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Gucci Thrives Where Beans Once Flourished

<i> For The Times </i>

From its modest beginning in a former lima bean field, South Coast Plaza over the last 20 years has become Orange County’s premier shopping center--the crown jewel of Southern California malls, studded with quality stores and fine restaurants.

One-time bean fields are now home to the nearly 300 stores of South Coast Plaza (including the new Crystal Court), the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the restaurants and gourmet shops of South Coast Plaza Village, the county’s tallest building (Town Center) and a sculpture garden called California Scenario.

Owned and managed by C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, South Coast Plaza has the entire spectrum of retailing, from Gucci to The Gap. Here, Rodeo Drive-quality shops rub shoulders with Kinney Shoes and Miller’s Outpost. Chili dogs are but a few steps from the starched napkins of Piret’s. And between the Laguna Art Museum branch and Lane Bryant are the Waterford goblets of Grafton Street, the gold earrings at The Golden Bough and the burritos of Del Taco.

Notwithstanding its diversity, the shopping center’s marketing thrust is toward the shopper with wads of dough. Its glossy brochures are mailed according to income bracket and ZIP code. The price and quality of most merchandise is designed and displayed to appeal to the upper crust, people not unaccustomed to shopping in internationally renowned shops.

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Many of these world-famous stores made their Southern California or Orange County debut at South Coast Plaza: Gucci, Mark Cross, Courreges, Laura Ashley, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and Polo/Ralph Lauren. Nordstrom opened its first California store here in 1978. It was so successful that last year it opened another twice the size of the original.

South Coast Plaza is the largest-volume retail center on the West Coast. On its 96 acres and 2,104,236 square feet, the shopping center did $525 million in business last year and this year expects to surpass $700 million. With an estimated 20,000 visitors a day, South Coast Plaza is one of the county’s largest tourist attractions. And its eight major department stores make it the largest collection of majors in the state.

But, as Marketing Director Maura Eggan will attest, size is not always a virtue in retailing. Some merchants fear getting lost in the shuffle. And, like a child faced with too many choices at the candy counter, the timid consumer can be confused by the selection. For this reason, the shopping center likes to stress the quality of the stores rather than the quantity.

“We don’t know how many stores we have,” Eggan says, “because, truthfully, we don’t stress the number.”

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One way for the shopper not to get lost in the shuffle is to visit with plenty of time and a game plan. Lots of money won’t hurt, either. Budget aside, you might approach it as you would a museum, lingering near the multimillion-dollar storefronts or browsing the shops you’ve never browsed before. Many of the stores have award-winning facades, architecturally stunning interiors and dazzling displays. But you won’t see these treasures by dashing through the familiar shops in the old wing between Sears and the May Co.

Instead, begin with the new wing, anchored by Nordstrom, Bullock’s, I. Magnin and Saks Fifth Avenue. Here in the Jewel Court are an assortment of out-of-the-way pleasures and visual seductions: the rich carved Yugoslavian burl wood facade and interior of the Mark Cross store; the Lalique crystal doors to the David Orgell shop; and the posh interior of the Susan Marie store.

You can ride the elevator from the first floor of Mark Cross to the second, cross the Jewel Court to admire the 7,600-piece stained glass dome shimmering overhead, linger outside the glistening Gucci shop, cut through Rizzoli’s to browse its impressive selection of international books and magazines, then head downstairs for a bite at the Back Bay Rowing Co.

Which is not to say the Carousel Court should be given short shrift. In the heart of the original wing, the 25-cent carrousel rides are always a hit with the Weebok set. Here, too, are lavish stores worth dropping in on, if only to admire the unusual interiors: Polo/Ralph Lauren, Charlotte Russe, The Nature Company and the Laguna Art Museum.

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A few hundred feet away, across Bear Street from the Carousel and Jewel courts, is the one-year-old Crystal Court, consisting of 72 stores (including The Broadway and Robinson’s). With its mocha stone surfaces, brass trim and sky blue dome, the Crystal Court has an even tonier presence than Jewel Court. Drop by the Jessica McClintock shop to see the flowing “concrete curtain” doorway and its award-winning interior. From here it’s only a few steps to the piney displays at North Face or the light-hearted collection of Australian goods at Koala Blue (which is owned by Olivia Newton-John). Or slip into the Orrefors store to view its displays of art glass and Swedish crystal.

Because of its vast selection and number of additions, South Coast Plaza has a rather indistinct identity, aside from its size and opulence. It hasn’t the distinctive personality of Newport Center’s Fashion Island, just six miles away in Newport Beach, or the effervescence of the new MainPlace/Santa Ana. Another problem is South Coast Plaza’s dearth of first-rate fast-food counters (although quality full-service restaurants are abundant).

On the other hand, with the addition of on-site baby-sitting and a couple of sushi bars, it just might be the perfect shopping center.

SOUTH COAST PLAZA AT A GLANCE

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Address: 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Bristol Street at the San Diego Freeway.

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Holiday hours in effect now: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.

Number of stores: About 300.

Retail space: 2,104,236 square feet.

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Department stores: Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, I. Magnin, Bullocks, J.W. Robinson’s, the Broadway, May Co. and Sears.

Most unusual store: With its colorful displays and snack counter featuring vegemite and other Aussie treats, Koala Blue in the Crystal Court is a whimsical place to shop for high-quality Australian clothes and accessories.

Best place to browse: Could be a tie here between the Laguna Art Museum, with its unusual artwork and jewelry, and Rizzoli, which has enough international books, magazines and music to keep the recalcitrant shoppers quiet.

Best place to take the kids: The new Disney store could rival the carrousel for kiddie amusement. With a giant movie screen as a backdrop and cameras hanging from the ceiling, the Disney store captures the delight of a drive-in theater. The store sells Disneyland tickets, along with its toys and clothes.

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Restaurants: You can find more good meals here than in any mall in the county, though fast-food outlets are scarce.

Services: Free stroller and wheelchair loans. Free shuttle buses between the main building and Crystal Court across the street. Valet parking, $2.50. Package check-ins during the holidays allow shoppers to leave purchases until they are ready to leave. No on-site baby-sitting.


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