Times Fashion Editor

One gene pool theory could explain the uncommonly attractive women who stroll along Sunset Plaza. For most of this century, the theory goes, the prettiest high school girls in America were told, "You should be in the movies." Now because there's an unspoken quota on Cinderella stories, most of these women didn't become rich or famous or even artistically fulfilled. But they met nice young men, some of whom, endowed with tall, broad-shouldered physiques and chiseled cheekbones, had trekked west following their own dreams of stardom. And when the chromosomes of the Rita Hayworth lookalike from Houston combined with the chromosomes of the John Garfield double from Boston, a very beautiful baby was born.

Twenty years later, here she is--perfect, bare legs minimally covered by a black suede miniskirt, a span of taut midriff bared south of a tight T-shirt's edge. She wraps her slender fingers around a sugar-free Ice Blended Mocha from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, stealing a sip while waiting for the cavalcade of sport utility vehicles to pause so she can dart across the street to Dimani.

In many retail districts, there's virtually no connection between what the stores sell and what browsers wear. The tourists who crowd Rodeo Drive, for example, sport baggy T-shirts and shorts and far outnumber the elegant locals who seem to come from a different galaxy. But Sunset Plaza is that stylish anomaly, a place where women look as if they're wearing the clothes they just bought. In fact, the strip of boutiques and sidewalk cafes is one of the few destinations where the patent-leather hip-huggers, stretch-jersey bodysuits and naked little slip dresses that would ordinarily come out only after dark in other neighborhoods boldly face the morning.

In cities with a street life, it's easy to be visually stimulated by what other people wear. But in Los Angeles, only hairdos and sunglasses can be spied through car windows, and women's outfits are briefly glimpsed as they dart from the dinner table to the restaurant ladies' room. The exception is Sunset Plaza, a stretch of the Strip where clothes can strut. One woman pairs a black leather jacket with wheat jeans, finishing the look with high-heeled black boots. Three others observe and approve, suddenly feeling tired in their blue denim. Tomorrow they'll adapt her look for themselves, as the process of stimulus and response plays out: I see it. I want it. I buy it. I wear it.

Some of the Sunset Plaza stores with branches elsewhere seem most at home here: Boulmiche, Traffic, even B.C.B.G. Adventurous H. Lorenzo and its two offspring capture the mood of the Strip best. The bright, tight, flashy clothes on display have the soul of rock 'n' roll, perhaps harking back to a time when the hills above Sunset Boulevard were populated mostly by people working in the music business. In that nearly recession-proof industry, many of them have ridden the good times to a prosperous sophistication. Laura Urbinati caters to this clientele, showcasing chic European labels such as Costume Nationale, Helmut Lang and Alberto Biani. Lisa Norman Lingerie is one of the best lingerie stores in the city.

Carpetbaggers have settled on the plaza, too, bringing with them a variety of other looks. At Delvaux, the precious, proper handmade purses pose in museum-like splendor. Wathne built an Icelandic lodge to house its Old World sporting clothes: tweedy jackets fit for foxhunting and fly fishing on a country estate. Billy Martin's, purveyor of haute Western style, flourished on New York's Madison Avenue before opening here and bringing cowboy boots (again) to the frontier.

Yet the heart of Sunset Plaza beats in the stores that are home to the genetically blessed California babes. They excel in presenting whimsical, even outrageous, clothes and accessories that tantalize women who are hard to thrill. Thanks to the superior gene pool, these women have no figure flaws to conceal. Marvelous, daring, lucky freaks of nature, they can wear whatever they want. And do.

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