-Eleven,” Busey says. “I’d even go for a bowling alley.”

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Cross Creek Gallery owner Lee Spiro calls Malibu a “jet-set destination” of “visually sensitive” people, which can support enterprises like his jewelry and pottery gallery. But key to success in this bastion of “mellow"--which is still the going word--is to drop any semblance of aggressiveness, he says. Spiro is well-adapted.

“I hate to sell things,” he says. “I just share information.”

Similarly, Barbara Goldman thinks of her general store, Malibu Art and Design, as a “gathering place.” She’s so consumed by the thought of personal service that she tried only briefly to keep track of wares by computer. “Too impersonal,” she says.

She also believes this 8-year-old shop would not work in duplicate, and she always stops short of opening a second L.A. store.

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In addition to fashionable gadgets, jewelry and “modular clothing” (simple cotton sweaters and shirts), Goldman carries a selection of inexpensive modular furniture.

“People always say: ‘It’s for the maid’s room,’ ” she whispers, “which we always think is funny.”

More likely, it’s for themselves. Realtors estimate renters make up at least a quarter of all residents during peak summer season.

“We’ve always counted on the itinerant nature of Malibu to keep us going,” says Brendan McBreen, buyer for Malibu Art and Design.

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“Not everyone here has money,” Judy Walker at Tops adds. “It’s more that you have to have a certain dash, a sense of adventure, to be here.”

Retailers see Malibu as a constantly changing mix of renters, hardy canyon people, homeowners “who can’t afford to stay here, but can’t afford to sell,” as Goldman says, summer vacationers and the just plain wealthy.

The turnover means “cycles of people,” says Robbins, owner of the 13-year-old Leather Waves, who notices Malibu has “settled down” from its “nouveau riche” and “rock star” image of a decade ago.

“Now I think we’re in a family cycle,” says Robbins, 34, who recently added baby and maternity clothes to her leather repertoire.

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Turnover among fashion retailers has been low in recent years, according to longtime Malibu watchers. Olivia Thornton, Chamber of Commerce vice president, attributes most failures to overpricing merchandise or simply not holding on long enough.

“The toughest thing here is to create the following,” says Greg Danley, 35, owner of the contemporary woman’s store Encore. “You have to expect three or four years before you begin to create a rapport with the customer, and to really be successful.”

Even the weather tests a merchant’s perseverance, with a temperamental Pacific Coast Highway scaring shoppers off during rainy spells.

“Whenever it goes out on the news that Malibu is inaccessible, business goes down for a month or two,” Goldman says. She recalls the rock-slide-littered winter of 1979, when retailers formed Merchants of Malibu to “re-establish contact with the outside world.” The group met at Alice’s Restaurant one morning a week. But when the crisis was over, meetings phased out, and merchants went their own ways again.

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“They (merchants) are very individualistic--and in a sense, it’s all to the good,” says Anne King, a former chamber board member who calls Malibu “a community of ‘ag’iners.’ ”

For it’s that very detachment that makes Malibu a draw for wealth and celebrity seeking quiet.

Stars can “go into the market and squeeze tomatoes if they want to without being gawked at,” King says. “I’ve never seen anyone stop a star for an autograph in Malibu. That’s a no-no.”

But not everyone can live up to the prescribed blase attitude.

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One young saleswoman--blonde and dressed entirely in white--recently sat on a bench at the Malibu Country Mart, pondering the latest snippet of news.

“I hear Tom Cruise was in the yogurt shop the last three days in a row,” she confides.

“So I’m waiting.”


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