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Stylish Display : Bold Architecture Is the Backdrop for Compelling Clothes at Ecru on Melrose Avenue

<i> Mary Rourke is a Times staff writer. Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic. </i>

THE OWNERS OF ECRU say the clothes that they sell are basic but make a radical statement--just like their renovated building, which is attracting attention at the southeast corner of Melrose Avenue and Vista Street in Los Angeles.

When Elaine Kim, a Seoul-born, former UC Berkeley student with a family steeped in retail, and Ken Fasola, a shy, serious financial whiz with a background in manufacturing, went into business together, he took care of the office while she shopped for clothes by little-known designers with lots of style: Martine Sitbon of Paris, John Galliano of London, Sybilla of Madrid. In menswear, Bill Robinson of New York was among Kim’s early discoveries.

Once Ecru’s casually elegant fashions began impressing shoppers, Kim and Fasola started looking for an architect to transform their store into a fitting showcase. They found a firm called Building and the architects Michele Saee and Richard Lundquist, who, with a cadre of craftsman, have sculpted an unusual interior and exterior design that appeals to both mind and eye.

Combining architecture and fashion is not new, of course. Ralph Lauren did it first, and most fantastically, when he restored a New York townhouse three years ago and filled it with antiques in addition to his own fashions and home furnishings. That combination also is used in the Polo Ralph Lauren shop in Beverly Hills.

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In Los Angeles, the Esprit Superstore, designed by Joe D’Urso, utilizes a high-tech approach in displaying avant-garde clothing, creating another type of total environment. Two boutiques, Maxfield on Melrose Avenue and Gallay in Sunset Plaza, are minimalist versions of free-standing structures built and furnished to complement stunningly simple fashions.

The Ecru building is a showstopper. In contrast to the flagrant use of neon on Melrose Avenue, the store is identified by giant abstract letters of varnished steel that, in forming the facade and framing the doors and windows, spell out ECRU.

This vertical emphasis makes the store seem larger than it is, especially when viewed from a passing car. The varnished finish accents the natural deep reds and browns of the slightly rusted, mellowing steel. Neon it is not; engaging it is.

Beyond the steel, detailed plywood doors of varying sizes--one is 8-feet square, another 16x4 feet--are two distinct showrooms. One was the original 3,500-square-foot Ecru store. The other, which used to be a 3,000-square-foot recording studio--earlier an auto-repair shop--was acquired by Kim and Fasola for their couture gallery.

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The result is a store that blends fashion, furniture and architecture. More than simply displaying how to dress, it suggests how to live, what to value and who to aspire to be.

At Ecru, the fashion, like the furnishings, is intensely modern, yet not severe. Kim likes touches of whimsy, such as pants outfits with chiffon polka dots for day or dinner suits with cutouts or asymmetric jackets. Shoes range from practical leather pumps to fragile evening slippers.

For men, suits are often dark but not conservative. Evening outfits are modern with bits of flash--such as brocade. Casual clothes range from about $100 to $500; evening wear can cost twice or three times that.

“The sportswear makes the store approachable,” Kim says. “People can add a designer piece now and then.” In April she and Fasola will open a second Ecru, designed by the same architects, in the new Marina Marketplace in Marina del Rey.


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