For those in need of a vacation from the sameness of department stores and malls, the gift shops at Orange County hotels may be worth checking out.
While most hotel gift shops stock a hodgepodge of suntan lotions, T-shirts, souvenirs and flip-flops, a few boutiques at local resorts offer chic, one-of-a-kind fashions and accessories in quarters that are sometimes small but surprisingly elegant.
Owners and merchandise buyers for the better resort shops search the world for unusual merchandise. A trip to a resort boutique might turn up a leather handbag from Italy or handcrafted earrings from an artisan in Laguna Beach.
Although the emphasis is on relaxed Southern California style, fashions at the boutiques go far beyond the usual beach cover-ups; one can find everything from fine sweaters and slacks for men to cocktail suits and evening bags for women.
"I try to find things that are out of the mainstream," says Helen Kennedy, retail director for the Bay Club Collection for men and women and the BCC gift shops at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.
Kennedy's forte is resort wear, but she avoids the standard shorts-and-T-shirts fare found at other resorts. Instead she picks elegant nautical styles such as Criscione's blazers for women with elaborately embroidered crests. One ivory crepe blazer has gold ribbon accents and a nautical flag motif embroidered on the front pockets ($330).
Much of her merchandise has a sea motif. From Vera da Pozzo, an Italian manufacturer, there are silk skirts and cotton sweaters, including a green and white button-front skirt with an ocean theme ($184) and a matching knit top adorned with starfish ($188).
Men can find a more limited selection of sweaters and shirts, such as an Italian polo-style shirt ($85) or fisherman's cable knit sweater of natural cotton ($70).
Novelty items abound, including glitzy earrings (one red enamel pair has small gold anchors and is $13), sweat shirts with the Bay Club logo embroidered in gold ($55) and fancy yachting caps adorned with crystals and gold braid ($50).
"There are things here from all over the world," says Kennedy, who searches for little-known vendors at the L.A. Mart and trade shows. "I find a lot of items from higher-end cottage industries because they're unique."
At the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, buyer Anne Braden is constantly searching for small cottage industries that make unusual merchandise for the resort's apparel shop. Among her finds: unisex vests by Laguna Beach artist Fiona Rhodes hand-painted with reproductions of paintings by Edward Hopper and other artists ($295).
"I find the local artists through word of mouth, or on trips to Melrose Boulevard--places where artisans would be," Braden says.
Items with the hotel logo are popular with the locals as well as guests, and Braden goes out of her way to offer an upscale alternative to the usual silk-screened T-shirts. There are vegetable-dyed waffle-weave cotton T-shirts with the embroidered Ritz-Carlton logo ($50), or sweat shirts with the logo hand-set in Swarovski crystals ($185).
Costume jewelry and accessories are a specialty of Monceau and Monceau II, the gift shops at the Sutton Place Hotel (formerly Le Meridien) in Newport Beach.
Local business people often stop in the shops on their lunch hour to see what owner Jenny Isford has found on her travels to jewelry and fashion trade shows.
"They all say they don't expect to find this in a hotel," Isford says.
Isford looks for handcrafted jewelry and accessories, usually made by a single artisan or small manufacturing firm. She has everything from Victorian-style filigree iron necklaces ($78) to one-of-a-kind contemporary hand-hammered copper cuff bracelets set with semiprecious stones ($125).
There are leather goods that come from near and far, including dangle earrings ($49) and belts ($125) made of cut and stamped leather appliques from It's a Jungle in Santa Ana and a leather handbag with an intricate tooled design imported from Italy ($375).
Isford limits her clothing to specialty items, such as the crocheted lace sweater ($125) from Lim's in China, and the hand-painted silk dress in a wash of swirling pastels from Yolanda Lorente ($570), as well as the line of batik-print shirts (one in a green and purple fish print) for men ($39).
Dianne Stock, manager and buyer for the gift shop at the Surf & Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach, seeks out merchandise from small companies that have recently entered the fashion market. The shop has assorted styles for the beach and for play, including women's sarongs, T-shirts, shorts and leggings, all of comfortable cotton, and men's casual shorts and T-shirts.
"It has to be something I haven't seen before," Stock says.
Shorts for women in a denim blue waffle-weave knit ($44) with a matching tank top ($36) and striped T-shirts for men with the embroidered hotel logo ($24) are among her recent finds.
Dana Point Resort will soon have an expanded line of resort wear to add to its collection of logo-driven sportswear. There are sailing jackets for men and women that have the resort logo ($110), and the resort's line of colorful shorts and T-shirts for children called Club Cowabunga.
"Logo (merchandise) captures the experience," says Penny Elia, spokeswoman for the Dana Point Resort. "People want to be able to take something home and boast about where they've been." Even if their stay was just a half-hour in the resort's gift shop.