Ron Ross Trades Up, Moves Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ron Ross is nothing if not controversial. Critics of the innovative clothier say he berates suppliers, argues with customers and threatens former employees-turned-competitors with lawsuits.

Fans, on the other hand, praise his unerring sense of style.

Most importantly, loyal customers have traveled to his modest Tarzana store, a jumble of unrelated rooms, for nearly 20 years to shop for high-end designer-caliber merchandise.

Now, gambling that a location more accessible to their Hollywood clientele will be good for business, Ron Ross and his wife Patty have opened a new store--a 14,000-square-foot "neo-Tuscany villa" in Studio City. He closed his original store in March, the same day he opened the new one.

"We have a business that expanded beyond Tarzana years ago," says Ross, whose gray crepe twill suit, black knit polo and greased-back hair epitomize the store's slick, Neo-Hollywood image.

Space, says Ross, was a major reason for the move. The new store allows him to broaden his men's and women's casual sportswear departments while expanding into new product categories, such as shoes (a leased space run by Madison), a soon-to-open children's area and a home-and-bath shop called Esscentials.

Men's sportswear, shoes and tailored clothing are displayed in dark-wood cases lining the walls of the entire downstairs. Women's sportswear, career wear, dresses and shoes are shown on cream-colored shelves and mixed between comfortable sitting areas.

Many of the labels-- Jil Sander, Matsuda and Genny for women; Verri and Zegna for men; Giorgio Armani, Thierry Mugler, Katharine Hamnett, Jean-Paul Gautier and Franco Moschino for both--remain the same as in the original shop.

The choice of celebrated interior designer Waldo Fernandez, whose clients include Merv Griffin and Elizabeth Taylor, to pull the project together was a coup, according to Ross. Others say it only reveals a peek inside Ross' ego.

"He didn't even know who Waldo Fernandez was a year ago," says one manufacturer, whose merchandise is prominently featured in the new store. "He only hired him because Ron's a star-chaser."

No argument from Ross. He admits he didn't know who Fernandez was and agrees he is a star chaser. But not a name-dropper.

"Two things I don't do," he says. "I don't talk sales volume because it's tasteless and I don't discuss which stars shop at our store. Although I will proudly tell you we cater to the arts community.

"Growth will come from more people buying and not from people buying more clothes," theorizes Ross. "Nearly 90% of our business comes from consumers with some ties to real estate, which the recession has hurt." His business suffered a 9% drop in sales last year.

The Rosses hope to attract an even larger celebrity audience by pumping life into a growing L.A. phenomenon known as "studio business." Like many stores hoping to cash in on the large budgets and vast apparel needs of the film and television industry, Ross has added employees to work exclusively with stylists and film wardrobers. But not at the risk of losing his upscale Valley shoppers.

"Despite the recession the upscale shopper is still in a spending mode," Ross insists. But, he adds, thanks to a number of recent retail bankruptcies, "they no longer have a lot of choices."

Some say the choices at Ron Ross are equally limiting. Although the store carries $20 T-shirts, jeans are in the $80 to $120 range, men's sportcoats cost between $600 and $900, women's two-piece suits start at $500 and many designer items have four-figure price tags. In other words, the store is not for bargain hunters.

To hear Ron and Patty Ross tell it, the new store has an audience that transcends boundaries and tax brackets. Sophisticate is the couple's favorite buzz word. Yet, recognizes Patty, "a lot of younger people can't afford our general prices."

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