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COMMENTARY : The Decline and Fall of High-Society Shopping

TIMES FASHION EDITOR

On the face of it, it looks as if this could be the end for I. Magnin. Parent company R.H. Macy & Co. this week announced that six of its 19 Magnin stores will close. Magnin CEO Joe Cicio says it is the result of “re-visualizing.” But it sounds like store-speak for less expensive quality, safer styles and fewer salesclerks.

Sherman Oaks, La Jolla, Santa Barbara and other dead wood--going going, gone within 60 days. The big loss is the gorgeous Art Deco building (formerly Bullocks Wilshire) near seedy MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. A national landmark that now belongs to Caltech, it will revert to the school’s care.

To see a mighty oak of a store lose its branches may be a sad thing. But before anyone gets too emotional, they ought to be honest. Stores close because people don’t shop in them. All the nostalgia in the world, for white-gloved elevator operators and tea rooms filled with sweet-looking grannies, won’t save a store. Shopping will.

For better or worse, supply and demand are what retail is all about. And the demand is for something other than the high-priced designer labels and made-to-measure clothes that I. Magnin was built upon.

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“People are buying based on convenience and lifestyle needs,” said New York retail analyst Alan Millstein, analyzing the problems at I. Magnin. “They want very wearable career clothing. And for the weekend, very casual clothes at the lowest price. Designer-label stores are out of sync.”

Twenty years ago, shopping was a graceful pursuit and Paris labels were a rarity in American stores. At I. Magnin, which had a store next to Bullocks Wilshire through the 1980s, there was the added glamour of Nancy Reagan. She and the city’s other most social women got personal phone calls from the store inviting them to meet Oscar de la Renta, Rudi Gernreich and Hubert de Givenchy at a private breakfast and fashion show, followed by a private fitting with the designers, who would offer advice and encouragement in the bargain.

“Many of Magnin stores were built for a carriage trade that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Cicio, who took over at Magnin just six months ago. He was previously a manager for R.H. Macy, the company that also owns Bullock’s and filed for bankruptcy protection in January, 1992.

When he first arrived, Cicio said, “I was surprised that the typical shopper was a very mature, very well-heeled customer. I didn’t understand why that was the only customer in the store. “

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But he did understand what to do about the store’s weakest branches. “One of the advantages of being in bankruptcy is, it allows you to get out of some very unproductive pieces of real estate.”

“The key to retail is location,” Millstein concurred. “Magnin Wilshire was in the wrong location. It’s (an area) to pass through --quickly, with the doors locked.”

The right environment now, he said, is one pioneered in Southern California. “People in their 40s and younger are mall babies. They want time-saving conveniences and selection. Not vast, lavish powder rooms.”

Cicio concedes that some of the oldest I. Magnin stores, including the one in Beverly Hills (which will remain open), have a structural problem.

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“No escalators. There is only elevator transportation,” Cicio pointed out. “That makes it extremely difficult to sell merchandise at the volume required.” If you can’t see it, you can’t buy it on impulse.

That older approach to store design seems claustrophobic by today’s standards. Compare it with Neiman Marcus, Magnin’s competitor in San Francisco and Beverly Hills. Escalators slice through the center of the sunlit Beverly Hills store and enormous windows open onto the street

“I. Magnin has a ladylike image but it’s not young, spirited or modern, like Neiman Marcus,” said Shauna Stein, whose Beverly Center boutique is filled with a mix of the highest-priced European designer labels and lower-priced pieces.

“People don’t just want to buy clothes; they expect a lot more than that for their money.” she said.

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Most important, Stein notes, is the thing bigger stores seem to have little of these days. “They want educated sales help . . . and a lot of it. If nobody is around to greet customers, answer their questions and know their stuff, a store makes a big mistake.”

Some predict it could be too late for I. Magnin. “They’re dressing it up to sell it,” said Ed Weller, a retail analyst for Montgomery Securities in San Francisco.

Cicio denies that, pointing to new stores in San Diego and Arizona, and the opening of a new department, “The Edge,” in the San Francisco store, with younger, hipper designers.

The department will open Saturday evening with Lypsinka, the transvestite entertainer, matching swords with Byron Lars, a young New York designer known for his playful creations.

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“This is part of an overall plan to make the company more solid and directed,” Cicio said, adding that I. Magnin was not profitable when Macy’s acquired it five years ago. “A lot makes a store successful. An attitude and environment has to change to keep up with the times.”

We’ll know soon enough if I. Magnin can pull it off.


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