In the mid-1980s, Lina Lee seemed to have it all. With stores on Rodeo Drive and in New York's Trump Tower, Lee was synonymous with fashionably flamboyant. Married to Alan Lidow, an affluent electronics executive, this self-proclaimed workaholic had no financial concerns.
But her ambition led to disaster. When expansion in Dallas and South Coast Plaza backfired in 1989, Lee found herself in bankruptcy court. Divorce court came next.
Instead of becoming another retail casualty, Lee is forging a comeback. Although she came close to quitting, she says she sold her custom-built home in Beverly Hills, her jewelry and some artwork to raise enough cash to get out of bankruptcy.
And she sold part of her business.
Consultants David Buxbaum and Ira Ginsberg, who specialize in retail close-outs, became her partners. In addition to putting money into the business, Ginsberg, a former May Co. executive, coached Lee on cost-cutting and financial planning.
It seems she learned her lessons well. She bought out Ginsberg and Buxbaum with the money she made selling her possessions. She expects to reach $7 million in sales this year in her Rodeo and Beverly Hills Hotel stores. And New York investors have become eager to stake her reopening at Trump Tower. Lease negotiations were almost complete when Lee got cold feet and called the deal off in August.
"I told them to put New York on the back burner for a year," Lee says. "I recently remarried (hotel executive Alain Longatte), and my 6-year-old son, Jason, is starting the first grade. I want to solidify everything before I go crazy again."
Success came quickly to Lee in the late 1970s, as she developed a reputation for discovering designers. She was among the first to bring Gianfranco Ferre, Luciano Soprani, Jill Sander and Hiroko Koshino to Rodeo Drive.
She has built her current success on an odd assortment of imported sexy, funky and conservative clothes, mixing the micro-mini/over-the-knee-boot look that worked for Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" with sophisticated Nino Cerruti suits. Thierry Mugler's femme fatale sportswear is her best-selling item.
Blouses remain a trademark both for the store and for Lee, who has 50 white ones in her closet. She wears a white blouse almost daily and livens it up for an interview with a black double-breasted jacket and a vibrant tie.
Despite the recession, her prices are still lethal. T-shirts at $200 are among the low-end items. There are fewer takers for the high-ticket goods than there were in her heyday, forcing Lee to buy less and to do so more carefully.
Retailing was not Lee's chosen career. At 16, she was spending four hours a day at the piano, hoping to become a concert pianist. After a two-year stint at the Conservatory of Music in Paris, Lee returned to her hometown, Louisville, Ky. Later she enrolled at Georgetown College in Kentucky, where she majored in music and French.
A college friend, Diane Sawyer, went to Washington after graduation to build a journalism career. Sawyer convinced Lee to give up teaching piano and French by getting her a job at the White House, in then-President Richard Nixon's press office.
Alan Lidow was a reporter at the time who met Lee on the job. After marrying Lidow, Lee found herself a bored Beverly Hills housewife. So in 1977, she opened a dress shop on Dayton Way with $35,000. By 1978 she had moved into her current location on Rodeo, between Bottega Veneta and Baby Guess.
For many years Lee was criticized by her retail neighbors, primarily because she never joined the Rodeo Drive Committee or attended the customary social events.
"I'm not an extrovert, and that's mistaken for snobbery," she says. "I didn't join the committee because I felt it was elitist. Now there are many new faces on Rodeo that I wanted to get to know, so I joined recently. Times change."